May 06, 2002 12:00 PM

Kansas is showing signs of spring, but inside Paul and Oreta Burnham’s Rose Hill home, Christmas presents sit in the living room, waiting to be opened. The gifts are for the Burnhams’ son Martin and his wife, Gracia, longtime missionaries to the Philippines, who were among 20 people snatched from a resort in the southern part of that nation last May by Muslim militants. “After Christmas the kids didn’t want to take the tree down,” says Paul, 68, of the kidnapped couple’s three children, who now live with him and Oreta. “So we’ve kept Martin and Gracia’s gifts in the corner.”

The Burnhams have also hung onto something even more precious—hope of Martin and Gracia’s safe return. The couple are being held in the mountainous jungle of Basilan Island by the Abu Sayyaf (Bearer of the Sword) Group, a separatist band with ties to al-Qaeda, which is demanding a $2 million ransom. Despite news reports that the U.S. government has facilitated a secret ransom payment of $300,000 and has stepped up rescue efforts in recent weeks, the Burnhams remain in very real danger. During the past year some of their fellow hostages have been ransomed, but 10 others have been beheaded. Among the latter was the only other U.S. citizen, 40-year-old Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif. (A Filipina nurse remains captive along with the Burnhams.)

U.S. State Department officials say they are working with the Philippine government to locate and rescue the hostages and have sent some 1,200 U.S. troops, including 160 Special Operations soldiers, to join the search. The pair’s family just prays that time is on their side. In November video footage of the couple, disease and a sparse diet had taken an obvious toll on Martin, now 42, and his equally gaunt wife, 43, once famous among friends for her cooking and good humor. Says Oreta Burnham, 65, of her grandchildren’s reaction to the clip: “Mindy made a comment, ‘If they hadn’t told me that was Daddy, I wouldn’t have recognized him.’ ”

The kids—Jeffrey, now 15, Mindy, 12, and Zachary, 11—were upset to hear their parents, on the move constantly to avoid pursuers, discuss how they’d been marched in darkness at gunpoint through rugged, snake-infested terrain. Martin has been wounded by shrapnel, and whenever there is gunfire, says Gracia, “we always look at each other, and I tell Martin, ‘I want you to know that I love you before I die.’ ”

Such sentiments offer some comfort to the senior Burnhams, who began the family tradition of spiritual service more than three decades ago, when they became missionaries in the Philippines for the Florida-based New Tribes Mission. Four of the five children they raised there followed their path, including Martin, the oldest, a pilot who transported staff and supplies around the country for the mission.

It has also helped, the older Burnhams say, to hear accounts from released hostages about their time with the couple, who met at Calvary Bible College in Kansas City, Mo., and married 19 years ago. “They were always there to listen,” says Sheila Tabuñag, 25, a Filipina midwife released in November, who recalled how Martin tried to raise the captives’ spirits by warbling songs like “Release Me” by Engelbert Humperdinck. “It is my hope the Burnhams don’t meet the same fate as my brother,” says Alberto Sobero, 31, of Guillermo, who left behind four children. “Abu Sayyaf claim they’re fighting for independence, but really they’re nothing but a kidnap gang.”

The Burnham family has not heard from the missionaries since receiving a letter dated Jan. 27, but, says Martin’s brother Doug, 40, “to the best of our knowledge Martin and Gracia are still safe. You just take it one step at a time.” For the Burnhams this means trying to get the children back to what Oreta calls “some kind of normalcy,” with soccer for Mindy and football for the boys.

Oreta and her husband believe that Martin and Gracia’s shared faith will see them through. That and their determination to see their kids again. “They’re very firm in the fact that God gave them the children to raise,” Oreta says, “and they don’t feel like their mission is accomplished yet.”

Pam Lambert

Liza Hamm in Rose Hill, Karen Emmons in Bangkok, Nelly Sindayen in Basilan, Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles and Andrea Billups in Washington, D.C.

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