Love in the Time of Terror
By Stephanie Morris-Graves
When you fall in love with your college sweetheart, marry him, and have three children together, then travel abroad to fulfill what you believe is your God-given calling, you never imagine that your fairy-tale life will come to an end on a summer’s day with your husband shot dead next to you in a steamy jungle. But that’s exactly how Gracia Burnham’s fairy tale ended.
Gracia was in Dallas recently to tell how God showed Himself to her in the middle of unthinkably horrific circumstances. Martin and Gracia Burnham’s story began about 20 years earlier on the campus of Calvary Bible College in Kansas City, where the two young students were introduced through a mutual friend. Martin, a pilot in training, had grown up on the mission field in the Philippines, and there was a good chance he’d end up in missions himself.
Gracia, a minister’s daughter who’d spent most of her childhood in Ontario, Canada, was open to missions work and willing to follow Martin wherever God led. They were easy together; she was attracted to his unassuming ways, and they laughed a lot. They were married in 1983 and soon afterward began missionary boot-camp training--a year of primitive living devised by the New Tribes Mission organization to determine who was really cut out for foreign service--before being assigned to jungle pilot duty in the Philippines, where Martin had spent most of his childhood. It was 1986.
The job of a missionary pilot is not an easy one. Jungle pilots are responsible for carrying food, medicine, cargo, and whatever else is needed to missionaries in the remotest locations, and they often have to land on short, narrow, grass or dirt landing strips surrounded by trees. But jungle pilots do whatever is necessary to keep the mission workers supplied, and Martin and Gracia enjoyed their work.
“Martin was a really good jungle pilot,” Gracia says. “We loved our ministry. I manned the radio and took orders. I’d relay medical emergencies, and Martin would get them the supplies and help they needed.”
Once, Martin lost engine power in his small aircraft. Gracia, frantically trying to make contact with him, called on the people around her to pray. Several tense minutes passed before she heard back from her husband. After a scary glide in with no power and barely clearing a fence, he put the plane down at a tiny landing strip and was greeted by the exuberant praise and worship of local missionaries, who were thankful that God had spared his life.
The Burnhams did this work while growing their own family. Martin and Gracia’s oldest son Jeff was born in 1987; Mindy was born in 1989; and their youngest, Zachary, in 1990.
Gracia loved her family and enjoyed being a mom but says there were many things in her heart that needed changing. She speaks of being hard on the kids, holding them to her expectations of perfection. It was important to her that they lived up to her standards, and she didn’t make any bones about that. “I just wasn’t very nice,” she admits.
But she never expected that the changes she needed to make would come through the terrifying year-long ordeal that she and Martin were about to endure.
Thieves in the Night
In May 2001—with 15 years under their belt in the Philippines--Martin and Gracia went to fill in for a jungle pilot on Palawan, an island in the Philippines some 500 miles south of Luzon, where the Burnhams were based. They’d made several trips to Palawan in the past and were familiar with the area. For this trip, they left the kids behind with co-workers and decided to take a day off from work to celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary at a small resort called Dos Palmas that a friend had recommended. That decision set the Burnhams’ nightmare in motion.
In the early-morning hours of May 27, 2001, Martin and Gracia were awakened from their sleep by loud banging on the door of their hotel cabin. They figured it must be a drunken staff member and yelled for him to go away. But the banging continued, and just as Martin reached the door to shoo the person away, it burst open and three men holding M16s charged into the room yelling at the Burnhams to “Go, go, go!”
Stunned and afraid, they were led to a waiting speed boat, where they watched as a stream of other frightened hotel guests joined them. Martin, dressed only in khaki cargo shorts, had left his eyeglasses behind. Gracia managed to get dressed in shorts and a shirt and was able to grab their flip-flops. Otherwise, they had nothing.
When they sped off in the boats, their captors began to yell, “Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!”--which means “Allah is the greatest” in Arabic—and they knew they’d been kidnapped by the murderous Abu Sayyaf militant group. The centuries-old conflict between Muslims and Christians in the Philippines was right at the Burnhams’ doorstep.
The Abu Sayyaf is a radical terrorist group that formed in the early ‘90s and is responsible for numerous bombings, murders, and extortion plots. They claim their mission is jihad and to establish an independent Islamic province in the Philippines, but according to Gracia, they’re simply a group of thugs who kidnap and kill for ransom. And the Burnhams soon learned that their chances of surviving this ordeal were largely dependent on their ability to have a ransom paid on their behalf.
A total of 20 guests were taken from Dos Palmas that morning. Some were Americans, others Filipinos; all were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It turns out the Abu Sayyaf had never intended to raid Dos Palmas—they’d been looking for another hotel, an exclusive resort known to attract very wealthy guests from around the world, not the nurses and writers and missionaries of modest means they’d found at this fairly inexpensive inn. They couldn’t locate the resort they’d planned to attack, so they settled for Dos Palmas and began a reign of terror that for the Burnhams would last one year and 11 days.
