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Love Finds a Way to the Philippines
Guest: Gracia Burnham
From the series: In the Presence of My Enemies (Day 1 of 3)
Bob: Martin and Gracia Burnham had served for years as missionaries in the Philippines. Back in 2002, they got away for a few days of rest and recuperation when, one morning, the door of the cabin where they were staying was kicked in.
Gracia: We knew that we were in big trouble, and we knew that we were being kidnapped; but we didn't know by whom. And then, when we realized it was the Abu Sayyaf, we knew what was going to happen because everyone follows all those hostage situations. It's like one starts, and then it ends. Everybody breathes easy for a bit. Then another one starts, and another one ends; and here it was us in the middle of this.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, July 1st. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We'll hear from Gracia Burnham today about the events that led up to the kidnapping and the 12-month hostage ordeal that she and her husband went through. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Wednesday edition. It was back more than a decade ago that we had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Gracia Burnham. Together, with her husband, Martin, Gracia had been held captive for more than a year by Islamic terrorists in the Philippines. Her story had been followed by the American media. It was a powerful, compelling story and a story of God’s grace and His very real presence in the midst of suffering.
We thought it would be good to revisit that story and listen back to what stands out for us as one of the most compelling programs we’ve featured on FamilyLife Today in our 20-plus years of ministry.
Here is Part One of our interview with Gracia Burnham, originally recorded in 2003.
[Previously Recorded Interview]
Dennis: We are going to feature a story over the next couple of days, Bob, that, personally, I've been looking forward to hearing the rest of the story. I don't know that I've ever heard of a couple getting away for a romantic weekend that was interrupted in such a dramatic way. I mean, picture yourself in full-time ministry overseas and needing a break. Now, that occurs in missionary staff, and they need to get a break. So this couple decided that they would find a cool spot. They found a cool spot and were sleeping when there was a [knocking sound] at the door.
And the rest of the story is—man! It's a story of faith, of courage, of suffering that—well, I was riveted by the book, In the Presence of My Enemies, written by Gracia Burnham. And Gracia joins us on FamilyLife Today.
Gracia: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
Dennis: Gracia, I really have been looking forward to meeting you. Barbara watched me read your book; and she said, "That must really be good!"
Bob: A page-turner?
Dennis: It is. Gracia and her husband Martin served with New Tribes Missions for more than 17 years.
Dennis: They have three children. I want you to tell us about that romantic getaway. You really needed it; didn't you?
Gracia: Well, yes. New Tribes Mission Aviation—Martin was a jungle pilot—had been after Martin to become their new chief pilot from the Philippines. He'd just been in the States two weeks.
The Palawan pilot’s dad died. That pilot had to go home to the States for a funeral, which meant that there were Bible translators that needed to get from one village to another; and there were kids that needed to get home from Faith Academy—there was a busy flight schedule on Palawan. Martin called me from the States and said: "I'm not going to be able to come home. I'm going to have to go to Palawan and fly."
So, I cleared up my schedule and went to meet him in Palawan. I got someone to take care of the kids where we live, but I knew that he would have jet lag and would need some time to rest.
Gracia: So I called our co-workers on Palawan and said, "Where is a good place where we can go for, you know, just even 24 hours, so Martin can rest, and sleep, and get ready for a heavy flight schedule?" They told me about Dos Palmas, a resort that was an island all of its own, off the coast of Palawan.
To get there, you had to take kind of a fishing vessel. I told my friends to book us in, and then they told me the price. It was right on the tip of my tongue to say, "Oh, could you just find us a place in town?" And I didn't say it because our anniversary was coming up; and I justified the cost by saying, “This will be our anniversary treat.”
And we did. We went to Dos Palmas and had a wonderful time—a beautiful meal / it was really, really nice—and went to bed that night. Then, even before dawn the next morning, that knock on the door—the pounding on the door—woke us up. Three men with M-16s ran into the room and took Martin immediately out. Then a guy came over to me, and pointed his weapon at me, and said in English, "Go, go, go!"
I said: “No, no, no! I don’t have clothes on.” I was just trying to grab something right there by the bed. I grabbed what I’d had on at the beach the night before—just shorts and a t-shirt. They took me right out the door. They emptied all the little cottages that we were staying in that were on stilts over the water. When they emptied all those out, there were 20 of us hostages—3 Americans and the rest were Filipinos. As we pulled away from the dock, they raised their weapons in the air. I guess there were about 15 of these guys. We knew, right away, it was the Abu Sayyaf. They're a Muslim terrorist organization which funds itself by kidnapping and ransom.
