Two years ago this week, Gracia Burnham and her husband, Martin, were celebrating their wedding anniversary at a resort in the Philippines, where the two were stationed as New Tribes missionaries. This year, Gracia is celebrating what would have been her 20th anniversary alone.

The story of the Burnhams' capture and captivity by the Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf is one she tells in her new book, In the Presence of My Enemies (Tyndale). But in one of her first interviews since returning home to Rose Hill, Kansas, Burnham told Christianity Today about what's not in the book—including details about how she really feels about her former captors, her rescuers, her God, and herself. Christianity Today online managing editor Ted Olsen visited Burnham for a three-hour interview in mid-February.

Early on, when the first group of hostages was released, one of the names that kind of kept appearing in the press accounts was a Catholic priest named Rene Enriquez. Your account of the Lamitan Hospital raid differs from his.

He was visiting someone at the hospital. We'd been held hostage for about a week when we finally got to land. As soon as we got to land the soldiers found us. So the plan of Abu Sayyaf was to take us all to this hospital, and then the press would come. [The military] would never shoot at a hospital. There would be negotiations. There would be concessions. And we would be let go. Well, we stormed this hospital, and the military cut the electricity and the phones and started this siege. It was a 24-hour siege with bombing and everything, and here we were in this hospital. And a priest had been visiting a patient in the hospital when the Abu Sayyaf and [we] twenty hostages came in. So I went over to him and I said, "My name is Gracia Burnham. I'm sorry you were pulled into this pain." That's all I said, and I moved away.

But as we were escaping at sundown the next day, the priest escaped. And it's a really good thing because they were going to kill him. They hate Catholic priests. The Catholic priests really irk them because they've seen their inconsistencies and their lies and doing things to get ahead, which is like everybody else.

What this man reported to the press was not true. He said he saw Abu Sayyaf raping the nurses. He said I went over there and begged him to pray for us so we wouldn't be killed. I've read quite a few things that that priest said happened that never happened in that hospital.

Article continues below

There was also a report about the time that American hostage Guillermo Sobero was murdered that the Abu Sayyaf had burned down a Roman Catholic chapel.

I wasn't with them when they did that. They did send out striking forces. They were groups of 20 or so guys who would go into a town or village and just raise havoc usually to draw attention away from us so we could go the other way. So, no, that never happened in our group.

How were they able to maintain support from the villagers?

They maintain support with Muslims. Muslims don't care if they burn a Christian chapel. We did come upon a Christian chapel one day, and they said, "There used to be a cross there, but we destroyed it." They said, "We hate the cross. Any time we see a cross we destroy it if we can."

I used to not be a real cross fan, myself. I didn't wear a cross. I was raised a Baptist, and that always seemed to be "Catholic" to me. But you know what? I love the cross since my captivity, and I have them everywhere. And I wear them because [they are] a neat symbol. My mind has just changed because the Muslims hated it so much, what it stands for.

You wrote about their dismissal of core Christian concepts like grace and mercy.

They really sneered at that. On the other hand, they would turn right around and say Allah is the most merciful. What was the term they used? "More than the bubbles of the ocean is Allah's mercy." But they are not trying to be like Allah. [To them,] Allah is up here, and we're here. We're human. [Christians] want to be like Jesus. He's our pattern. But I couldn't see any of that in their religion.

You and Martin talked about how you were confronted with your own sinfulness during your captivity.

I saw a Gracia that I wanted to think didn't exist. I grew up a good kid. I never gave my folks trouble. I was never in trouble ever. I was a very pliable child and wanted to please everybody and wanted to please the Lord. Then everything was taken away from me in one swift act, and I saw a hateful me. I would hate those guys in my heart so badly and even voice that to Martin. When they had food, I would covet what they had. I wouldn't be glad they had food. I wasn't happy that the Lord had supplied for them. I coveted what they had. I saw myself as despairing, and I didn't like what I saw. For months I would try to overcome these awful things I saw in myself, and it just kept getting worse and worse.

Finally, one day I said to Martin, "Where can I find some love, some joy, some peace? I want some fruits of the Spirit to show here, because all I'm seeing is bad."

Article continues below

And Martin said, "That's the point. We can't drum up in ourselves love and joy and peace. It's not there. It comes from the Holy Spirit. We need to just ask for it." And we started begging God for love and joy and peace and patience and contentment. And you know what? He started giving it to us. It wasn't all the time, but we had days and weeks of contentment and peace. When everyone else was getting fed well and we were getting hardly anything, somehow there was contentment there. I can't explain it. The Lord did it for us. The verse that says "It was good for me to have been afflicted" sounds so stupid, but that was a good thing that happened to us. I learned so much about the Lord, and I learned so much about myself. I'm a different person now.

Your book describes several times in which you told your captors, "Go ahead and shoot me." Did you mean that, or were you bluffing?

I was just mad at those guys. It probably would have shocked me if they had [shot me]. Why would they shoot me? I was worth a million dollars, right? When I would say that, it was to some young kid that I just had it with. It's just a sarcastic thing.

On the other hand, I would have been out of there [if they had shot me]. And I was ready to get out of there, and I would have hoped that the first bullet did it. That's what I wanted, and [Ediborah] said the same thing. And, bless her heart, I think she died quite slowly actually, which makes me very sad. She often said, "If I get killed, I just want it to happen fast. I don't want to suffer."

Martin never thought that was going to happen to him. He's the eternal optimist. What a guy. He just knew he was going to get out.

How strong willed were you in captivity? You had periods of being sharp-tongued with your kidnappers.

I tend to be very sharp tongued, and I speak my mind. That means in general that's how I am. I'm very opinionated, and [smiling] everyone is entitled to my opinion. That's just kind of the person I am. And I feel like that's kind of what the Lord was doing with me in captivity. I may still seem that way to a lot of people, but in my heart I don't think my way is the only way anymore.

I think I saw my heart for what it is, the selfishness of my heart and always wanting my own way. I'd like to think that my heart has changed a bit. A lot of my self-will and my drive and always having to be right—I think that's what changed.

Next page:Was a hamburger from God a harbinger of death?

Article continues below

Related Elsewhere:

Also appearing on our site today:

Did Martin Die Needlessly? | Gracia Burnham believes her husband would be alive today if someone had paid the proper ransom—but mission agencies wonder how many other missionaries would have been kidnapped as a result.
Christian History Corner: The Day the Ransoming Began | A gripping new book details the first American missionary hostage crisis, over 100 years ago.
Dogging the Story | Christian media can play a special role in cases like the kidnapping of the Burnhams.

In the Presence of My Enemies is available at

Previous articles on the Burnhams' captivity are available at our Martin and Gracia Burnham: CT's Full Coverage page.