Breakfast with Gracia Burnham

by Angie Washington on March 9, 2013

Gracia Burnham and me at IHOP standing conveniently in front of the globe

I arrived at the restaurant way too early and waited in the foyer Wednesday morning.  Part of me still expected her to show up with an entourage.  A driver and bodyguard at least!  She is that much of a rock star to me.

Over a decade ago Gracia Burnham, author of ‘In the Presence of My Enemies’, became a widowed mother of three after 16 years of missionary service in the Philippines. Her husband was killed after they both spent a year in captivity in the jungle.

Now she was having breakfast with me. Wow! She is so much more wonderful in real life than I had imagined in my mind. Can you believe it? So sweet, kind, humble, gentle, smiley, and peaceful. And very short!

I asked if I could blog about our chat and she graciously agreed.

Q: This is my favorite quote from the book –

Because the Abu Sayyaf — and all of us — still retain the power of personal choice, the option of standing stubbornly against the will of God. And that obstinate stance is, apparently, something an almighty God is not willing to bulldoze. Of course, he could have fired heavenly lasers into the brains of Janjalani and Musab and Sabaya, forcing them to wake up one morning and say, “Okay, Martin and Gracia, this has been long enough. Feel free to hike off whenever you like.” But that would have made them puppets instead of independent human beings with free will of their own, for which they will be eternally responsible.

In this section you give some vivid imagery of who God is not. He is not a bulldozer, not a sharpshooter, and not a puppet-master.  Could you give me an image of who God is to you?

Gracia:

God herds me. I see God like a herder behind and around some sheep and they are all milling around and God has his arms out and they are being herded by him. God as my leader? No, I don’t see God out front leading or guiding. God is my herder.

Q: Do you miss living overseas? I’m sorry, people probably ask you that all the time.

Gracia:

I don’t get asked that very often. People assume that I am content and happy to be in the United States. And there is a chosen contentment. But I very much miss living overseas. I would much rather be in the Philippines.

Q: What new trends do you see in this generation of missionaries who are just getting started out as compared to when you began as a missionary over two decades ago?

Gracia:

What I see in today’s missionary is a strong emphasis on safety and comfort. And who am I to say that making a safe and healthy home is not the way to go? But it is a trend. The missionaries going now are talking about the big house they are going to have and where it is going to be and how it is going to be better than the standard of living of the people they are ministering to. Whereas, years ago, the idea was to go to the people and if all they had was one white t-shirt to wear then you wore one white t-shirt. Maybe you had five white t-shirts that you rotated. But the people only ever saw you in one white t-shirt.

Another thing I see happening in the States is the efforts of the church have shifted. Now, all the focus is on getting people on short term trips. I sat in on the board meeting of a group of churches as they discussed their strategy for missions. I had to bite my tongue when they said that the whole of what they were going to do was try and get everyone in their congregation to go serve for a week or two on a short trip. Where is the part where we teach children about the people of the world? When do we pray with the young people so they can ask God if they are called to be a missionary? When do we say to a child who feels called to the mission field, “Yes, okay, we will train you, and pray with you, and spiritually prepare you for a life of sacrifice and simplicity”?

Yes, the simple lifestyle. I don’t see as much simplicity in today’s missionary. The focus is on safety and comfort. Before, the focus was on sacrifice and simplicity. Different lifestyles. We are in different times, so there are different focuses.

——————————–

Discussion question:

What pros and cons do you see in the two different missions focuses Gracia highlights? 1. Sacrifice and Simplicity 2. Safety and Comfort

 – Angie Washington, missionary living in Bolivia, South America

blog: angiewashington.com twitter: @atangie work blog: House of Dreams Orphanage

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Click here to hear the back story of when Graica Burnham called me, me?!?, on the phone: A Call from Gracia Burnham.

Related links: The Changing Face of Missions – – Short Term Missions and a Church in Haiti – – A Case for Short Term Missions

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About Angie Washington

Co-Founder, Editor of this collaborative blog site: A Life Overseas
  • E.N.

    Safety is an elusion and is not part of the equation of completing the great commission. I honestly do not think that those seeking safety and comfort will last very long overseas. It is too hard, stressful and painful. I think Gracia is spot on that the American church needs to train and prepare young people for a life of suffering if they want to be missionaries.

    • I hear ya, but somewhat disagree. It depends on the country and environment. But take a country like Thailand. There are many expats who are not even Christian who live comfortably there and don’t go home. I would say a large percentage of missionaries while they do a lot of good, they don’t get out in the dirt and the mud and regularly dine with the people and live their lifestyle, and so they fail to reach them at their level. But they don’t actually pack up their bags and go home.But again, the more remote, the harder it would be to live the “safe” comfortable lifestyle.