Gracia: But they’d never been known to be on Palawan.
We always avoided the hot spots in the Philippines. For some reason, the Abu Sayyaf chose Palawan and Dos Palmas.
Bob: So, was it not until that moment on the boat, with the guns raised, that you knew who these people were and what the agenda was?
Gracia: Yes, that's when we knew who they were.
Bob: Prior to that, when somebody is in your bedroom with a gun pointed at you, what are you thinking?
Gracia: Well, we knew we were in big trouble. We knew that we were being kidnapped, but we didn't know by whom. Then, when we realized it was the Abu Sayyaf, we knew what was going to happen because we read the newspapers. A year before, they had taken a bunch of European business people from an island down closer to Malaysia, and everyone follows all those hostage situations. It's like one starts, and then it ends; and here it was us in the middle of this.
Dennis: Let's leave the speedboat for a moment, and let's go back to when you and Martin met—all the way back to the beginning of your relationship.
Dennis: You both were really missions-minded from the very beginning; weren't you?
Gracia: Yes, we were. Martin grew up on the mission field. His parents are tribal missionaries. When Martin was a little boy, they moved their family to the Philippines and started working with the Ibaloi tribe—a tribe up in the mountains, where there are no roads. To reach those people, they built a small airstrip. That's how they would get their supplies—a pilot in a bush plane would bring their supplies, and their medicines, and stuff to them.
Dennis: Martin grew up with that?
Gracia: Martin grew up there. He went off to boarding school at Faith Academy, which was a very common thing to do back then—people didn't really home school back then.
Gracia: When he graduated from high school, he went to Calvary Bible College in Kansas City. That's where I met him. I was a Calvary student, and we got to know each other. I liked Martin because he was different. A lot of the guys I knew—you know, they really cared about how they looked and had to be—we didn't us the word, "preppy," back then, but they were—you could tell they were just trying their best to be preppy. [Laughter] Well, Martin truly wasn't. He loved jeans, and flannel shirts, and cowboy boots. He was just himself, and I just really liked that. We got to know each other and—
Dennis: It started out as a friendship.
Gracia: Yes; yes, for sure.
Dennis: And then when did he ask you out?
Dennis: When it really became a relationship—you became an item for him.
Gracia: Well, I broke up with this guy—you know the story—my heart was broken.
I had just broken up with this guy and thought: “You know, I will never date again. That's it—my life is ruined." And the very next day, Martin walked into the Dean's office, where I was the Dean of Students' secretary, and asked me if I wanted to go to the fall concert, of all things. Well, I decided to say, “Yes.”
Dennis: Your broken heart was not healed, but—
Bob: A little salve on it pretty quick. [Laughter]
Did you, prior to knowing Martin, did you have a missions’ orientation?
Gracia: Oh, I did. My favorite books were the books about Amy Carmichael and Mary Slessor—you know, who went into tribes in Africa and told the chief off. Those were my heroes. [Laughter] I always had a heart for missions.
Bob: So, your friendship with Martin, which was beginning to grow and increase / his friendship with you, growing and increasing—both of you with a heart for the field—there had to be conversations, in those early days, about where you thought you were both headed in service to the Lord.
Gracia: Yes, I’m sure there were. I just really fell in love with him, truly. I was thrilled that he was going to be a missionary; but if he had chosen to be an airline pilot, I would have been happy with that because I just wanted to be with him—if that makes any sense.
Dennis: And you were married.
Dennis: And how long, then, before you headed off on your overseas adventure?
Gracia: We crop-dusted for one summer in Nebraska so he could get some real good training for the mission field. Then we, right after that, we went into New Tribes Mission training; and their training is quite extensive.
You go to—they call it Missions Institute now—it used to be called Boot Camp. You go for a year of Boot Camp just to see if you can live in Spartan conditions—I guess is what you would call it.
Bob: Well, I have to imagine a young bride at Boot Camp.
