Funeral honors slain hostage's requests

Saturday, June 15, 2002

WICHITA, Kan. -- Slain missionary Martin Burnham was remembered at his funeral Friday as a faithful man who as a hostage in the Philippines shared his meager rations of dry rice with the militants who held him at gunpoint -- because they were hungry, too.

More than 2,000 mourners who came to the service -- or watched it live on their televisions across Kansas -- heard how each night before Burnham was handcuffed to a tree, Burnham made a point of thanking his captors.

His wife, Gracia, would later tell family members the militants were often just "little boys" with guns who often apologized for having to tie him.

Former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, Sen. Sam Brownback, Rep. Todd Tiahrt and other dignitaries attended the service at Central Christian Church.

The two-hour-long ceremony was punctuated by somber piano music and a slideshow chronicling his life. But there was laughter and even clapping as his friends shared memories and sang his favorite songs, among them a joyful rendition of "I'll Fly Away."

His funeral Friday came one week after the bloody Philippine rescue attempt survived by his wife.

On Thursday, Gracia Burnham -- still in a wheelchair after being shot during her rescue in the Philippines -- greeted mourners who filed past the coffin where the body of her husband lay. Friday, she bowed her head as Pastor Joe Wright led the audience in prayer.

Relatives' letters

Rev. Galen Hinshaw, Martin's uncle, read letters written from Burnham's relatives to him. One came from Burnham's daughter, Mindy, who wrote that he often sang to her, playfully inserting her name into the song's lyrics.

"My dad was the most generous person I have ever known," the 12-year-old wrote. "Even though we weren't a rich family, any time I would want or need anything, he did his best to get it for me."

In another letter, his 15-year-old son Jeff wrote how his father would always make time for him, and how he planned to teach him to fly. "I am going to miss our times together," he wrote.

In the weeks before his death, Burnham asked his wife that should he die as a hostage, he wanted his funeral to feature a sermon by Kansas City pastor Clay Bowlin, and a special song, "Ashokan Farewell."

Bowlin, senior pastor at Northwest Bible Church in Kansas City, went to school with Martin Burnham at Calvary Bible College in Kansas City in the early 1980s.

He told how people around the world prayed for the Burnhams' release, and how Gracia was to later tell him that God did just that: "He brought her home by helicopter and brought Martin by angels' wings."

Recalling how Burnham would be embarrassed by too much attention, Bowlin recalled how as a missionary pilot Burnham would bring mail, supplies and encouragement to other missionaries in remote tribes deep in the Philippines jungle.

"He was content being behind the scenes," Bowlin said during an emotional 30-minute sermon. "He made a difference in a quiet, faithful way."

Burnham's last words to the Rose Hill Bible Church where he spoke on May 23, 2001 -- just days before his return to the Philippines and his capture -- were printed on the funeral program: "I wasn't called to be a missionary; I wasn't called to the Philippines; I was just called to follow Christ; and that is what I'm doing."

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