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Missionary Martin Burnham’s life capped by joyous funeral in Kansas

ROSE HILL, Kan. (BP)–Every night, as he was being handcuffed to a tree deep in the Philippine jungle, Martin Burnham would look his armed captors in the eye and say, “Thank you very much.”

Then the missionary would wish them good night.

He did this, his wife told friends, because he was determined to stay joyous during the most trying time of his life.

So friends and relatives of the slain native of Rose Hill, Kan., followed Martin Burnham’s lead June 14, staying joyous through the tears of a two-hour memorial service that drew an estimated 2,600 people.

Martin Burnham died June 7 during a shoot-out between Filipino troops and his guerrilla kidnappers, who held him and wife Gracia captive for more than a year.

“Why did this happen this way?” asked Clay Bowlin, a college friend of Martin Burnham and a Kansas City pastor. “I gotta tell you, I don’t know.

“God knows what he is doing. All we can do is trust him.”

Friends and family began lining up outside Central Christian Church before 8:30 a.m. — at least an hour and a half before the service began.

About 30 employees from Wal-Mart gathered on 29th Street North across from the church. They stood silently, with small flags in hand, holding giant sympathy cards.

As the service began, mourners — including Philippines Ambassador Albert del Rosario, Sen. Sam Brownback, Rep. Todd Tiahrt and former Sen. Bob Dole — stood as Martin’s widow, Gracia Burnham, and family entered the sanctuary.

In a wheelchair, Gracia Burnham sat in the front row, just feet from her husband’s casket.

The service began with a slide show flashing images from Martin Burnham’s 42 years of life.

Set to the music of “Amazing Grace,” Martin Burnham grew from small smiling child in a bow tie to high school wrestler, and eventually into a pilot, husband and father of three.

One of the last slides showed a healthy man in a blue-green plaid shirt, looking much different from the thin, bearded man he became during more than a year of captivity.

Some of the speakers and music had been chosen by Martin Burnham, who expressed his wishes to his wife in the weeks before he died. He sensed he may not make it out alive.

An uncle, Galen Hinshaw, read letters to Martin Burnham written by his family.

Martin Burnham’s oldest son, Jeff, wrote about the dirt bike he and his father shared in the Philippines. And how his dad was going to teach him to fly when he turned 15. Jeff turned 15 while his parents were in captivity.

His 12-year-old daughter, Mindy, recalled her father inserting her name in songs and singing them to her when he returned home from work.

Felicia Reschke, Martin’s youngest sister, wrote about wrestling Martin on the living room floor and how he always let her win. He nicknamed her “Pickles” because of the funny faces she made when she ate one.

Another sister, Cheryl Spicer, remembered a time in college when Martin offered to start turning down her unwanted dates for her.

“He took care of me,” she wrote.

His mother, Oreta Burnham, remembered her son ending a November interview in the jungle with the words: “Goodbye, Mom. I love you, and I hope to see you soon.”

Bowlin, who knew Martin Burnham at Calvary Bible College in Kansas City, Mo., in the early 1980s, said he and Martin were like brothers.

His voice cracked often as he recalled their long talks over cups of coffee and his teasing Martin over his courtship of Gracia.

As their college years ended, most of Bowlin’s friends were getting married, including Martin, so he didn’t see them much.

Martin, seeing that Bowlin was lonely, approached him one day in the student lounge and promised to ask Gracia if he could start spending some Saturday nights with Bowlin.

Smiling down at Gracia, Bowlin told her he decided not to steal time with her husband but how much he appreciated the offer.

Bowlin described how a hungry Martin and Gracia shared their food during captivity with younger members of Abu Sayyaf — some of whom were kids with guns, he said — because they were hungry too.

In recent weeks, he said, Gracia escaped the jungle on a medical helicopter. Martin escaped on the wings of an angel.

Bowlin thanked the city of Rose Hill for lining the streets as buses brought Gracia home.

“There is a golden street in heaven where a couple of weeks ago there was another parade like that,” he said.

Mourners once again stood as Martin’s casket was carried from the sanctuary, Gracia Burnham following close behind.

The family’s poise impressed all those who have tried to imagine themselves in the family’s place.

“The family is amazing,” Dole said as he left the memorial. “The things that Martin and Gracia went through, you almost wouldn’t believe it if you were reading them in a book.”

Family members laid Martin Burnham to rest at a private burial at Rose Hill Friends Cemetery. Then hundreds of friends met them for a luncheon at a Rose Hill school.

Gracia Burnham took a break from visiting with friends and family to share a quick story with the media.

Above the roar of a passing train, she spoke of one night in the jungle when her kidnappers allowed her and Martin to listen to a short-wave radio.

Curled up together in a hammock, they tuned into an English station and heard someone saying a prayer for everyone in troubled places, such as Afghanistan or the West Bank.

She and Martin included themselves in that prayer and were comforted, she said.

The funeral service was wonderful, she said. Martin would have loved it.

She wanted everyone to know she’s doing well, as is her family and Martin’s.

Then she smiled and said: “I asked my kids how I should end my little speech to the press. They said to say: ‘God Bless America.'”
Used by permission of The Wichita Eagle. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: GRACIA BURNHAM.

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  • Alex Branch