Frontlines of Ministry: Heather Mercer & Dayna Curry

Stephanie Ottosen

This month people everywhere will remember the events of September 11, 2001.   Christians will join with the rest of the world in reflection and reverence as we grieve again and search for some meaning in the midst of the tragedy.  


The search for meaning should remind us that the terrorist attacks of one year ago are only a part of a larger picture.   The struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between God and Satan is bigger than even the global political, religious, and economic context.


We as believers are part of this struggle.   We are in the battle every day wherever we live.   Some of us, however, will find ourselves on occasion at the front lines of the battle.   Such was the case for Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry one year ago.


Unanswered Questions


Many are familiar with their story.   The two were serving as missionary aid workers in Afghanistan until their arrest by the Taliban on Aug. 3, 2001.   They were still imprisoned on September 11 and during the initial phase of the war against the Taliban in that country.   They were finally rescued and released from prison on November 15 and subsequently returned to the United States.


Heather and Dayna’s story has pulled them into the media spotlight.   In some cases, however, the “light” has left some questions.  NBC’s “Dateline” ran the story June 11, 2002.   Over the course of an hour, the reporter questioned Mercer and her pastor, Rev. Jimmy Siebert of Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas, about why Mercer went to work as an evangelist in a country with strict laws against proselytizing. T he reporter further questioned their integrity by implying that the women were sent under false pretenses to get into the country, and also raised suspicions about the effectiveness of Curry and Mercer’s ministry by showing footage of the women’s Afghani home containing Christian literature that could have potentially put Afghanis in danger if caught with the religious material.


While the “Dateline” editors gave ample response time to Mercer and her pastor, their rebuttals to the reporter’s queries were disappointing.   Certainly, they communicated a sincere desire to serve the Afghani people; but, to some, their ministry motivation was still unclear.   Were they mindful of the culture and sensitive to the Taliban laws that would put the Afghanis in a precarious position, or did they just want to see results?


Revealing the Truth


What I discovered after talking to Mercer and Curry was another side of the story.   According to Mercer and Curry, and contrary to popular opinion, most Afghani people love Americans.


“I’m speaking generally--there is a minority that would be antagonistic--but they [Afghanis] are so thankful that America came and got rid of the Taliban,” Mercer says.   “I’ve heard stories from friends who have gone back that everywhere they go people will say, ‘We are so glad your country came.   They were the only ones who would get rid of the Taliban.’   I think for the first time in a long time, there’s a bit of hope in the Afghan heart that freedom might really come.”


Mercer adds that part of the reason Afghanis are so supportive of America is because of the tremendous aid the U.S. government has afforded the people via food and housing, going on to explain that four out of every five women who are widows often have to beg to provide for themselves.   So, it would not be accurate to conclude that Mercer and Curry could not be effective merely because they are Americans.


Another possible misconception is that they, as women, were ineffective due to their lowered social status.   Since the attacks, we have viewed a good deal of video footage on the abuse women have suffered since the beginning of Taliban rule.   Images include everything from being forced to cover themselves with burquas to giving up their jobs and being beaten publicly by any man who feels they are breaking social laws.   However, “Being [an American] woman and being single, you have the freedom to come and go and interact and get involved in their lives in a way that many men and women with families wouldn’t have,” Mercer counters.  


Finally, Mercer addressed their role as missionaries in a foreign country.   From “Dateline’s” portrayal, it appeared as though Mercer and Curry disregarded the culture and cared only about converting as many people as possible to Christianity, throwing caution to the wind, freely showing the Jesus film and handing out literature.   According to the two women, this was not the case.


When Mercer left for Afghanistan, she planned at least a three-year commitment; and Curry, who had previously lived there 22 months, returned home just long enough to tell her supporters she planned on another two years.   “We wanted to become a part of who they are, their culture, and their way of life in the context of living out our personal faith in Christ,” Mercer says.   Curry concurs:   “I knew that I could go and love the poor and pray, but I never knew if I was ever going to actually see any results from those prayers.   Of course, I looked for opportunities, but there were wide open doors where they [would] flat out ask you what you believe or if you were a Christian or if Christians pray, etc.” 


Curry and Mercer say they were not openly and dangerously evangelizing, and Curry explains that they answered questions and talked about their faith when asked and only handed out literature when the risks had been thoroughly discussed.   “Before I would give literature, they would have to ask a lot of questions and be really serious,” says Curry.   “You wouldn't just give it to them [carelessly], [but] if they’re willing to take the risk, then I was as well,” she adds.


It is clear that these were two people with a country and a people on their hearts.   They wanted to serve from pure motivations and sincere humility.   It’s no wonder the Taliban didn’t like them.   The Christian kindness, friendship, and hope they extended to those around them was much more powerful than the Taliban could ever hope to be.


Sharing Their Story


The story of Mercer and Curry’s experience in Afghanistan, from their ministry to their imprisonment and release as well as their testimonies, are written in the co-authored June 11-released Prisoners of Hope: The Story of Our Captivity and Freedom in Afghanistan (Waterbrook/Doubleday).   An accompanying live worship album, Prisoners of Hope: Songs of Freedom (M2.0), released this month and is composed of songs Curry and Mercer sang while working and imprisoned in Afghanistan, with some original cuts penned by Curry and another aid worker.


Curry, who had previously served as a worship leader for the Afghani aid workers, says she was encouraged by a fellow Australian missionary to write songs from the experiences and Scriptures God had given them.   “My Times Are in Your Hands” comes from Psalm 31, she explains, when David’s enemies are coming against him.   “We had prayed that [verse] in several of our prayer meetings,” Curry says.   “It was at that point that everything had fallen apart:   our case was dropped, our lawyer couldn’t come in, we didn’t have communication with the outside and basically, we were hostages because we weren’t on trial any more.”


“I have lost most everything/All my plans have fallen through/The future is unclear; I’m not sure what to do…/  Lord I trust in You and I say You are my God/And I say once again to You/My time is in Your hands.”