      • E.N.

        You’re right and I was thinking about my specific context. In the end, it is very hard to judge one person to the next, even in the same city, because every person, family and ministry is different.

    • Dalaina May

      Hmmm, No. As a mother, I totally disagree. While I would likely make very different choices and take many more risks as a single or as a wife without children, I will unapologetically NEVER sacrifice my children’s safety on the altar of ministry. Yep, that means that there are walls around my home and that I don’t allow just anyone access into their lives. It means that they have better food, mosquito nets, and medical care that many locals do not. It means that I don’t allow them to play unsupervised or spend time in a local’s home without my husband’s or my presence. Perhaps this makes ministry slower or less efficient, but I would much rather reach the end of my ministry with my children healthy and whole in body and spirit than to require them to pay the price for my enthusiasm for ministry. My call as a mother supersedes any call to missions, and pity be on the parent who forgets this truth.

      • Hi Dalaina May… that is a lovely name, by the way.

        I love all the practical parenting advice you provided here. So great to be in an age that we can take these protective measures. I think any responsible parent would agree with you.

        It is interesting that you bring up the speed and efficiency of ministry in relation to your chosen parenting style. Good things to think about as one moves forward in what they feel God has called them to do.

    • Hello E.N. Thanks for weighing in on this conversation. I agree that the missionary life is very hard, stressful, and painful. I honestly don’t know that I would have taken this journey if I would have been able to comprehend the magnitude of difficulties that awaited us. I am not sure Gracia would have either, and all she did was go on vacation. So I really don’t know how the church can prepare young people in the department of suffering, or even if they should if they could. I also agree that safety is an illusion. So many things to ponder as we all go forward following Christ. Again, thanks for your comments.

  • I think she is dead on the spot. I think if we are to reach people, we must do so at their level, and that really means living among them rather than separate. And I have noticed that so many missionaries do eat and live separately 99% of the time. Popular cities even have missionary neighborhoods. And, well, the locals express a lot of bitterness towards this. They say to me, “why are missionaries so selfish? They won’t even bring snacks with them to language school and eat with us.”

    But I don’t want to pass judgment on these people either. (1) Everyone isn’t doing the same task on the field but (2) Sometimes space is good. For example, my first two years in the field I did not understand why the missionaries in the city were so crowded together. I didn’t understand why they ate as much western food as they did. I did not understand why their kids weren’t learning to speak the language. But then after two years, I suddenly, well, I understood. The locals were always begging me for money. The locals needed something from me constantly in a small town. They were extremely intolerant if I skipped church (even on my birthday!!!!). Then I got it. If I went to a missionary church, the locals wouldn’t know if I skipped or not. If I ate separate, I could do my own thing. If I had a house away from things, I could breathe and rejuvenate.

    In other words, city and country missionaries can be very different, but its not my place to judge. (They could be like Laura’s husband and doing undercover work for all I know.)

    • I like your comment about Matt doing undercover work. Yes! That is spot on! Who are we to judge others? Although, I do believe it is 100% necessary to take these considerations before the Lord in regards to our own heart and our own motivations. Thanks for your thoughtful response!

  • Alana

    We are working in a rural part of India and due to safety issues and government etc we have chosen to work our projects while living in Australia. It is not safe at all for us to live there and we cannot gain permission to set ourselves up there. It may seem like taking the easy way out however we have three small children whose needs dk matter. I think this issue is just something that is different to every individual and their really is no right or wrong way to do missions. The single person may be able to let go of comfort and safety while the family with children needs to consider safety.but at the and of the day if the gospel is being preached and people are being loved does it really matter?

    • Hi Alana! I love your final question: If the gospel is being preached and people are being loved does it really matter? This is actually a very good follow up question you bring to the table. What matters, when it is all said and done, really? Wish we could sit down over a cup of tea and talk about it. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • AnneJ

    Thank you, I really appreciated this!

  • with that question, there are so many things that come to mind… if either were to become my primary missions focus, i believe i would be sinning. my missions focus has to remain God glorified… i decrease so that He increases – and that is battle enough right there.

    i know some amazing missionaries, today, who live lives of sacrifice and simplicity, out in the village (or the jungle or…), in community with the people they’ve come to serve and in so doing totally bring glory to God and point people towards Him. but it is also not hard to imagine those who do so for all the kudos and recognition they receive from man. i know missionaries whose are deeply concerned with safety and comfort – in their lives but also in the lives of those they strive to serve and in that, improve quality of life and introduce them to Jesus. i also recognize that safety and comfort – particularly when it come to my children, is always a huge temptation or distraction from ministry and following God with my whole heart.

    i wish it was as simple as a matter of focus – but my focus wavers all the time and then God also changes direction with the opportunities He places in lives. one of the veteran misso couples from where we are – came back in the 1950s and raised their 4 kids here – they said they think it is harder and harder for younger generations to head to the mission field because although in most places in the world, things are “improving” in some ways, the gap between all that is available and the focus on “me” while helping in a way that doesn’t cause too much discomfort in the western world is actually making the disparity between the two greater, if that makes sense.

    mostly, i’m thankful that God, in His grace, works in and through us – even with our differing and sometimes misplaces focuses.

    by the way – i read Gracia’s book a few years back – and she’s one of my real life heroes, too! so neat that you had the opportunity to meet her!