Gracia: Oh, my goodness! Yes! [Laughter]
Bob: You know—part of the romance of being married—you can think about: “The mission field will be exciting. It will be fun,” but about the 40th time you're carrying the slop water up the hill, did you have some doubts? Did you think, "Couldn't we serve the Lord in some other capacity?"
Gracia: I had doubts about whether I could do it. There were several girls in my shoes—who had just gotten married and gone off to Boot Camp—and, you know, it came time to cook. I didn't know, really, how to cook yet. I remember buying a chicken—you know, if you buy a whole chicken, it's cheaper. I got the chicken home, and I didn't know how to cut it up.
Gracia: So, you know, I had to go to the neighbor and say, "Could you teach me how to cut up a chicken?"
How good that was—you know, on the mission field, you end up catching your chicken, and plucking your chicken, and cutting up your chicken. [Laughter] So, you have to learn someday.
Bob: But there was never any thought of "I don't know that I want to live for the next 10 years / 15 years in conditions like we're simulating here at Boot Camp"?
Gracia: No, no, I was happy to do that.
Bob: I mean, you're not talking about, “What kind of wallpaper do you want in the kitchen?”
Gracia: No, oh, my goodness.
Bob: You know, and a lot of young ladies grow up dreaming of that domestic life.
Gracia: Yes; well, you know what? I really loved Martin. It might not make a whole lot of sense, but I was happy to do anything God had called him to do. Maybe I wasn't going to have that little house, with the white picket fence; but life was going to be good because I would be with him, and I would be doing what God had called us to do.
Dennis: You then went to the Philippines, and Martin began to fly. And the reason I wanted to say that is—I want to read a paragraph from your book that struck me because it gives us a glimpse into the character of the man you married. You write:
"Before long, Martin knew everything about every missionary. He knew who was struggling financially; he knew which husbands and wives weren't getting along; he knew who was discouraged with language study because they weren't catching on as fast as they had hoped; he saw the newborn babies; he got to congratulate missionary kids on their home school projects; he met villagers who had recently become believers. Martin was the perfect person to hear it all. He just had a heart for everyone he came in contact with, and everyone who knew him loved him.” He was more than a pilot!
Dennis: I really like that because, you know, we think sometimes that a pilot for New Tribes Mission is just going to be on a task—flying supplies in / flying people in and out.
Dennis: And yet he took an interest in the people he served.
Gracia: Yes. You know, Martin used to say: “We didn't think of ourselves as the ‘real missionaries.’ In our minds, the real missionaries were the people in the tribe—learning the language, doing literacy, doing medical, learning a new culture, planting churches, doing Bible translation. We were just there to keep the tribal missionary in the tribe—that was our goal.”
Dennis: In the midst of all these flights, in and out, God was growing your faith at the same time. In fact, there's a story you tell about a time when you were moved to pray for Martin during one of these trips.
Gracia: Yes. That was one year just before Christmas. I think it was his last flight before Christmas break.
It was kind of an unusual flight for us because it was a businessman who wanted a flight to Davao. Martin took him and our buyer. The buyer is the person who buys everything for these eight to ten families that you service out in the jungle—he just buys, all day long, and boxes things up and makes sure they’re in the hangar on the right day.
Martin was about ten minutes into his flight; and he called me and he said, "We have a problem here.” Then there was silence. I waited and nothing happened for a minute. I called him back and said, “Are you going to tell me what your problem is?” And he said: “I'm losing oil pressure. Something’s wrong here. I'm above the clouds—so I don't know what's below us." A few minutes later, he called and said, "I've turned the engine off because we were pumping oil overboard.”
Before the engine seized on its own, he turned it off. He had just broken through the clouds, and he could see the valley below him. Well, now, he was just gliding into the valley.
Bob: And our listeners need to understand that, when you turn off the engine on a plane, you don’t just go into a nose dive—you glide for a while.
Gracia: You glide; yes.
Bob: So he was able to control the plane and keep it flying—
Bob: —even though the engine was off.
Gracia: Yes. We have an interesting photo—the buyer took a photo of the stopped propeller. It was so quiet in the cockpit and, especially, that businessman was very quiet. They started gliding into the valley, and Martin started looking. There was an SIL Wycliffe Bible Translators’ Center down in that valley.
