Forgiven to Forgive

Gracia Burnham finds that big redemption comes in small steps
Forgiven to Forgive

It's been more than 10 years now since former missionary to the Philippines Gracia Burnham and her husband, Martin, were held hostage in the jungle by Islamic militants.

The 13-month nightmare began when the Burnhams were kidnapped from their hotel room in May 2001. They'd been celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary on an island resort in the southern Philippines, a rare treat for these parents of three teenage kids. For years, Martin had worked as a jungle pilot in Southeast Asia while Gracia homeschooled their kids, ministered to neighbors and worked as Martin's radio operator on the ground.

As hostages of the Islamic terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf, the Burnhams battled starvation and depression, going as long as nine days at one point without a solid meal and living in filthy outdoor lodgings. During their entire captivity, they never had access to a toilet. Their gruesome ordeal ended in a botched rescue attempt by the Armed Forces of the Phillipines that left Gracia wounded and her husband, Martin, shot dead, along with a third hostage who also was fatally injured during gunfire.

Reconnecting with Her Captors

Now, more than a decade later, a remarkable story of grace, forgiveness, and redemption has unfolded. Gracia has written two books about her experience. She's returned to the Philippines to testify against some of her former kidnappers, and has begun speaking about her ordeal to churches, schools, and mission groups across the country.

In recent years, she has even begun corresponding with and ministering to some of the men who harmed them.

"Several years ago I was able to find some of the guys who held us captive," says Gracia. "They're in a maximum security prison in Manila. Working with a missionary couple who live nearby the prison, I began sending written materials to these men."

The materials were various writings Gracia had worked to get translated into the prisoners' native dialects, including a set of 13 comic books that feature story lines of different prophets, all pointing to the redeemer found in Jesus.

"We also offered the Scriptures to these men in their own language during Ramadan, when Muslims' hearts are very tender," she says. "We printed a book, Morning and Evening Readings, with verses from Psalms that point to Christ.

"Little by little, God has opened their hearts," says Gracia. "So far, four of them have come to know Jesus as their Savior."

Small Offerings

One of the men is a secret believer, Gracia says, for fear of what could happen to his family on a neighboring island if his faith is discovered.

"This man wrote me and told he how concerned he is about his children," Gracia explains. "He doesn't want them to end up like he is—a convicted terrorist in prison. He asked if there's any way I could help his children get an education. 'Yes,' I told him. 'I can do that.'"

Gracia worked with local contacts in the Philippines to find the man's son as well as a distant relative on another island who was willing to allow the boy to live with him as he goes to school. "I've been saving my money as I speak to ladies' groups and such, and I've been putting it away in a little account. I think I have enough saved for a couple years of schooling for this boy."

The money Gracia receives from speaking engagements and from the generosity of others familiar with her story is more than what she needs to cover her living expenses. Bit by bit, she's found ways to use it for good.

"I've paid for some of the families to come and visit these men in prison," she shares. "They're on another island, and it takes a boat ride. They could never afford to do that kind of thing."

She also learned about one young man who was cooking his small daily ration of rice in an old abandoned paint can, since prisoners are responsible for their own utensils. "I bought him a copper rice pot," she says.

For others, she sends monthly funds for soap so prisoners can bathe and wash their clothes. She's quick to point out the smallness of these gestures. "The real work is done by local missionaries who go in every week and hold Bible studies and disciple some of the men," she says.

Redemption Story

To those who hear Gracia's story, however, such actions of forgiveness and love don't seem small. Her current speaking schedule is booked for more than a year in advance, because her story is not just one of survival, but of redemption. "People gravitate toward a message of forgiveness because it's something we all have to deal with," Gracia says. "God put forgiveness in my heart. I don't think a person can make it happen because unspeakable things happen to people. I'm not sure forgiveness is something you can do yourself. We're sinful, and our hearts aren't prone to that. It's something God puts in our hearts and allows to happen as we, by faith, do the one thing we can do—whether it's make a phone call or decide to put bitterness aside. Then God brings us along the other steps to real forgiveness."

Gracia is modest about her recent interaction with her former captors. "I don't want it to sound like I've done these big things with the Abu Sayyaf," she says. "I think God has done it and let me have my fingers in the pie a little bit—just to encourage my heart or maybe my children's hearts to let them know their dad's death wasn't in vain."

Gracia with family in 2012 (from top left): Jeff Burnham; Gracia Burnham with Vanessa Burnham; Andy Hedvall Bottom is Sarah Burham with Tristan Burnam; Zach Burham; Mindy Hedvall with Felix Hedvall
Image: Gracia Burnham Foundation

Gracia with family in 2012 (from top left): Jeff Burnham; Gracia Burnham with Vanessa Burnham; Andy Hedvall Bottom is Sarah Burham with Tristan Burnam; Zach Burham; Mindy Hedvall with Felix Hedvall

Gracia's children were teens when their father was killed. Now, their oldest child, Jeff, 26, is married with two children and lives in Africa where he serves as a missionary pilot. Gracia's middle child Mindy, 23, works in youth ministry with her husband at a church in Kansas, where they have one child. The Burnhams' youngest, Zach, 22, studies at Calvary Bible College in Kansas City.

Gracia never imagined 10 years later she'd still be retelling her experience and interacting with the men who brought so much pain and suffering to her family. She is considering another trip to the Philippines to visit the men in prison who abducted her. "The guys have been asking me to come for several years," she said. "I'm praying about visiting soon and talking with them.

"Somehow God works things together for good," she says. "Maybe that's why my story has stayed alive. God's still writing the last chapter, and it's really, really good."

In the 11 years since Gracia first formed the Martin & Gracia Burnham Foundation to support missionary aviation and Muslim ministries, the small agency has donated more than half a million dollars toward various causes, including Project Hannah, a Trans World radio broadcast aimed at reaching Muslim women. The foundation also has helped restore avionics in airplanes and send missionary pilots to specialized training that teaches them how to handle potential hostage situations.

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Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Corrie Cutrer

Corrie Cutrer is a writer who lives in Tennessee with her family. She's also a former assistant editor of Today's Christian Woman and recipient of several EPA writing awards. She is currently a regular contributor for Today's Christian Woman.

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August 2013

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