Gracia Burnham was serving as a missionary in the Philippines when she and her husband were kidnapped by Muslim terrorists. They spent over a year in the jungle as hostages enduring hardships of all kinds, including constant shortage of drinking water, near starvation, and 17 gun battles.
Even more difficult than the physical challenges were the questions Gracia wrestled with. How could God still love her? How could she forgive those who had so horribly mistreated her?
God worked in miraculous ways through Gracia’s time in captivity to change her heart, all for his glory.
The following is a summary of the podcast interview above. Many more details are included in the original podcast episode and we encourage you to listen.
Gracia was raised in a Christian household and found the Lord early on as a child. Her father was a pastor, and she grew up surrounded by the church.
She attended Calvary Bible College in Kansas City where she met the man who would later become her husband, Martin Burnham.
A Man Named Martin
Gracia enjoyed Martin’s easy-going personality along with his sense of humor and warm smile. Romance blossomed quickly, and they were married in the spring of 1983.
Martin and Gracia both felt called to the mission field, and, by 1986, Gracia and Martin moved to the Philippines to work as aviation missionaries with New Tribes Mission (known today as Ethnos360).
Along with their traditional missionary role of sharing the Gospel with the unreached, the Burnhams had several unique responsibilities.
Martin utilized his training as a jungle pilot and often navigated his tiny aircraft into remote villages with primitive landing strips.
When other missionaries needed supplies or equipment or needed to travel to and from various villages, they would call Martin. Other times, when villagers needed emergency medical attention, Martin would airlift them and take them to a hospital.
Gracia was also busy homeschooling their 3 children, flight-following Martin via radio as he flew through the jungles, and providing hospitality to traveling missionaries who were en route to other destinations.
A Great Rhythm
The Burnhams loved being in the Philippines and served there for almost 15 years. Their 3 children were ages 14, 11, and 10 when their family’s world was turned upside down, just days after Martin returned from a trip to the United States in May of 2001.
A Fateful Trip
As soon as he returned from the U.S., Martin had to fly to the Philippine island of Palawan to fill in for another missionary pilot, and Gracia volunteered to go along.
Gracia decided to surprise Martin with a quick weekend trip to the Island Resort of Dos Palmas, just off the coast of Palawan. It would be a chance for Martin to recover from jet-lag before beginning a heavy week of flying and also for them to celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary.
Their plans were interrupted, however, when, during the pre-dawn hours of their first evening at the resort, the Martin and Gracia were abruptly woken by pounding on their door. Before they could process what was happening, the door burst open as 3 armed men broke into the room and immediately ordered the Burnhams to leave.
Martin and Gracia were herded down to the beach, where they joined other guests from the resort, who were also held at gunpoint. They were placed into a waiting speedboat which began to pull away from the shore. Just as the morning sun began to rise and the boat left the resort, the kidnappers began shouting “Allah akbar! Allah akbar!”
It was at this moment, Martin and Gracia realized they had been kidnapped by Muslim terrorists.
20 hostages had been taken from the resort. They were crammed onto a small boat along with around 15 kidnappers. They were part of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist organization, a group that stylized themselves as freedom fighters for independence but were more commonly known as extreme Muslim jihadist.
Most of the hostages were informed that they would be held for ransom, but the terrorists had other plans for the Burnhams. Because they were Americans, Martin and Gracia would be used as bargaining chips for certain political demands that the Abu Sayyaf would make of the Filipino government.
The Burnhams were hopeful that they would be released within two or three months, but sadly, their optimism about their release timeline was terribly incorrect. This was only the beginning of a grueling ordeal that would stretch the limits of their physical strength, their emotional stability, and their faith.
Martin and Gracia would remain hostages for over a year.
Eventually, the hostages were transferred to a larger fishing vessel stolen by the Abu Sayyaf. The boat, which was woefully too small for everyone, would remain their home for several days.
The first evening, as the kidnappers performed their evening prayers facing Mecca, Martin led the hostages in their own prayer to God. It was a simple prayer that acknowledged God’s sovereignty and asked for His peace, as well as comfort for each of the hostages and their families.
