Gracia Burnham, second from left, sings along with the crowd at the First Southern Baptist Church Monday evening just before she addressed the group of women.
By JESSICA CRAWFORD
While celebrating their 18th anniversary on May 27, 2001, at the Dos Palmas resort on the Philippine island of Palawan, missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham were captured by members of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group. On June 7, 2002, a dangerous rescue attempt erupted in a gun battle. Martin was killed and Gracia was freed from captivity.
Eight years later, Gracia, a small woman in stature, through forgiveness, prayer and love has a strength not many can fathom. She spoke to more than 300 women last Monday evening at the First Southern Baptist Church in Liberal. The message she brought was simple, God is sovereign and whatever trials people face, God is in control of the situation.
“Looking beyond yourself is important,” Gracia said candidly before she addressed the crowd. “We build these little lives for ourselves and make sure everything is going real good in our little world – that it is controlled and comfortable. I encourage people to look beyond themselves to a world that needs the gospel of Jesus.”
Gracia said she believes any trial is difficult, and women must reach out to one another in Christian love to work through situations together.
“A trial is a trial,” she said. “You give your trials to God. You have to figure out sooner or later that God is sovereign, God knows what is going on. So, you have to decide that for yourself. He is in control, He didn’t say, ‘oops,’ when you started through that trial and he hasn’t abandoned you.
“I encourage women not to walk alone,” she continued. “Often, we don’t even know that our friends need encouragement because we wear these ‘everything is OK with me’ masks. We look good on the outside, we have a lot of props that keep life going well for us. I don’t think we share our burdens like maybe we should.”
Gracia was a rather timid woman prior to her experience. She quickly decided she must get past any fear of public speaking in order to glorify God with her story.
“I wasn’t a speaker,” she said. “If anyone had told me eight years ago that I would survive what I was going through and someday speak, well, that would have been encouraging because it would have meant I would live through what I was going through. You never knew if you would live through the day.
“It happened right away, when I got home, the media was right there,” she explained. “I had to make some decisions in the beginning. Am I going to talk about this? Am I going to retreat? I decided that I have this story, it must be for a reason. So, I decided to try to give God some glory here. I said ‘yes’ to as much as I could say ‘yes’ to.”
Martin and Gracia Burnham have deep roots in Kansas. Although their children were born overseas, they were sent to Kansas to be with family when the couple was taken into captivity. Gracia said how the children were handled was, in and of itself, a miracle.
“We are from a little town called Rose Hill, near Wichita,” she said. “That wasn’t really my home, but it was where my husband’s parents grew up. My husband was a missionary kid in the Philippines, he went when he was 10 years old. But, Rose Hill was the family home place. That is where they sent my children when we were taken hostage.
“We were going to be in the Philippines forever,” she explained. “We had been there for 16 years. Our 17th year was our year of captivity. Our children were born there. That was home. The children hadn’t lived in America, so that was difficult for them. They were picked up from their home and plopped down in Kansas. But, they were surrounded by good people. Kansas people are good people. So, God was good, in even where the kids landed.”
Following her address to the women of Liberal, Gracia asked audience members if they had questions for her. The last question of the evening was a very poignant and honest question from Mellissa Brenneman.
“How do you fight the self preservation of saying, ‘I don’t want to relive this one more time and tell the story one more time?’” Brenneman asked. “How do you find the courage and the strength to go on? I know many people have gone through problems and struggles in their lives. But, often times even the smallest thing we won’t share because we just don’t want to go there again – even though it might help someone, we don’t go there. How do you do it?”
Burnham explained exactly why and how she is able to relive her story on a regular basis.
“I would not be doing this if I did not think God had called me to this right now,” she said. “I would so much rather be working at Pizza Hut or on the mission field, that is where I really want to be. But, I am convinced that God let me survive alone so that I could tell the story and I could encourage others. That is what I hope I have done tonight. If I was just here for 45 minutes to just entertain everybody, I would quit because it’s not worth it.
“Some days are good days and some days are bad days,” she concluded. “There are some nights that I get to the event that I am going to do and I don’t really want to do it. I will walk inside and some sweet lady will come up and give me a big hug and say, ‘I prayed for you.’ What God did while you were praying, that is what keeps me telling the story. So, thank you for praying for me.”