VIENNA, Virginia — Over 15 years after she was rescued from a year-long abduction by Islamic terrorists in a Philippine jungle, Kansas missionary Gracia Burnham says her time in captivity showed her how faithless she was as she couldn't see the bigger plan that God had for her time of trial.
Burnham along with her deceased husband, Martin, both served for New Tribes Mission (now Ethnos360) when they were taken hostage by Abu Sayyaf militants on May 27, 2001. The Burnhams were among a group of 20 hostages kidnapped by the terror group from the Dos Palmas Resort in Palawan.
After 376 days of captivity, Burnham was freed in June 2002 following a gun battle with the Filipino military that resulted in the death of her husband.
The 59-year-old author of two books detailed her experience in captivity with hundreds gathered at the Voice of the Martyrs Advance Conference held at McLean Bible Church outside Washington, D.C.
"I want to thank you for your prayers. Thank you for praying for this loving couple you have never even met before. It seemed like our trial lasted forever and that is how a trial is, isn't it?" she asked the crowd. "There were days where we felt like everyone had forgotten us and there were days I felt forsaken."
Burnham said the hardest part of her captivity was not the fact that her feet painfully bled and oozed from the long hikes with no socks and was not the fact that she was forced to sleep at night with only a dirty old rice sack separating her from the creatures crawling around on the jungle floor.
"The hardest thing for me was seeing myself for what I really was," she said. "When everything was gone, the real me surfaced that I didn't even want to believe existed. I saw a hateful Gracia. I saw a faithless Gracia. It was shocking."
In a time of desperation and despair, Burnham said she cried out for God to change her and cried out to ask God how long the trial would last.
"I was such a mess that I wasn't even sure God could change me," she explained. "But God can do anything, and He promised to change us. He said He would change us so much that we would start looking like Jesus. Isn't that how we want to live?"
Burnham assured that God took "an angry hostage and put love in her heart."
"God started changing me. He can bring peace to the broken hearted," she said. "He can bring good things out of pain. He keeps giving us a day of grace to serve Him again."
One of the most frustrating parts of the abduction occurred in the days before Easter 2002 when a ransom was paid for their release but Abu Sayyaf leaders decided to hold out for more money.
"I begged them not to do that. I said, 'This is not going to turn out well. We are sick of this, you are sick of this, just take the money and let's go home.' They were greedy and they asked for more money,'" Burnham explained. "You can imagine how defeated we felt that night when we laid down on our rice sacks to get rest."
"Just as I was drifting off to sleep, Martin kind of nudged me and said, 'Gracia, I am so glad that when Jesus paid a ransom for us, it was enough,'" Burnham recalled. "Jesus' payment for us was sufficient. It satisfied God and there doesn't need to be anymore sacrifice for sin."
Although Burnham's trial lasted more than a year and ultimately resulted in her losing her beloved husband, she told the crowd that she knows God had a purpose not only for their detention but also for her husband's untimely death.
Burnham said that little did they know that they were able plant seeds for the Kingdom of God inside the hearts of some of the very terrorists who forced them to march relentlessly around the jungle as they tried to avoid the firepower of the Filipino military.
Now that several of the Abu Sayyaf members who held the Burnhams hostage are now sitting in a maximum security prison in Manilla for the rest of their lives, Burnham says that she has been able to reconnect with a number of them.
"God has raised up a military couple in the Philippines who have a heart for ministry. I wish I had an hour to tell you the story of how they ministered to the very men who held us captive and how I got to be part of that," Burnham said. "The good news is that so far, four former Abu Sayyaf have come to know Jesus as their Savior."
After her speech, Burnham confirmed with The Christian Post that the four Abu Sayyaf members who came to Christ were militants who they had marched with in the jungle.
"Had I known while we were going through our hard year in the jungle that one day even one of those guys would come to know Jesus because of our experience, the days would have been easier to bear," Burnham said. "I can kick myself now and say, 'Would it not have been enough to trust the good God with the days of my life?'"
Burnham challenged the audience to believe that God puts people through hard trials not to "crush us" but to use us to do "a good work."
"It is always good because God's good. I have been encouraged that there can't be a harvest without seed planters," Burnham asserted. "Maybe planting seeds isn't always fun. We have heard some stories [today] of hard seed planting. Maybe planting seeds for you is uncomfortable and you don't see any fruit for your labor. You might wonder why you were called to plant seeds because you are not even good at it. But all of a sudden you see what God is doing."
"I have been reminded that the seed we planted in the jungle wasn't wasted. Others are reaping what we sewed ever so long ago. God is Almighty, and He can do anything," she added. "God can use anything. I really believe that. Maybe the length of our captivity ... and Martin's death is what it took to work in some Abu Sayyaf's hearts."