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Gracia Burnham departs Philippines for reunion with her 3 children

WICHITA, Kan. (BP)–Missionary Gracia Burnham departed from the Philippines June 9 after losing her husband and a year of her life to terrorist captors.

“We needed every single prayer you prayed for us during our ordeal in the jungle,” Burnham said in a statement at an airport in Manila before she began flying to Wichita, Kan., for a reunion with her three children, Jeffery, 15, Melinda, 12, and Zachary, 11, who have been living with grandparents during the ordeal.

“I return to the States this morning, to rejoin my children and to put my life back together,” Burnham said, according to the Associated Press. “Part of my heart will always stay with the Filipino people.”

Burnham spoke from a wheelchair, with a gunshot wound to her right thigh from a bloody June 7 rescue attempt by Philippine forces that claimed her husband, Martin, and a Philippine nurse, Deborah Yap, who also was a hostage of the Osama bin Laden-related Abu Sayyaf Group.

“We especially want to thank the military men, the Filipinos and the Americans, who risked, and even gave, their lives in order to rescue us,” Burnham said, according to the Associated Press.

Burnham had no kind words for her captors, saying, “During our ordeal, we were repeatedly lied to by the Abu Sayyaf and they are not men of honor,” according to CNSNews.com. They should be treated as “common criminals” and brought to justice, Burnham said.

A memorial service for Martin Burnham will be June 14 at Central Christian Church in Wichita.

Affiliated with New Tribes Mission, the Burnhams were kidnapped on May 27, 2001, as they were celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary. They had been NTM workers since 1985; he was a pilot and she had worked in conjunction with NTM aviation needs. Based in Sanford, Fla., the interdenominational missions agency focuses on planting indigenous churches among unevangelized people groups in remote areas around the world.

Before leaving the Philippines, Burnham met with Deborah Yap’s four children in a tearful encounter, CNSNews.com reported, recounting that the captors reported had given the nurse an opportunity to go free. Instead, she had had chosen to stay in order to help the Burnhams.

After a worship service at the Wichita-area Rose Hill Bible Church, Burnham’s brother, Doug, told The Wichita Eagle that Martin and Gracia had faced the possibility of their deaths in captivity and that Martin had told his wife, “Let’s serve [the Lord] all the way, with gladness to the end.”

Gracia Burnham estimated the shooting in the rescue effort lasted about 20 minutes, her sister-in-law, Teresa Burnham, recounted to reporters. Gracia and her husband were on a hammock under a tarp when the fighting began. Right before the shots rang out, Martin was “talking about the Lord,” Teresa Burnham said. “If I have to go, I want to go out strong for the Lord’ — those were some of his last words.”

In leaving the Philippines, Gracia Burnham was carrying a goodbye letter Martin had written to his children just days before his death, apparently believing that he would face death and meet Jesus in heaven, CNN reported, quoting a senior Philippine military official.

In the confusion of the bloody rescue attempt, Gracia Burnham lost the letter as she was shot in the leg, but it was later discovered by troops, CNN reported. Maj. Gen. Ernesto Carolina said Burnham told him and an American general about the letter and asked them to find it just before she was flown to Manila. Carolina said his soldiers searched for the letter and found it in the jungle where the fierce firefight had taken place only hours earlier between Philippine troops and the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas.

A Martin Burnham Memorial Fund has been established for Gracia
and their three children. Contributions, payable to New Tribes Mission with the designation “Martin Burnham Memorial Fund,” may be sent to NTM, 1000 E. First Street, Sanford, FL 32771-1487. Any cards or letters for Gracia should be sent to Gracia Burnham c/o NTM at the same address.