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Prayer prime even to political, publicity efforts for captive missionaries’ release

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–New Tribes missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham, have suffered a harrowing reality for the past eight months. The Burnhams were kidnapped in the middle of the night and since have been forced on the run with their captors, in the jungle, dodging bullets and authorities. Video footage released by their captors showed the couple with obvious signs of malnutrition and illness.

The torturous plight of the Burnhams has been an agonizing concern for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary student Marjorie Clark. A friend and former roommate of Gracia at Calvary Bible College in Kansas City, Mo., Clark has followed the Burnhams’ situation almost from the start.

She first heard about their kidnapping shortly after it happened. On May 27, a Muslim extremist group, Abu Sayyaf, took the Burnhams at gunpoint while the missionaries celebrated their 18th wedding anniversary at a resort off the island of Palawan in the Philippines. Some 20 others were also taken. The terrorist group has killed several captives, including a California man. The group has been linked to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network.

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Missionary hostages
Martin and Gracia Burnham, missionaries in the Philippines kidnapped by an Osama bin Laden-related terror group, as they appeared in footage aired in November on TV in the island nation. See related story.
“They were taken literally in the middle of the night, and so they don’t really have anything with them,” said Clark, a Highland, Ind., native and a master of arts student at the Louisville, Ky., seminary. “Supposedly, they have sores on their mouths from poor nutrition. Their feet bleed. He [Martin] is chained to a tree every night.”

The Burnham’s plight recently became more vivid and visible to Clark and to the world, as CBS aired a videotaped interview of the Burnhams Jan. 21 on the CBS news program “48 Hours.”

Seeing Gracia — who Clark cherishes as “somebody that you laughed with, somebody that you talked to late into the night with, somebody you sang a lot with” — and viewing her suffering on television was disheartening for Clark. The visuals were especially troublesome given the fact that the interview was filmed two months ago, and their conditions could only have worsened.

“This [suffering] has been so difficult for [Gracia],” Clark said. “She’s a very upbeat person. She’s a very outgoing person, happy, funny. So it was … discouraging to see her so emotionally distressed. Her hands kept shaking and coming up to her lips that were shaking.”

Clark still has faith that the Burnhams — who have served in the Philippines since 1986 — are remaining strong in their faith.

“Both of them still maintained their sense of humor,” said Clark, giving her impressions on the interview. “You could see their personalities still coming out even in the midst of the horror they are living through.”

She and fellow seminary student Lizette Beard were so moved that they set up a website — www.praythemhome.com — to garner publicity.

“I believe that prayer’s the one very powerful thing that we can do,” said Beard, a master of divinity student from Mountain Home, Ark., who handled the website design.

Clark hopes the Burnham’s enduring and persevering faith will end up pointing others — even the their captors — to Christ.

“I would love to see the fellow hostages that they are with come to know Christ, and I believe there is a great opportunity there because of the witness that they have,” Clark said. “… I would not be at all surprised to see some of the hostage takers — especially some of the younger ones — be really impacted by their witness.”

Currently, no end of the Burnhams’ captivity is imminent — though some hope did surface recently. More than 600 U.S. troops joined with soldiers in the Philippines Jan. 15 to begin military training exercises focused on wiping out the Muslim extremist group who captured the Burnhams.

But, the fact that no real progress has been made in eight months is discouraging for friends and especially family. Frustration is compounded by the fact that attempting to track the kidnappers in the jungle has proved extremely difficult.

In fact, some might deem the Burnhams’ situation hopeless. But Clark is not so quick to discount the power of prayer.

“I really believe that God can rescue them miraculously, and I believe He can show Himself very, very great through all of this,” Clark said.

Convinced of God’s power to deliver, Clark has recently begun an effort to encourage others to pray for the Burnhams and to make as many people as possible aware of their plight. The methods have been as varied as they have been impassioned.

In December she, along with other friends and family of the Burnhams, participated in a petition drive on the Burnhams’ behalf, and they brought the list of 20,000 names to Washington, D.C.

“That’s kind of when I got involved,” Clark said. “… God just really impressed on me that that was something I could do. … For months I had been wondering, ‘What can I do? What can I do to help this situation out?'”

She and other friends and family members met with Congressman Todd Tiahrt, R.-Kan., and with representatives of Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan.. After these meetings, the family presented the petition to White House officials.

Tiahrt has been especially proactive, Clark said. Not only did he arrange for meetings with important officials, he also arranged for Heather Mercer — who herself was held by Muslim extremists in Afghanistan — to be flown in to spend time with the families and to do some interviews to bring attention to Burnhams’ imprisonment.

Later in December, Tiahrt went to the Philippines himself to press for more action on the part of the government there.

“He is a man of God, I truly believe,” Clark said. “He has really adopted Martin and Gracia almost as his own.”

The “48 Hours” program has also served to bring attention to Martin and Gracia. And Clark herself appeared on a local television interview in Louisville immediately following the program.

While these political and publicity efforts are important, prayer has been the focus of Clark’s efforts on the Burnhams’ behalf.

After Christmas, Clark and another college friend decided to have a day of prayer and fasting to coincide with Gracia’s birthday, Jan. 17. They attempted to get as many people as possible to participate. Together, they contacted churches, Christian Internet news sources, missions agencies, publishing companies and radio stations. The response was positive and encouraging, Clark said.

While Clark does not know how many have joined her in prayer for the Burnhams, she knows that fervent prayer of even one person avails much.

“I’ve prayed more in the last few months than I’ve probably prayed my whole life,” Clark said. “It’s taken me to my knees because of that feeling of helplessness.'”

It is this hope in a sovereign God who controls even the most hopeless situation that has helped Clark through.

“I do believe that they were chosen to suffer,” Clark said. “I don’t know why. And we might not ever know the reason why on earth. And I’m OK with that. I do believe that there is and will be a great reward for them for their suffering.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: ROOMMATES.

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  • Bryan Cribb