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Slain Missionary Is Mourned

Reaction: Relatives, friends pray for victim's wife, injured in the raid in which he was killed.

June 08, 2002|STEPHEN BRAUN and ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ROSE HILL, Kan. — For more than a year after Martin and Gracia Burnham's abduction by Philippine rebels, the couple's family and fellow missionaries awaited their freedom with fraying hope. On Friday, they mourned for Martin, prayed for Gracia and wondered why her freedom had come at a violent cost.

The slain man's grieving relatives came together in this tiny town 20 miles outside Wichita--pleading for strength from on high--while officials of the Burnhams' worldwide missionary order tried to find out how months of negotiations had collapsed in the chaotic firefight that killed Martin and Philippine nurse Deborah Yap and wounded Gracia.

"Things seemed to be really flat, nothing going on, and then this," said a shaken Dave Zelenak, resource director for the New Tribes Mission in Sanford, Fla. "We're all a little numb."

Neither the Burnham family nor New Tribes officials had had any warning, Zelenak said, that U.S.-trained Philippine troops were planning a quick strike to free the hostages. Mission officials had maintained close contact with U.S. and Philippine officials in recent months, Zelenak said, but only learned of the gun battle hours after the raid.

Paul and Oreta Burnham, the slain missionary's parents, were notified just after 3 a.m. in a phone call from Albert del Rosario, the Philippine ambassador to the U.S.

A short time later, the phone rang again. It was Gracia Burnham, calling from her hospital bed in the Philippines. She had minor leg injuries but was all right, she said. She couldn't wait to see her three children. The only thing to do now, she told her father-in-law, was pray.

In a routine they have followed most every morning for a bleak year, Paul and Oreta Burnham did just that, joining parishioners of the Rose Hill Bible Church for a 6 a.m. prayer circle. On Friday, instead of supplications for safety, the parents prayed for Martin's soul and Gracia's return to good health.

"We are disappointed, we are saddened," Pastor Robert Varner said. "It wasn't what we hoped for. But the fact is, there has been some closure to this."

Then Paul Burnham began the sad wait for his son's final trip home.

When he took Del Rosario's call Friday morning, "we thought maybe it could be good news," Burnham said. "We had hoped it would be a nice reunion, but we know that we'll have to wait for that reunion until we get to heaven."

He urged the Philippine government to continue military action to "take care of this Abu Sayyaf group." In the last two years, the Islamic terrorist organization has abducted 40 other foreigners and Filipinos, ransoming off many and beheading others.

Zelenak said that Martin Burnham, 42, a graduate of Calvary Bible College and the Wichita Aviation Education Center, was working in the Philippines as a missionary pilot. One of 150 New Tribes evangelists in that country, Burnham spent 17 years shuttling supplies and people to far-flung islands, Zelenak said. The Burnhams had lived full time in the country since 1986.

Like her husband, 43-year-old Gracia is a child of missionaries. Her sister, Mary Jones, told reporters Friday in Ohio that "it's a miracle that anyone survived a military rescue attempt. And it's a miracle that they survived for a year in barbaric captivity." Jones said she was planning to fly to Manila to join her sister.

Zelenak remembered Martin Burnham as "a good man" who recognized "that living in a remote, Third World country can be pretty dangerous." Martin and Gracia took precautions when they flew to Philippine islands where radical Islamic guerrillas have clashed with government troops since the 1970s, Zelenak said. But the couple apparently considered themselves in protected territory when they went to a resort on the Philippine island of Palawan in May last year. They were abducted, along with another American and 17 Filipinos, in a lightning raid by the Abu Sayyaf rebels. Californian Guillermo Sobero later was found beheaded.

"They were celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary in a place they were led to believe was safe," Zelenak said. "It wasn't considered a risky area, so when we heard what happened, we were all terribly shocked."

On Friday, the couple's children--Zach, 15, Mindy, 12, and Jeff, 11--were being driven back to Rose Hill by their maternal grandparents after a visit to Arkansas, as U.S. officials worked to organize a reunion with their mother in the Philippines. The children, who were born and raised in the Philippines, have lived with Paul and Oreta Burnham since the kidnapping.

As word spread in this town of 3,200, those with flags lowered them to half-staff and neighbors made their way to the Burnham home, filling it with flowers and erecting a makeshift memorial in the yard. Even after dark, mourners stopped to add more flowers, say a prayer, cry.

"I don't know them. I live in Wichita," said Brenda Wilson, 36, as she stood staring at the memorial. "I just wanted to come by. You don't have to know them to be sad."

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