Martin said, "I'm going to try to make it to the SIL base"; and he did. He said he cleared their fence by about 50 feet—he said—and came to a dead-stick landing. He had called them ahead to tell them about the emergency. They said they had a hallelujah meeting when he got on the ground. [Laughter]
Bob: I bet his wife, on the other end of the radio, was having a hallelujah meetin'.
She was. Oh, Martin!—you know, he always had a sense of humor. That day, when he came home—you know, it could have been a dramatic: “Oh! I was so worried about you!” He walked in the gate. He looked at me, with this twinkle in his eye—he glanced at his watch—and he said, “I told you I’d be home by 10:00
.” You know, it was just—
Bob: —just another day. [Laughter]
Gracia: That’s how he was—he just always saw the good.
Bob: But didn't you, in the back of your mind, after moments like that, think, "We've done enough here"?
Gracia: No, I never thought that. In fact, that was the best Christmas we ever had because we were enjoying each other so much. We knew that things could have happened much differently, and we had the most wonderful Christmas. No, we never talked about not doing that again. We loved what we were doing.
Bob: But the next time—he might not have made it to the base.
Gracia: That's true.
Bob: And that's just part of how you live.
Gracia: These things happen, I guess; huh? Those things happen in America—you can go off to work, and you have no guarantee that you're going to come home at night.
Dennis: Yes, the folks—
Gracia: You just forget—
Dennis: —on September 11th—you know, the same thing—
Gracia: That’s right.
Dennis: —God has a plan for us.
Dennis: We just live under the illusion thinking we're in control. We're really not in control.
And you're going to hear a dramatic story, over the next couple of days, that, if you were in the middle of that story—as I had to put myself and my wife Barbara—and I had to think, "How would I have translated what was happening?" It was such insanity to think of being captured and kidnapped by a terrorist group and to watch the conditions under which Gracia and her husband lived for more than a year.
Today, there are people listening to us who are living in circumstances—that may not be in a jungle spot in the Philippines—but they are in a jungle of their own. The God of the universe wants to reach out to you and let you know He wants to take the insanity and make sense of it. He wants to teach you to trust Him. Jesus Christ is alive from the dead. It’s not a myth / it’s not a story that somebody made up—He’s here—He’s alive / He can guide you even through the darkest moment.
Bob: I think about the hundreds of thousands—really, millions of people who heard a testimony of your faithfulness back when this happened in 2002. In the years since then, Gracia has written a book called In the Presence of my Enemies. It was a New York Times best-seller that sold more than 350,000 copies.
In fact, you have—since the book was published, you have gone back and revised it, and updated it, and included information in the book about a return trip to the Philippines that you have taken since all of this happened. We’ve got copies of the updated version of the book, In the Presence of my Enemies, in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center.
If our listeners are interested, they can go, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com to request a copy. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link in the upper left-hand corner of the screen that says, “GO DEEPER.”
You’ll see information about Gracia’s book right there. You can order it from us, online; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to place your order. Again, FamilyLifeToday.com is the website. The toll-free number is 1-800-358-6329. The title of the book is In the Presence of my Enemies, written by our guest today, Gracia Burnham.
You know, I think one of the things that Gracia’s story illustrates is the importance of us having a firm foundation, spiritually, in our lives because none of us knows what’s around the corner. None of us knows what’s coming tomorrow for us—what events / what circumstances we may have to face. The time to pour a solid spiritual foundation in your life is not when the storms are coming—it’s before they come so that, when the storms come, you can stand firm and find your hope and your strength in Christ.
We’re committed, here at FamilyLife, to helping you with that. Our goal is to provide practical biblical help for your marriage and your family, day-in and day-out. We want to effectively develop godly families who change the world, one home at a time. And we’re grateful that there are listeners, like you, who share that burden and who have joined with us in this ministry as financial supporters. We’re listener-supported. More than 65 percent of the funding that we need to operate this ministry comes from people making donations—either as monthly Legacy Partners or as folks who contribute, from time to time, in support of the ministry.
In fact, if you’d like to make a donation right now, it’s easy to do. You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link in the upper right-hand corner of the screen that says, “I CARE,” and make an online donation. Or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to make your donation over the phone.
Or you can mail your donation to us at FamilyLife Today, PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR. Our zip code is 72223.
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to hear more about the 12-month ordeal as Martin and Gracia Burnham were in captivity, held by Islamic terrorists in the Philippines. We’ll hear more of that story tomorrow. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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