Nearly 10 months ago, a small group of men from a rural Kansas church began meeting six mornings a week to pray for the release of two kidnaped missionaries from their hometown. They never imagined their prayers would be needed this long.

“The initial thought was, ‘This thing will be resolved in 30 days or so,’ ” says Robert Varner, pastor of Rose Hill Bible Church in Rose Hill, Kansas—the home church of hostages Martin and Gracia Burnham.

Instead, the eight men—among them Martin’s father, Paul—have met at 6 A.M. Monday through Saturday since last May, holidays included. They pray for 30 minutes each morning.

“We pray for their well-being and for their Christian testimony,” Varner says. “We pray that their ministry might be greater in spite of their situation.”

The Burnhams’ hostage crisis has turned into a lengthy waiting game. Stationed in the Philippines since 1985, the missionary couple was kidnaped May 27, 2001, while taking a rare overnight vacation on an island resort in the western Philippines. They were celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary (CT, Feb. 4, p. 24).

Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim terrorist group that says it is fighting for an independent state, has either killed or released for ransom 17 other hostages since last May. Only Martin, 42, Gracia, 43, and a Filipina nurse remain captive, constantly on the move through thick jungle terrain (see “Agency Disputes Rumors about Burnhams,” p. 32).

“It’s been up and down emotionally,” says Betty Jo Jones, Gracia’s mother. “So many times they tell us, ‘It’s going to be soon.’ ”

For family and friends, anxiety and disappointment build after proposed deadlines for the couple’s release continue to pass. Christmas, New Year’s, and the Burnhams’ birthdays were particularly difficult, says Oreta Burnham, Martin’s mother. “It was like a big hole.”

Jones says she worries mainly about whether the couple is malnourished. Abu Sayyaf is now confined to Basilan Island in the southern Philippines. In an effort to stay hidden from Philippine and U.S. troops, it has cut ties to outsiders who could provide food or supplies.

Jones, 73, of Cherokee Village, Arkansas, says she has sent dozens of packages to the State Department and various humanitarian aid groups, hoping they would somehow reach the couple. “I’m going to knock on as many humanitarian doors as I can find,” she says. “I want the Philippine government to know that we need their cooperation to keep them from starving.”

Times of Transition

Martin’s parents, Paul and Oreta Burnham, are missionaries themselves and had planned to return to the Philippines last May after a furlough. They received word of the kidnaping only three days before their scheduled departure.

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Now Paul, 67, and Oreta, 65, are living in Rose Hill (near Wichita) and caring for Martin and Gracia’s three children—Jeff, 15; Mindy, 12; and Zach, 11.

“We’re trying to meet the needs of our grandchildren—trying to perceive what their parents would want them to be doing. It’s taking some adjustment,” Oreta says. “They want help with their homework or with getting things off of the computer.”

The family’s regular routine includes attending Rose Hill Bible Church. Varner became pastor of the church only one month after Martin and Gracia were kidnaped. He has reached out to hurting church members, including Paul and Oreta Burnham.

“You just know when you go to church, you’ve got a lot of people with heavy hearts,” he says.

The Burnham family is widely known throughout the Wichita area. For the past 30 years, Paul and Oreta (and later Martin and Gracia) have received financial support from local congregations to fund their church-planting work in the Philippines.

“Everybody has a great sense of connection to them,” says Chuck Wilson, pastor of Wichita Bible Church. “We’ve taken meals, given bicycles, sponsored a prayer event.”

While Paul and Oreta remain thankful for the support, they admit that looking after their grandchildren has been a challenge. “It’s been awhile since we had kids this young,” Oreta says.

Even as they long for their parents, the children stay busy—freshman football for Jeff last August, and now Saturday basketball games for Mindy.

The children are very weary, Jones says. Jeff is particularly burdened. Varner says Jeff has remarked that his mother is not a lover of the outdoors and that she suffers migraine headaches.

“He’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders,” Varner says. Oreta Burnham concurs.

“He’s a very deep thinker,” Oreta adds. “He feels a responsibility for his brother and sister. He’s asked before, ‘What are we going to do if they don’t come back?’ ”

In Need of a Miracle

Paul and Oreta Burnham have traveled to Washington on several occasions, pressuring Congress to push harder for the release of the hostages. While their efforts have drawn more attention to the cause, they say prayer is what matters most.

“We feel like God will release them in his time,” Paul says. “God is working his will out in this. His ways are not our ways. We trust in him.”

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Adds Jones, “The Lord is sustaining us—he’s using the prayers of God’s people to do that. I’ve been keeping a journal for Gracia and Martin about what things are going on here—who calls, who all is praying. It’s been a joy to do that. It makes me feel a little closer to them.”

In January, Paul and Oreta spoke with Heather Mercer, an American aid worker imprisoned last fall by the Taliban in Afghanistan. “She shared how she felt when she was being held captive,” Oreta says. “She felt strongly that it was because people were praying that she got out. She knows Martin and Gracia need a miracle.”

Hoping for that miracle, Paul and Oreta anticipate the day when they can return to their work in the Philippines. If Martin and Gracia are released, Oreta says, they would do the same. Martin is a pilot, while Gracia performs a variety of support roles.

“They have a heart for the Filipino people,” she says. “They would want to go back.”

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on our site today:

Agency Disputes Rumors about BurnhamsAll indications say the hostages are still being held captive in the jungles of Basilan Island.

New Tribes Mission Online has regular updates on the Burnhams.

For further developments on the Burnhams, see Christianity Today'sWeblog, The Wichita Eagle, Yahoo's full coverage and ABS-CBN News.

Christianity Today’s coverage of the Burnham kidnapping includes:

Missionary Couple Remains in LimboThe apparently poor condition of the Burnhams has given the case a new urgency. (Jan. 17, 2002)
Kidnapped Missionaries Reported SafeBut danger increasing for Burnhams—and for workers around the world. (June 26, 2001)
New Tribes Missionaries KidnappedMuslim rebels in Philippines threaten to kill Martin and Gracia Burnham and 18 others if military intervenes. (May 29, 2001)

According to The BBC, Abu Sayyaf ("Sword of God") has made an industry of kidnapping.

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