Throughout the course of their captivity, Martin came to be regarded by the other hostages as their unofficial “chaplain.”
The Beginning of Many Hardships
The living conditions on the boat were cramped and unsanitary. The only place to use the bathroom was at the bottom of the ship, and at one point the hostages were forced to lay down amidst the filth while a heavy tarp was thrown over them to keep them hidden from another ship they had to pass.
Their ship had nowhere near enough water for all the hostages and kidnappers. Eventually, the hostages were forced to drink melted ice which had preserved fish before the vessel had been hijacked.
Finally, after several days at sea, the kidnappers arrived at their destination, the Philippine island of Basilan and the stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf.
Back on Land
At first, everyone was glad to be back on shore, but their relief soon gave way to terror. Within hours of landing, the Philippine military found the group’s position and opened fire. The scene was pure chaos as the hostages were rounded up by the terrorists to escape through the jungle.
This was the Burnham’s first brush with any kind of gun fight, and the experience was terrifying. They hoped that the worst was behind them, but, just hours later, their situation escalated once again.
The Hospital Gun Battle
The hostages were placed on a jeepney, a type of Filipino taxi shaped like a long truck. The jeepney wasn’t large enough to fit all of the hostages and the terrorists, so three of the hostages were left behind. Later, the Burnhams learned that all 3 were promptly beheaded.
Meanwhile, the overloaded jeepney lurched down the jungle trail until it came to a sudden halt at the Filipino town of Lamitan. Immediately, the Abu Sayyaf broke into a hospital building and shoved all of the hostages into a single hospital room, then proceeded to break all of the windows in the hospital using the butts of their guns.
The captors’ plan was to take refuge in the hospital because the Geneva Convention prohibited government militaries from attacking hospitals. What the terrorists didn’t expect was that the Filipino military would ignore those provisions and launch an attack on the hospital as soon as they discovered that the Abu Sayyaf were there.
The military begin indiscriminately firing on the hospital and launching mortars. Soon the hospital erupted into flames. Pandemonium and chaos ensued, and at multiple times, Gracia was certain they would die.
At one point, the terrorists forced Martin out of the hospital and into the courtyard were he made a phone call to the New Tribes Mission headquarters in Manila, telling them to contact the U.S. Embassy and pressure the Filipino military to stop the shooting.
Back Into the Jungle
At last, the shooting stopped. But not because of Martin’s phone call. Rather, the ransom money for 2 of the hostages had arrived. The terrorists immediately turned around and bribed the military leaders who were attacking them. The Abu Sayyaf and their hostages quickly disappeared into the jungle.
This would become a recurring theme for the next year. The military would attack the terrorists and their hostages, a fierce battle would ensue resulting in multiple casualties, and then the group would slip away into the jungle. The group would remain stationary in their new location for days or even weeks until that position was found by the military once again.
In total, the Burnhams faced 17 gun battles.
The Real Abu Sayyuf
The longer that the Burnhams were in captivity, the more they learned things about their captors that surprised them, including the widely varying motivations that the Abu Sayyaf members had for being there.
The leaders of the group were intent on jihad and accumulating personal power and wealth. But many members of the group never wanted to join and some had even been drafted to fight when the Abu Sayyaf entered their villages and threatened to begin killing the villagers unless young men were offered as tribute to fight for them.
Others had joined in hopes that they could become wealthy from a ransom.
Still others joined because they believed jihad was the only way they could reach Paradise. According to Muslim theology, at the end of their lives, a person’s good deeds would be weighed against their bad deeds, and their behavior during their lives would determine whether or not they entered Paradise or Hell. Some felt that their sins were so great that the only way they could enter Paradise was by dying in jihad, which is why they had joined the Abu Sayyaf.
Gracia often compared them to “The Lost Boys” from Peter Pan. Without Christ, there was no true hope that the Abu Sayyaf could cling to.
But Gracia soon discovered that her own faith would be stretched to the limits as she began questioning who she was clinging to.
