A better title: Gracia’s love and faith
The third part of my report-review of "In the Presence of My Enemies," Gracia Burnham’s deeply affecting memoir of her year in captivity, was published on May 11, 2003.
THE BOOK’S clearest-sounding theme, from first page to last, is Gracia’s love for her husband Martin, a man who lived his faith.
Despair tempted Gracia Burnham more than once. Her ordeal at the hands of the Abu Sayyaf, which lasted one year and 11 days, led her to the edge several times. Each time, she recalls in various passages in "In the Presence of My Enemies," she was pulled from the brink either by the steady counsel of her husband Martin or the promises of Scripture she had memorized, or the power of Christian hymns she was prompted to sing.
"Music had always been such a big part of my life," Gracia writes, recalling the time the hostages spent in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front camp in Basilan, when in the relative peace she had found herself on a three-day crying jag.
"Now I found that I could sing songs like ‘I sing the Mighty Power of God’ and the majestic anthems. But I refused to sing ‘O Love that Will Not Let Me Go.’ I was really mad at God."
The "turning point" came by the "beautiful river" that ran beside the MILF site [Erelei Sumisip, Basilan — ed.], when in the depths of "overwhelming" despair she decided "to believe what God’s Word says to be true whether I felt it was or not."
In the chapter entitled "A Song for the Jungle," Gracia remembers when she and Ediborah Yap, the head nurse kidnapped from the Lamitan hospital, taught Angie Montealegre, a hostage abducted from the Dos Palmas resort, the hymn "How Great Thou Art."
The song, like Psalm 8’s praise of nature, spoke of God revealing himself in the universe he had created. Its verses sang of wandering through the woods, hearing the birds in the trees, looking down from mountaintops, seeing the stars in the sky. "I’m sure the songwriter wasn’t thinking of Basilan Island when he penned those words. But living in the jungle under the open sky, we could certainly identify with them," she writes.
"We sang this song every day, sometimes several times a day." Scripture, too.
Sorely missed Bible
The Burnhams suffered sorely from not having a Bible around. Gracia coped with the loss in the same way other persons in captivity in other parts of the world, in other times, had dealt with the loss of freedom: she plumbed her memory. "Another thing that helped my mental outlook, if not my body, was remembering Scripture I had memorized long ago," she writes.
One day, having found a stray piece of paper, she wrote down "all the promises of God" she could recall. She came up with 18 passages or so. "What a comfort it was to review those eternal truths. In the face of the most dreadful circumtances, these were the words of the One I could depend on."
Several weeks later, on Dec. 23, 2001, the Burnhams received a packet of letters. The New Tribes Mission, the organization Martin worked for as a missionary pilot, had prepared a box that, its inventory list declared, contained food items like cheese and soup and diversions like magazines. The Abu Sayyaf pilfered everything, [except] the letters — and the inventory list.
One of the letters was a true godsend. "A two-and-a-half-page, single-spaced letter" from her niece Sarah "included long quotations" from the Christian Scripture: passages from Ephesians 1, James 4, Colossians 1, Philippians 1, and so on. "This became our ‘Bible’-we read it every day," she writes.
On Christmas morning, to go with the holiday breakfast (plain rice), she treated Martin by reciting parts of the Christmas narrative from the gospel of Luke, "which I had memorized as a kid."
In June 2002, when she was finally out of the jungle and recovering in the US embassy in Manila from the botched rescue mission that killed Martin and Ediborah and wounded her in the leg, she saw a Gideons Bible. "What a privilege to hold this book in my hands once again!" she writes. The first thing she read was Psalm 59: "Deliver me from my enemies, O God; protect me from those who rise up against me."
A nurse entered her room and told her to go back to sleep. It was only six in the morning. She tried to comply, but after a few minutes switched on the lamp on her bedside table again. This time, she writes, she read "from my favorite passage" in 2nd Corinthians, part of which went: "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day."
The title of Gracia’s book, co-written by Dean Merrill of the International Bible Society, is taken from possibly the most famous psalm of all: Psalm 23, which in its popular translation begins "The Lord is my shepherd: there is nothing I shall want."
The choice of title marks the book as a Christian’s story. The hostages’ horrifying ordeal at the hands of the Abu Sayyaf, who used the Koran to justify their actions when it was convenient, is framed by the older, Christian storyline. The experience is both a test of faith, and proof of it.
In many passages, Gracia writes about how Martin’s example of composure, his belief that things will eventually turn our right — "I don’t intend to make a career of this hostage thing," he told her once — helped lift her spirits and kept her going.
Martin also made Gracia realize they weren’t making an outward journey alone; their ordeal had given them a chance to make discoveries about themselves and the faith that sustained them.
Early in 2002, Martin told her. "You know, here in the mountains I’ve seen hatred; I’ve seen bitterness; I’ve seen greed; I’ve seen covetousness; I’ve seen wrongdoing." Gracia nodded in agreement, thinking he was talking about their captors. "I’ve seen each of these things in myself," Martin continued. "The Lord has been showing me how incredibly sinful I am."
Gracia did nor expect that, but her own experience had already prepared her for it. A few months before that talk with Martin, in that [MILF] place they had come to call "Camp Contentment," she had realized that growing hunger had made her "jealous and covetous." She writes: "I realized that which everything is stripped away from you and you have nothing, you find out what you really are down deep inside."
At other times, Martin’s simple faith shone in his humor. He sang funny songs, he rehearsed stand-up comedy lines. Because at one stretch their rice had tasted like soap (the water for cooking had come from same part of the river they used for bathing), he and Gracia shared sudsy jokes, "Hmmm — this is very good rice, with just a hint of Sunsilk!"
During gunbattles, he would buck her up, speaking directly. "Gracia, this isn’t the time to cry. You’re wasting energy. You need to get a hold of yourself-you can cry later, okay?" Gracia writes.
On several occasions, she told Martin she couldn’t go on. Martin would say: "Garcia, you can survive. What do you think the kids would say if you could pick up the phone and call them?"
He also advised her not to think long term. "Just keep walking until the next rest break." It was advice Gracia took to heart. Elsewhere in the book she writes: "My job was… to put one foot in front of the other, to stay alive one more day. We just kept going and praying that we could get back to our children."
In an unsent letter he had written to their children sometime in April 2002, almost a year since the kidnapping, Martin said: "I will say my faith has been strengthened. I think your mother’s has as well."
It is this gift of stronger faith, wrested from what the book makes clear was a brutal animal existence, that Gracia must have had at the back of her mind, when she chose the passage from Psalm 23 as her title. The full line runs: "You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies."
There were a few feasts in that year of famine, when sardines and rice were enough cause for excitement. But Gracia couldn’t have meant them. The "feast" that had been prepared in the full sight of their captors was a resilient faith — and a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.
"When you stop and think about it, the Abu Sayyaf are not the only ‘bad guys,’ are they?" she asks. "We all have pockets of darkness inside ourselves."