JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–The air is thick and steamy inside the walls of the Afghanistan hospital and with temperatures of 115 degrees and more burning up the air outside, the smells of sweat, urine and death hang heavy around the emaciated and hurting children quietly suffering in the children’s ward. There is no air condition — no refrigeration for blood transfusions, and the mothers of these children try desperately to cool their little ones with homemade fans, holding them and comforting them as best they can.
It is the summer of 1998 and Heather Mercer is experiencing her first visit to the Middle East country on a short-term mission trip, and she is horrified by what she sees. A four-year old girl, skeleton-like from malnourishment since the beginning of her young life, stares blankly at her. The girl’s 17-year old mother picks the frail child up in her arms and lifts her to Heather’s face, her dark, troubled eyes posing the question — isn’t there anything you can do to help my baby?
“I remember looking at her and thinking that this can’t be real — this really happens to people?” said Mercer, as she and Dayna Curry shared with more than 1500 people in a chapel service and luncheon at Union University how their heart breaks for the Afghan people.
Curry, 30, and Mercer, now 24, the Americans and Shelter Now International relief workers who were arrested by the Taliban on charges of breaking Muslim law by teaching Christianity, were held captive in Afghanistan and subsequently released in November after Kabul fell to Northern Alliance and American forces. Since returning to the States, they are continuing to spread their message of hope and action, encouraging Christians to not just “take God’s good, but to lose everything of themselves to take God’s best,” explained Mercer.
Mercer, who ended a college relationship shortly after that first trip to pursue what she believes is her calling to minister to the poor, seeking God’s best and not just his good, also met with opposition from her concerned parents.
“My mom’s motivation was love and I know that,” explained Mercer, “so I was faced with a very difficult choice — listen to my mom or go to Afghanistan.”
Go to a country where only 12% have access to clean water, where the life expectancy is 46 and one out of five women are widows?
“Thousands of people there are wanting to hear about Jesus,” Mercer said. “And there’s no one to tell them.”
Curry described an experience with one of the Afghans they met before they were arrested. “Gideon” began showing a great interest in knowing more about God, but the two young women, together with a fellow missionary, waited almost four months before showing him the Jesus Film. His response?
“He said that what was showed on that film about Jesus was more important than anything he had ever heard before,” said Curry, “and he wanted to know why we had not told him sooner.” She added that there is an open door for sharing the Gospel to many who want to hear.
Curry, who had spent two years in Uzbekistan after graduating from college, said that while their prison experience was a difficult one, there was good in the midst of darkness.
“It had always been hard to minister to the Afghan women because of the heavy restrictions the Taliban had placed on us,” said Curry. “But now, here we were in prison with 30 Afghan women, and we had an incredible opportunity to sing songs of God’s love and to talk with them.”
While Curry admitted that the interrogations by the Taliban were intense at times, and they were forced to stretch the truth and once even to lie to protect the family they had witnessed to, she could find one “neat thing” about the interrogations.
“One Taliban soldier tried to convince me that I should just convert to Islam,” explained Curry. “I told him I didn’t want to be a Muslim, that I was in love with Jesus.” He then asked her how Jesus Christ had changed her life, and she was ultimately able to share with the Muslim why her faith was so important.
After America’s war on terrorism began in full force and the bombings started, Curry described the fear that she, Mercer and the other women who were arrested with them felt.
“Bombings are loud — your whole body shakes and vibrates as you try to sleep,” said Curry. “We were also very afraid that the Taliban would take revenge on us for the bombings.”
Completely alone and realizing that they were the only foreigners remaining in the country, hope for a rescue or release looked very dim. By the end of October, with the war in full swing, Mercer said she reached her lowest point during her captivity.
“I didn’t do well as far as the joy scale went in prison,” admitted Mercer.
What amazed her though, and what she learned, came from the very people she was there to help — the Afghan women.
“These women had been arrested because they ran away from husbands who beat them, or they hadn’t answered the door with their head properly covered — and you never heard them complain,” said Mercer. “And they would dance and sing in prison and I figured out it was because they knew joy wasn’t based on their circumstances — somehow, they overcame it, even when they didn’t have Jesus.”
Mercer recalled stretching out on the floor in her cell and giving her need to God.
“I discovered I was blessed because I was poor,” said Mercer. “We look for those with potential, but God does the opposite — he chooses the ones who don’t have anything.”
In a prison cell in Afghanistan, Mercer told God “If I live, I live for you; if I die, I die for you.”
In a journal entry shortly before their release, Mercer penned the words ‘It cost me a lot to come here, it cost me more to stay. It will cost me everything to go back.’
“In this room, each one of you has a destiny and the capacity to change the world,” Mercer told the students and others assembled. “God is calling people here to the nations as well as locally and we all have a choice to make.”
Fighting back tears, the young woman begged the crowd.
“Please don’t leave here and live for yourself.”
Closing the chapel service, Curry led the audience in a song that she, Mercer and the other women had sung in prison.
It’s all about you Jesus, and all this is for you
For your glory and your fame,
It’s not about me, as if you should do things my way.
You alone are God and I surrender to your ways.
Emily Price, a junior social work major from Chattanooga, said she felt deeply challenged by the testimony of the two women.
“I think it was a wake up call for a lot of students — to not just seek God’s good for our lives, but his best — giving up what we think we should do, and sacrifice everything for what he has for us to do,” said Price.
Mercer and Curry do hope to return to the Afghans at some point in the future.
“Friends are in Afghanistan now starting a new non-government organization that will teach job training to Afghans,” said Curry in a brief interview after the service. “We hope to take a short summer trip — a goodwill trip — back to Afghanistan to do a needs assessment for what needs to be done.”
All proceeds from an upcoming book will go directly to help the Afghan people, said Curry and Mercer.
When asked whether their actions had made things harder for other missionaries over in the Middle East, both acknowledged that it might be true.
“What we did was to be obedient,” explained Mercer. “We didn’t want anyone else to be hurt — but we know God is sovereign and he will make a way.”