By Bill Webb, Word&Way Editor
Branson — The 60th anniversary banquet for the Missouri Baptist Foundation turned out to be a dramatic celebration at Chateau on the Lake here on May 4.
Keynote speaker Gracia Burnham, a New Tribes Mission missionary who survived more than a year of captivity at the hands of Philippine terrorists with her missionary pilot husband, Martin, left hundreds of friends of the Foundation spellbound as she told her story.
The ballroom of the hotel contrasted with the jungle setting Burnham described as she and her husband — who was killed in the gunfight in which she was rescued — remained on the run with their captors, a group representing the militant Muslim group Abu Sayyaf from May 27, 2001, until June 7, 2002.
The mother of three, who today lives in Rose Hill, Kan., in a home built for her and her family after her release, makes speaking appearances across the country and autographs her books, "In the Presence of My Enemies" and "To Fly Again," taking time to visit and answer the question everyone asks, "How are your children?"
They are doing well, she said. Jeff, 19, is a freshman at Liberty University, where he is studying missionary aviation, and will soon marry another missionary kid. "I have a 16-year-old daughter named Mindy; she's my best friend. I have a 15-year-old boy named Zach; he keeps us laughing. They are doing fine — we are doing fine."
The "next step" for her was starting The Martin and Gracia Burnham Foundation, dedicated to increasing the role of missionary aviation, supporting the needs of missionaries who work in tribal areas, finding ways to show Christ's love specifically to the Muslim community and coming to the aid of those who are "in chains" or imprisoned for their Christian faith by supporting the persecuted church around the world.
It is still her story that listeners find riveting as she recounts in raw detail her life along muddy jungle trails with Martin, prompting listeners to wipe away tears in one instant and laugh with her a moment later.
"We never forgot that they were the bad guys," she began, "but on the other hand they were our family. They were the people we lived with for a year…and we got to know the personalities of the guys.
"Every once in a while, while we were living in the jungle, Martin and I would get the 'goonie-goonies," a term someone in their group of captives came up with, she said. The goonie-goonies were a feeling that something was about to happen, like another gun battle, when everyone would gather up their stuff and run.
Including the last one, the couple experienced 17 such gunfire exchanges, usually between their young captors, who were armed with M-16s, and Filipino troops hunting for them.
On one of those goonie-goonie days, a group from another terrorist organization joined the Abu Sayyaf group. "I resented them being there because that meant that our meager food supply was going to be split even further," she recalled.
One of the young men told them not to worry; they were going to get more "budget," the English word that meant food supplies.
The group stopped hiking for awhile, and the Burnhams later noticed that some of their captors were missing. That's when they heard gunfire off in the distance — lots of gunfire.
Soon the group returned, very excited but with "bags of rice and lots of other stuff," Burnham remembered. Everyone was ordered to form a line and head at a fast pace down a trail out of the area.
As they traveled, the captives learned what had happened. The plan had been to stop the first "jitney" and take all the food the passengers were carrying.
The one they stopped was loaded on the top with bags of rice, but it had a civilian deputized by the military sitting atop it. When the terrorists emerged from the brush to stop the vehicle, the deputy raised his gun.
The terrorists opened fire and killed him, then massacred everyone in the jitney, including men, women and children.
"When they took the weapon off the deputy, they discovered it wasn't even loaded," Gracia said. The cache included 12 sacks of rice and a bag with a big can of milk powder "along with little girl's clothes, some little panties, a wash cloth and a little towel.
"Martin and I sat there in shock when a captor brought us hot milk with sugar in it," she said. "That was going to be our meal. Of course we were so hungry, we were going to drink that.
"But our hearts ached, and Martin's prayer that night was, "Lord, we don't know at what cost this food has come our way. We just pray that you will have mercy and give strength to the families of those who died."
They learned days later that the little girl had not survived. "To make matters worse, she had been the niece of one of the Abu Sayyaf raiders. He had helped gun down his own sister-in-law and niece," Gracia said.
"The biggest transformation I saw in myself was my attitude toward my enemies," she said. "My natural response was hatred," she admitted.
"Have you ever done something kind for someone who did you dirty?" she asked. Gracia's breakthrough was with an arrogant 14-year-old whose uncle was second-in-command for the Abu Sayyaf.
He was a "cute kid" who carried an M-14 and taunted Gracia, urging her to walk faster and tossing rocks at her as she tried to bath in the river.
The boy was badly wounded after a gun battle and had to rely on others to take care of him. Gracia discovered him agitated one day, because he had soiled his clothing. It was the day she offered to wash his laundry in the river.
"As I threw it on the bushes to dry, God changed my heart and graced me so that I in turn could do the right thing," she said.
When she was exhausted and frustrated, it was Martin who urged her on, Gracia said. When she wanted to give up, he would remind her what their children would say if they could talk with her: "Mom, just get going today because tomorrow you might get to go home."
Just minutes before her husband's death in a rescue attempt, "Martin said to me, 'You know, I've been thinking about Psalm 100 today, especially the first verse that talks about serving the Lord with gladness.'
"He said, 'You know, this doesn't seem much like serving the Lord, traipsing through the jungle for a year. But let's by faith believe that's what we're doing. We're serving the Lord, and let's do it with gladness.'
"And minutes later, he was dead," she said.
"And that's my new life's theme. I'm going to do what God's given me to do, and I'm going to do it with gladness.
"I'm so glad to be free, for when the Son sets you free, you are truly, truly free," she said.
$100 million distributed
Foundation president Jim Smith reminded the audience that the Foundation had distributed more than $100 million to Baptist and Christian causes during its first 60 years of history.
"The parallels are so profound — that Martin would fly into the jungle bringing supplies and medical needs. God would use him to do vital things," Smith said.
"We really cannot understand at what cost these 100 million dollars have come," he added. "It will be worth it all; to God be the glory."
On hand for the celebration were former Foundation presidents Frank Denton, Gary Collins and Tom Nelson, who wrote a poem for the occasion. (05-18-06)