Does God Still Love Me?
Months wore on as the Burnhams and their fellow hostages faced unbelievable hardships and deprivations including lack of medical care, hygiene, food, and clean drinking water. They were constantly on the run and always in fear of attacks from the Filipino government along with threats from the terrorists.
Furthermore, they were on an emotional rollercoaster, frequently being told they would be released on a specific date only to have that day come and go and their hopes dashed apart.
Gracia began growing bitter and doubting that God still loved her. She believed that God was still all-powerful and that He had sent his son Jesus Christ to die for her sins, but she simply couldn’t fathom how God could still love her and yet allow her to stay in these terrible circumstances.
One day, Gracia’s husband Martin shared that he was sorry to see her giving up on her faith. Gracia responded that she wasn’t giving up on her faith. She just didn’t believe that God still loved her.
All or Nothing
Martin gently told Gracia that she had to choose to either believe everything that the Bible said about God, or none of what the Bible said. She could not pick and choose which passages were true and which were not.
Together, they reminded themselves of numerous Bible passages that spoke of God’s deep love for them.
Right there in the jungle, Gracia resolved to believe that God still loved her, even if her circumstances didn’t make her feel that way. She began praying that God would open her heart to love her captors and pray for them.
The Final Battle
Finally, on June 7th 2002 and after an entire year in the jungle, the Burnhams encountered their 17th and final gun battle.
At one point, the number of Abu Sayyaf holding them captive had been 80-strong, but, due to casualties and desertion from sinking morale, their group had shrunk to only 14 Abu Sayyaf and 3 hostages.
One afternoon, the group had set up camp on a mountain ridge, and it began raining. The Burnhams huddled together in their hammock underneath a tarp and Martin shared how he had been thinking about Psalm 100 all day long, which speaks about serving the Lord with gladness. The Burhams prayed, asking God to help them continue to serve Him with gladness, whether that meant remaining in the jungle or being released to go back home.
Just as they closed their eyes to get some rest the mountainside exploded as the Filipino military opened fire.
Gracia instinctively jumped out of the hammock to lie on the ground and avoid the gunfire like she had on so many occasions. But before she even touched the ground, she felt a bullet slam into her leg, throwing her off balance and down the mountain.
She slid down the mountain until she came to rest next to Martin. When she turned, she realized that he was bleeding from a wound in his chest. Gracia lay next to Martin listening to him breathe heavily as the Abu Sayyaf returned fire.
And then Martin stopped breathing.
Philippine soldiers approached Gracia and carried her off toward safety, and she realized that her husband was dead.
Martin’s death was crushing. Throughout all their months in captivity he had been the one who repeatedly pointed her back to God and His love. On the days when Gracia wanted to give up, Martin had kept her strong. And now, the day that she was finally rescued, Martin, her husband and best friend, had been killed by their rescuers.
To this day, Gracia still thinks about the last conversation she had with Martin just minutes before they were shot. They had talked about Psalm 100 and serving the Lord with gladness.
Since returning home to the United States, Gracia has remained in full-time ministry. She keeps a busy speaking schedule and shares her story with churches, mission groups, and others.
She helped translate a comic book series about the Bible into one of the main Filipino languages that the Abu Sayyaf spoke. To her great joy, Gracia found out that Christian missionaries were distributing the comic book series in the Filipino prison system and that many former Abu Sayyaf members whom Gracia knew from her time in the jungle were actually reading the series.
Gracia knows of at least five former Abu Sayyaf members who have come to know Christ as their Savior.
God used that time in the jungle to dramatically change and shape Gracia’s heart. Through His strength, she has learned to forgive her enemies and to bless them when she can. Gracia is the first to point out that there is no such thing as the wrong place or the wrong time. God is always at work, even in our darkest hours.
Win a copy of one of Gracia’s autographed books: “In the Presence of My Enemies” or “To Fly Again.”
Note: Winner must live within the United States.
Note: Winner must live within the United States.
Gracia’s website: https://graciaburnham.org/