Thursday, July 29, 2004

Gracia returns

Avalanched by news stories on the State of the Nation Address delivered by Pres. Arroyo last Monday was the first brief news item on Gracia Burnham’s return to the country and her scheduled appearance in court today at Camp Bagong Diwa.

Sources were quoted as saying that Gracia’s testimony was facilitated by a mutual legal assistance treaty between the U.S. and the Philippines.

As most everyone knows, American missionary couple Gracia and Martin Burnham plus several others were taken hostage by the Abu Sayyaf, while they were on holiday at the Dos Palmas resort in Palawan in 2001. The hostage takers beheaded one of the hostages and kept the rest in the jungles of Mindanao for one year. During the rescue operation, Martin and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap were killed, Gracia was wounded but survived.

Gracia now returns in the wake of a different kind of hostage crisis which involved one of our OFWs in Iraq and put the name Angelo de la Cruz on everybody’s lips. Gracia returns as Philippine and US troops start anti-terror war games in North Cotabato and in a rebel area at that. The locals are apprehensive.

`In the Presence of My Enemies,’’ the book Gracia wrote (with Dean Merrill), is a gripping account of the hostages’ ordeal in the Mindanao jungle while in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf. The book’s title is a line from Psalm 23, the shepherd psalm.

Gracia offers her reflections at the end of her book. She lets it all out. She deals with questions that are hard to answer, questions about prayer and faith. Gracia does not rage against heaven, but one could sense that feeling of being let down at some point. Yes, she survived, but Martin died.

I am sure many of us have experienced feeling let down and asking, what was it all for—the prayers, the pleadings, the believing?

But a denouement must come at some point. It is the seemingly pointless waiting that is agonizing. And things do not always end well.

For those who have not read Gracia’s book, here is a portion from Chapter 22 (Reflections) that might resonate with your ``let-down’’ experience.

``We were sitting on the ground during a rest break after hard hiking, listening to gunfire in the distance, and I was moaning, ``We’re totally forgotten. Nobody’s going anything to help us. Nobody’s even praying for us anymore.’

``My good husband replied, `Gracia, you are wrong. Many people are still praying for us. And even if everyone has stopped, our two dads are carrying on, I promise you. Remember what James 5 says about the prayer of a righteous man? We have two of the best.’

``He was exactly right, of course. The prayers of Paul Burnham and Norvin Jones alone would have met the requirements of this verse.

``Obviously, the answer lies not in the number of prayers or the particular wording used in those prayers. There has to be another factor in the mix.

``So what is it?

``I can’t claim to know for sure. There is an awful lot of Scripture that still mystifies me. During one of my many conversations with God in the jungle, I remember arguing with him about John 15:7, one of the verses I had memorized as a child: `If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.’

``I said, Lord, you would have an excuse if the verse included an extra clause…`ye shall ask what ye will, and if I agree with you, it shall be done unto you.’ But it does not say that!

``These things are hard for all of us. And in my case, it’s not just an academic exercise. I lost a husband over this.’’

Ah, what the mind and the heart have to go through during dark moments. What more when the captors kept greeting one another with words of peace and uttered the name of Allah at every turn? Gracia took note of all these.

``Perhaps it’s useful to notice that while the verse in James says fervent prayer `availeth much.’ It does not say it `availeth everything.’ Why?’’

Gracia answers that herself by saying that the Abu Sayyaf and all of us still retain the power of personal choice, of standing against God’s will. God could have fired heavenly lasers into the brains of Janjalani, Musab and Sabaya, Gracia argues, but that would be making them like puppets.

``I find it helpful to think about this analogy: Asking God to free us despite the Abu Sayyaf’s rigidity was perhaps like ordering the US Marines to come get us despite a prohibition in the Philippine constitution against foreign troops ever again fighting on Philippine soil. This is rock-solid law born out of four centuries of colonialism, first under Spain, then the United States.

``Since returning home, I’ve learned just how badly the American military wanted to launch a special operation for us! I’ve been told how they sat around conference tables in Zamboanga City just itching for the opportunity. They would, of course, have done the job differently. They would have moved into action at, say, two in the morning instead of two in the afternoon, wearing night-vision goggles and all the rest to snatch us out safely.’’

I ask: Would the Americans have done it better? I doubt it.

Some people in America, Gracia says, ``want me to be offended and angry with the government for not doing this or that.’’ But Gracia is far from the depressed, morose and whimpering widow. She wants the world to know that. She recently founded the Martin and Gracia Burnham Foundation that supports missions around the world.

One day, as Gracia looked up into the wide Kansas sky, a deep happiness swept over her. And she heard herself saying out loud, ``Oh Martin—you were the best! You were the best.’’
Grace becomes Gracia.