Gracia Burnham, a missionary from Kansas, was abducted by Islamic terrorists in the Philippine jungle around 15 years ago. Burnham and her husband, Martin, served through the mission organization, New Tribes Mission (now Ethnos360) when they were subsequently taken hostage by militants in May of 2001. 20 people were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf militants, a terrorist group from the Dos Palmas Resort in Palawan.
The group was held hostage for 376 days, until they were set free in June 2002. She fled after a gun battle took place with the Filipino military, that took her husbands life.
After 15 years of being free, Burnham reflects on how her time in captivity demonstrated how she failed to see the bigger plan in store for her.
Burnham spoke about what she has learned since, at the Voice of the Martyrs Advance Conference outside of Washington, DC at McLean Bible Church.
“I want to thank you for your prayers. Thank you for praying for this loving couple you have never even met before. It seemed like our trial lasted forever and that is how a trial is, isn’t it?” she asked the crowd. “There were days where we felt like everyone had forgotten us and there were days I felt forsaken.”
Burnham went on to describe the hostage situation and the difficulties that came with it. She pointed out that the hardest part was not the physical destruction of her body or the inhumane living situation, but a struggle with knowing who she was.
“The hardest thing for me was seeing myself for what I really was,” she said. “When everything was gone, the real me surfaced that I didn’t even want to believe existed. I saw a hateful Gracia. I saw a faithless Gracia. It was shocking.”
She thought because she was struggling with her faith, that she was too far gone for God to change her. But she still cried out to him, asking for Him to change her.
“I was such a mess that I wasn’t even sure God could change me,” she explained. “But God can do anything, and He promised to change us. He said He would change us so much that we would start looking like Jesus. Isn’t that how we want to live?”
Burnham stated that God did, in fact, spare her, and took “an angry hostage and put love in her heart.”
“God started changing me. He can bring peace to the brokenhearted. He can bring good things out of pain. He keeps giving us a day of grace to serve Him again,” she said.
Burnham also explained one of the worst parts of the captivity was when the captors decided to hold onto the prisoners longer even after getting the ransom money.
“I begged them not to do that. I said, ‘This is not going to turn out well. We are sick of this, you are sick of this, just take the money and let’s go home.’ They were greedy and they asked for more money. You can imagine how defeated we felt that night when we laid down on our rice sacks to get rest,” Burnham stated.
“Just as I was drifting off to sleep, Martin kind of nudged me and said, ‘Gracia, I am so glad that when Jesus paid a ransom for us, it was enough, Jesus’ payment for us was sufficient. It satisfied God and there doesn’t need to be anymore sacrifice for sin.'”
Her trial continued, for more than a year. She was held captive along with the other 20, left to live in horrible conditions, marched around the jungle, with no end in sight.
Despite the horrible situation, and the devastating outcome of her husbands passing, Burnham still praises God for all things that happened. She praises God because there is a purpose in all things, even her husband’s death.
Amazingly enough, the hostages were able to evangelize to the terrorists who held them hostage. Burnham stated that although many of the members are in prison in Manilla for the rest of their lives, she has been able to reconnect with them.
“God has raised up a military couple in the Philippines who have a heart for ministry. I wish I had an hour to tell you the story of how they ministered to the very men who held us captive and how I got to be part of that,” Burnham said. “The good news is that so far, four former Abu Sayyaf have come to know Jesus as their Savior.”
Burnham stated that the four men who came to Christ in that prison were the same ones that marched the hostages around the jungle.
“Had I known while we were going through our hard year in the jungle that one day even one of those guys would come to know Jesus because of our experience, the days would have been easier to bear. I can kick myself now and say, ‘Would it not have been enough to trust the good God with the days of my life?'” She said.
Burnham ended her speech by challenging the audience to use the trials and hardships they face to glorify God. That he allows each trial to come through our lives to strengthen us, and to glorify Him to the greatest.
“I have been reminded that the seed we planted in the jungle wasn’t wasted. Others are reaping what we sewed ever so long ago. God is Almighty, and He can do anything,” she added. “God can use anything. I really believe that. Maybe the length of our captivity … and Martin’s death is what it took to work in some Abu Sayyaf’s hearts.”