    • Hi Richelle! How are ya?

      You know, I really like this line you wrote: i know missionaries whose are deeply concerned with safety and comfort – in their lives but also in the lives of those they strive to serve and in that, improve quality of life and introduce them to Jesus.

      Yes! I have thought about that before. If all we do is be sick and grumbly all the time what good does that do for the community? So there has to be a part of us that values good living, not only for ourselves but also for the people around us. Otherwise what’s the point?

      I also like that you wrapped your comment in the truth that anything and everything we do needs to point back to God. Amen!

      I am glad to know we share a common hero 🙂

  • I wonder if with our increasing technology and travel abilities, if the missionary lifestyle doesn’t appeal to more people b/c it IS easier. Maybe 40 years ago, leaving family meant really not seeing them for 5 years and only sending letters, whereas now, it is much more convenient to live overseas . . . meaning that more people are willing to try it. Thus, you get more people who are perhaps drawn to adventure more than “hard core” missionary lifestyles? Just a thought.

    And wow– So neat that you got to meet her Angie! I can’t wait to hear more! What a brave lady with an incredible story . . . .

    • She’ll be the first to tell you that she is not brave. During our talk she said more than once, “I am not gifted. God has not given me many gifts.” Then towards the end of our time together she said, “I am a plodder. God made me a plodder. So you know what I do? I plod. And so I will just keep plodding.” I love that! Personally, I agree with you that she is brave, so very brave. And, according to her in her own words, bravery means plodding along; just taking the next step in front of you.

      • i love this comment because it speaks to the all sufficient grace God provides for each moment to those He has called… He hasn’t asked me to walk the road that He traveled with Gracia, so it is easy to read amazing woman… but more accurate to read amazing God gracing and empowering a godly woman. and i’m pretty sure that she’d want us to read the second. when we recognize and acknowledge that we aren’t traveling a particular path alone because we are walking with God Himself, then bravery isn’t the issue – trust is.

  • I was fascinated to read this post, thanks. I have tracked with the Burnham’s story ever since their kidnapping. I was in Manila at the time with my parents. We were booked into the same resort down south that the Burnham’s were taken from two days later than the kidnapping occurred and I’ve periodically visited her website since to catch a glimpse of how the family is faring. Don’t have a good answer to your question tonight (pregnancy brain) but will continue to ponder.

    • Hi Lisa!

      You were booked into the same resort?!?! Wow. That is surreal. Did you know about the kidnapping at the time? So did some of the Burnhams story influence “My Hands Came Away Red”?

      Bless your sweet pregnancy brain! I loved that part of being pregnant – – blissful, forgetful, let’s just all go take a nap, brain. (hugs!)

      • Oh yes. It was all over the local and international news. We cancelled our trip :). And as for “let’s all go take a nap” I really wish that line would work on my 18 month old little boy!

  • tony and amber elswick

    I am with you she is awesome. What a testimony of God’s grace and faithfulness.—AmberE

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  • This part really hit home to me and I can really relate to it. Thanks for posting this:

    Q: Do you miss living overseas? I’m sorry, people probably ask you that all the time.
    Gracia: I don’t get asked that very often. People assume that I am content
    and happy to be in the United States. And there is a chosen contentment.
    But I very much miss living overseas. I would much rather be in the
    Philippines.

    This part also impacted me and gives much food for thought to chew on in the local church. Thanks:

    Gracia: Another thing I see happening in the States is the efforts of the church
    have shifted. Now, all the focus is on getting people on short term
    trips. I sat in on the board meeting of a group of churches as they
    discussed their strategy for missions. I had to bite my tongue when they
    said that the whole of what they were going to do was try and get
    everyone in their congregation to go serve for a week or two on a short
    trip. Where is the part where we teach children about the people of the
    world? When do we pray with the young people so they can ask God if they
    are called to be a missionary? When do we say to a child who feels
    called to the mission field, “Yes, okay, we will train you, and pray
    with you, and spiritually prepare you for a life of sacrifice and
    simplicity”?

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