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“God Writes Really Good Stories!” A Conversation with Gracia Burnham
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By Nigel Garnaitis





Gracia Burnham’s life has been marked by tragedy and loss. While celebrating their wedding anniversary in 2001, her and her husband Martin were taken captive by the Abu Sayyaf, an extremist Muslim militant group from the Philippines. At the time, they were serving as missionaries with New Tribes Mission, assisting missionaries who were working with isolated people groups across the islands of the Philippines. For over a year, Gracia and Martin ran through the jungles with their captors, dodging the presence and firepower of the military that was following them. When the military finally caught up to their Abu Sayyaf cell, Gracia was rescued, while Martin was shot and killed in the midst of the battle.

Burnham’s return to her home in Kansas in 2002 was not the end of the story. She felt that God was calling for tell others her stories and experiences. Since then, she has shared her story with the FBI, specialized academics, television broadcasters, and churches across the world.

I had the privilege of speaking with Gracia personally, and was able to ask her about suffering, loving her enemies, and how God continues to use her challenging experiences in ways she couldn’t imagine. Gracia mentioned several times that, between her and her husband, she was the weaker of the two. “If you were a fly on the wall in my house, you would see weakness all over the place!” she commented. “I have a secretary, and I have a retired pastor’s wife that helps me plan these events. And we barely keep our heads above water – our office is full of dysfunction! We really don’t know what we’re doing… No one sees the weakness. They see the weekend where we did all these amazing events, and God showed up!”

Gracia wrapped up a tour of Southwestern Ontario at Stoney Creek Baptist Church in London on July 10 after speaking in Vineland, Toronto, and Hamilton. To say that it was an eventful tour is an understatement. In many ways, her time in Toronto revealed to Gloria how God continues to unfold her story.

By divine coincidence, a man named Oliver, who happened to be the ranger who led the Philippino military’s expedition to rescue Martin and Gracia was present. Gracia explained with amazement how, for the first time, she was able to hear the other side of the story. “He told stories that I’ve certainly never heard! I told my side of what happened the day of our rescue, and he told the other side, and it totally corresponded with my side. He just told the rest of the story, and everyone was spellbound.” Gracia shared with great admiration how, after he shared his story, he shared the Gospel to the crowd in a beautiful, urgent, and simple way. God took her story, and made it even more impactful than Gracia could have on her own.

Although very few of us will ever be kidnapped, Gracia’s experience has much to teach us about following Jesus. When I asked about how Gracia’s heart was transformed to come to the place where she could begin to love her captors, I was surprised by how applicable her answer was. “I asked God to do that,” she said. “When I saw me for what I really was, it was shocking. I think at some point I thought, you know, this is not Jesus asked us to be, so bitter and upset all the time. I asked God to change me right then and there in the midst of the situation.”

The love Gracia has for the Abu Sayyaf seems to have grown since her release. She shared a story about how, through the re-prints of a number of translated comic books, Gracia was able to get in touch with members from Abu Sayyaf cell that originally captured her. She now writes letters to them, and has even sent a dignitary, Bick Miller, to send them each messages of forgiveness. Four of the twenty-four men now facing their own captivity in prison have even come to know Jesus as the Savior through God’s work in their lives.

Her heart for these men is abundantly clear. Even as I entered the apartment to speak with Gracia, the entire group, including Bick, fellow New Tribes Mission missionaries Peter and Cathy Baker, and Gracia, seemed to be scheming about how they could possibly show more love to these imprisoned captors so they could come to know Jesus.

Gracia speaks with as much joy and conviction in person as she does when speaking to a group of 400. I asked her how she maintains her sense of joy despite her losses, and she said, “I don’t sit around thinking about the hard things … I try to remember the good things. That’s probably because of something Martin told me in the jungle one day. We were in the middle of a gun battle, we were climbing this mountain, this cliff, trying to get to the top, and I was spent physically. I said to Martin, ‘I can’t go on – you keep climbing, I’m going to stay here. I can’t go on!’ And Martin said to me, ‘Now is not the time to cry. Crying takes energy. Let’s get through this, and you can cry later. And we just kept climbing. And I still tell myself that today.”

But what gives her joy in the midst of it all? “My kids and my grandkids give me joy. But I don’t hang my whole life on them. They could be gone like that! Life’s fragile, so I don’t put all my hope in my kids and grandkids. But I sure do enjoy watching God raise up another generation!”

Though Gracia’s story centres in on the Philippines, she has much insight into North American life. “We don’t like to suffer. But … being called to carry the Cross, its an honour,” she commented. Gracia states that her own suffering is of a lesser honour than the many Christians around the world who suffer for their faith. “I don’t even think we got to experience the fellowship of his suffering,” she says. “Some people do, and they’re going to be treated specially! They’re going to have special robes in heaven, and we’re going to know exactly who those people are! They’re going to stand out. They fellowshipped with Christ’s suffering.”

It is easy to remain comfortable in Canada, and see suffering as the times when God is far away. Gracia comments, “I think I used to think that people who really knew the Lord, and were really trusting the Lord, bad things didn’t happen to them. And that’s not what I heard from the pulpit – that’s what I heard in my brain!”

Through her experiences, however, God showed her a different picture. “Our whole view of the kingdom is skewed. What Jesus called blessed, it’s suffering! I don’t know if we should be looking for it, but it’s an honourable thing.” The pains in life become avenues of God’s grace, even though they may be painful and challenging. She says, “Now when I see people who loose a child, or people whose husband dies, I immediately think, ‘God’s going to teach you something here!’ Its not that I’m not sympathetic, I just know that God has a plan in all that.”

If you were unable to hear Gracia speak, you can access her stories through her two books, In the Presence of my Enemies, and To Fly Again. You can also learn more about Gracia at her website, www.graciaburnham.org.