One of the pleasures of contemporary journalism is that it brings together a writer and subject who at first seem an unlikely pair. In this case the pairing is of poet and journalist Eliza Griswold with Gracia Burnham, missionary to the Philippines and former captive of Abu Sayyaf rebels, whose husband was shot to death during a rescue that saved Gracia.
Other than describing Gracia Burnham as a “48-year-old pixie with blonde highlights” who was “dreamily eating cereal in front of the early-morning news,” Griswold mostly stays out of the way and lets Burnham’s pathos-laden story speak for itself. Here’s a passage that touches on the indignities of being kidnapped and on Burnham’s efforts to live by Jesus’ teaching of “Love your enemies”:
Gracia attended a senior-citizen Bible study at the First Baptist Church in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, where she’d been invited to speak.
Fifteen frosted-haired ladies, some wearing sweaters decorated with hollyhocks, gasped as Gracia pulled a piece of stiff batik fabric from a Voice of the Martyrs white plastic shopping bag. Using her teeth, Gracia showed the class how she’d wrapped the fabric, called a malong, around her to make a changing room and a bathroom. The toilet was a theme of the weekend. “The first few times I made a mess of it and had to wait until I got to the next river to wash it,” she said.
“You’ve washed it since you’ve come out of the jungle,” one woman said firmly. Gracia shook her head. “If I did, it might fall apart.” There was another gasp.
She then showed the ladies how the fabric served as a blanket, a backpack, and even, on one occasion, a stretcher for a 14-year-old Abu Sayyaf member named Ahmed. At first, she had loathed Ahmed for hoarding food when she had none, throwing stones at her while she bathed — fully clothed — in the river, and pushing her along the trail saying “faster, faster.” As she and Martin slowly starved, Gracia prayed to find a way to love Ahmed.
One day, he was injured in a firefight and soiled himself. Gracia could see he was mortified. Thinking of her own son, Zach, who was about the same age, she took Ahmed’s clothes to the river to wash them. There, she was filled with love. The last time Gracia saw Ahmed, who had been carried wounded through the jungle in the malong, like a sling, he had gone stark raving mad and was tied by the hands and feet to the walls of a hut in the southern Philippines. Someone had stuffed a sock in his mouth to keep him from screaming. She wondered aloud to the Bible study class where Ahmed was now — still crazy, perhaps, or pushing another hostage up another steep mountain path. Or, most likely, he had died and gone to hell.
Two minor style matters: Few evangelical Christians would describe themselves as “deciding at an early age to become an evangelical Christian,” but simply deciding to give their hearts to Jesus or to become Christians. And I think it would be news to George W. Bush that Franklin Graham is his personal pastor.
Griswold does not follow through on two interesting threads in her narrative. First she mentions Mercy Grace, one of three Mennonite teenagers who have traveled from Kentucky to meet Burnham, whose story has inspired Mercy Grace to pursue a missionary calling. Mercy Grace provides two endearing remarks:
I asked Mercy Grace what she thought of dying for Christ and becoming a martyr. “It would be neat!” she said, grinning widely enough to show her braces. Her mother nudged her. She closed her mouth. “It would be a privilege,” she corrected herself.
Then she’s gone. We never see a description of her meeting her role model. Did she ask for an autograph? Kiss Burnham’s cheek? How did Burnham respond to her?
Just as baffling is this passage, which follows on Burnham’s description of her young tormentor, Ahmed:
After Gracia finished speaking, she and I went out into the church’s hallway. “You know I don’t only think that Abu Sayyaf is going to hell,” she said, fixing me with her fierce and loving dark blue eyes. I understood that she was talking about me. For Gracia, absolute salvation is just that: absolute.
After a narrative free of any conflict between Burnham and Griswold, suddenly this appears? Further, from being fixed by Burnham’s “fierce and loving dark blue eyes,” Griswold is able to discern what Burnham was thinking, and even gain absolute insight into her steel-trap absolutist worldview? I’ve been on the receiving end of glares and menacing looks over the years, but if someone I was interviewing suddenly alluded to where I was likely to spend eternity, I would consider a few follow-up questions in order.