I stared at the TV and fought back tears while watching an interview with American missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham, who were haggard, filthy and appeared to be disoriented.
The couple, who were missionaries in the Philippines, spent one night in 2001 at a resort to celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary. That evening, they were kidnapped by terrorists; and a year later, they were being dragged through the Philippine jungle.
Their captors had given a journalist rare access to interview the Burnhams. For the couple, it was an opportunity to show their family members they were still alive; for the terrorists, it was an opportunity to generate ransom money.
The Burnhams were despondent and appeared to believe they had been forgotten, that there was no hope that they would ever see their children again.
“We need someone to show some mercy,” Gracia pleaded. “This is no way to live. There is no way to take care of yourself. Last night, I woke up with severe chest pains, and there’s nothing you can do. You just lay there and you’re in pain. We have sores in our mouths because there’s no nutrition in the food we’re eating,” she said. “We have sores on our legs. Nobody cares about that here.”
I felt I had to do something to help and praying was all I could do. So I went to my room, got down on my knees and asked God to rescue the Burnhams and give them strength to keep going in the meantime. I also made a commitment to pray until they returned home.
Gracia needed me to pray when she felt hopeless and alone. I needed Gracia to remind me that even when my prayers feel dry and useless, God listens, God cares and God answers.
As the months went by, I was haunted by Gracia’s gaunt face and the sound of her quivering voice. It motivated me to pray, again and again, “Please God, please let them know we’re praying. Let them know we haven’t forgotten them.”
When I didn’t see anything in the news for a while, I made a simple request in addition to the first: that God would let me know what happened to them. But as time passed, my prayers became less frequent and more perfunctory. Even so, I figured that listless prayers were better than no prayers at all.
Six months after I began praying and 18 months after the Burnhams had been kidnapped, God answered the second prayer. I heard a news report on Christian radio that the Philippine army attempted to rescue the Burnhams, but only Gracia made it out alive. Martin died from three gunshots to the chest.
The news was bittersweet and strangely personal. Though I had never met the couple or their children, praying for them left me feeling like I had gotten to know them, that I had played a miniscule part in getting Gracia home.
One year later, I got a call from a local Christian bookstore. In my one visit to the store, I had apparently entered my name in a raffle and they drew it from the fishbowl. They wanted me to come in to claim my reward.
The young lady across the counter handed me a bundle which included a Christian CD and a hardbound book: In the Presence of My Enemies by Gracia Burnham. It was a full retelling of what had happened to her and Martin in the jungle. I didn’t even know she had written a book.
As I drove home, I marveled that God had seen fit — not only to let me know what became of the Burnhams — but to make sure I read Gracia’s own description of what they had survived. At home, I opened the book, and on the first page, Gracia wrote,
This book is dedicated to … you. If you prayed for Martin and me while we were in captivity — even once — then put your name here. It is because of your prayers that I came out alive and am able to tell the story. Likewise, I hope to become one who earnestly prays and cares for others who are hurting. We truly need each other, don’t we?
“Yes,” I thought to myself, as my eyes watered up, “we do.” Gracia needed me to pray when she felt hopeless and alone. I needed Gracia to remind me that even when my prayers feel dry and useless, God listens, God cares and God answers.