Martin’s parents were notified of the kidnapping and sent word through New Tribes Mission that the children should be sent to them. At that point in their journey, Gracia realized she couldn’t dwell on her children anymore. “As a mom, I knew I couldn’t think about the kids or I’d lose it,” she explains.
She made a decision to accept that God was good, and He would take care of the children, who ranged in age from 11 to 14 at the time. And He did. Not long after the Burnhams were kidnapped, the U.S. State Department arranged for the children to go back to the United States, where they lived with Martin’s parents. There were moments, though, when she and Martin would ask each other what they thought the kids were up to that night.
Running and Gunning
Being tracked by the Philippine military meant that the hostages and their captives were constantly on the run. Contact with outsiders was necessary in order to arrange for ransoms to be paid. Abu Sayyaf’s goal was to get as much money as possible, so they were in this for the long haul. Day after day and night after night of running and hiding in the steamy bug- and snake-infested jungles of the Philippines was the Burnhams’ new life. They laid on thin rice sacks during the dark, scary nights. Their bodies were ravaged from starvation, sleep deprivation, and parasites. Both captors and captives ate whatever they found or stole from abandoned villages and unsuspecting travelers. Sometimes it was boiled goat, sometimes soup, sometimes salt, and many times it was nothing at all. Their feet were split open and oozing from walking constantly in inadequate shoes.
Then there were the gun battles--numerous shoot-outs in which the Philippine military came for the hostages. The Burnhams realized early on that they couldn’t pin their hopes on the soldiers, who seemed unskilled or uninterested in actually rescuing them. A number of the 20 hostages, in fact, would end up getting shot or injured by their would-be saviors.
Weeks became months, and slowly their numbers dwindled. Many of the hostages were released when ransom was paid. Others were injured in gun battles and left behind to die. Still others were shot or beheaded by the Abu Sayyaf.
At one point, Martin and Gracia were excited to learn that a ransom of $330,000 had been paid on their behalf, but the evil and greed in the hearts of their captors led them to demand a million dollars, and they refused to release the Burnhams for anything less. The couple and a Filipina were the only three people left in the last days of captivity.
They did, however, get to know their captors by name. Some of them were only boys, and this journey was taking a toll on them too. And even though she’d seen them torture and kill members of her new hostage family, God would remind her of her own young sons. When one of the armed boys soiled his pants because he was sick and unable to move himself, she found herself helping him clean up. The child eventually caught fever and went mad. The last time Gracia saw him, he was chained to a post like an animal and dying.
What Gracia learned during her jungle experience was not how evil man is but just how sinful she was. “Up until that point I was pretty black and white. I thought I was good,” she says. “But I saw my own sinfulness. I wasn’t the good guy, I was a bad guy too. I saw my greed, because when they ate I wanted their food. I saw the hatred I had toward my captors.”
Gracia says that before her jungle experience, she never believed that God would let Christians starve. After all, God’s Word says that if you ask anything in His name, it will be given to you--but it wasn’t given to Gracia and her husband. She says she still has questions about those things, but they don’t matter because she decided in the jungle to believe that God was good, and if she’d decided to be bitter and unforgiving she would never get better.
On June 7, 2002, yet another gun battle broke out. This would be the last. The Philippine Army had been tracking their movements all morning. When the captors and hostages stopped to rest on a steep hill, gunfire erupted. Gracia was shot in her leg, Martin in his chest. She heard his breathing and watched as blood spread across his shirt until his body went limp. She lay still and quiet, then waved her hand so the men who’d shot her husband would come save her. She was rescued; he died in the jungle.
Different Kind of Redemption
Gracia believes that Martin would be so pleased with this story. She prayed that somehow God would redeem her and her husband, and He has. Gracia rejoined her children in the States as “a much better mom.” She was patient; she now knew what mattered and what didn’t. Today, her oldest son Jeff and his wife are serving as missionaries in Botswana, and they have two children. Her daughter Mindy and her husband have a 1-year-old son and live near Gracia in Kansas, and her youngest son Zachary is a student at Calvary Bible College, where she and Martin met.
Gracia laughs when she talks about the time she walked in on Zachary telling a friend that his mom being held hostage was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Gracia lives near family and travels around the country sharing the story of God’s enduring love and goodness. She has written two best-selling books, In the Presence of My Enemies and To Fly Again, and has established The Martin and Gracia Burnham Foundation, which supports missionary aviation, outreach to Muslims, the persecuted church, and tribal missions. Gracia is single but wouldn’t mind marrying again, though she says she can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to hear her talk about Martin as much as she does.
Through an American family in the Philippines, she’s had contact with many of her now imprisoned captors. One of them regularly writes her notes. Four of them have come to trust Christ.
She’s glad, however, that no one asked her beforehand if she’d be willing to go through her ordeal to get those captors saved. She gives an emphatic “No!” but recalls Martin’s encouragement to her when their ransom wasn’t enough for the kidnappers: “Jesus paid a ransom for us, and it was enough.”
Stephanie Morris-Graves is a publicist, freelance writer, and graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. She lives in the Dallas area with her husband and their two children.