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Heather Mercer: Prison was both terrorizing & greatest privilege

VIENNA, Va. (BP)–It was supposed to be a night of intercession. Instead, some 800 people crowded into Vienna (Va.) Presbyterian Church Dec. 3 to praise the Lord for Heather Mercer’s rescue from Afghanistan and to hear her gripping testimony.

“We originally set this date to pray for Heather’s release, but God intervened,” said pastor Peter G. James. “Not all prayers turn out the way we want. This time, though, God said a resounding ‘yes’ — and so we celebrate. Yet this service is not about Heather. It’s about the God she serves.”

Indeed, “This is a story about Jesus and who he is and what he’s done,” Mercer said as she began sharing the saga that took her from northern Virginia to Texas to Afghanistan. “This is a story about the sovereignty of God — his desire to make himself known in all the earth. And God used a few simple people who love him and obeyed him to not only change us, but to change a whole nation and to touch the four corners of the earth.”

Mercer said her journey began when she accepted Christ as her Savior while a sophomore at Madison High School in Vienna. Earlier in her life she knew of Jesus, but didn’t know him in her heart. During the first few years of high school, Mercer faced some tough situations in her family. “And personally I had a lot of struggles with who I was … your typical teenager trying to find her place in life … very insecure.”

A group of friends continued to love her unconditionally and invited her to church. At a Christian concert her sophomore year, Mercer heard a man speak about God’s unconditional love. “For the first time, that message hit my heart” and she said “yes” to Jesus. “I didn’t know what that meant, really. I just knew that I needed him.”

Afterward, she attended Bible study and learned the faith at both McLean Bible Church and Vienna Presbyterian. She went on to college at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Mercer soon got plugged in at Antioch Community Church there, where she “really grew up in the Lord.” That was also where she got her first exposure to international missions, via trips to Mexico and Eastern Europe, then Pakistan and Afghanistan.

On these trips, she realized God’s love and good news “is not just for me in America” but for the uttermost parts of the earth and for every tribe and nation.

Mercer prayed, “God, if you will use me, if you’ll take my simple little life and let me go into places where no one else wants to go … I want to go to the places where no one has ever heard your name.”

As Mercer was trying to decide whether to commit her life to fulltime missions work, she told God, “No more hints. I need a lightning bolt.” Just then, someone at church stood up and told the congregation that the senior pastor wasn’t there that day. Instead, they would hear about what God is doing on the earth through missions.

“It was so simple, but it was at that moment that I knew,” Mercer said. “I knew, I knew, I knew what God was saying. He was saying, ‘This is what you are meant for, this is what you are created for, and I want you to go.’

“I wasn’t too excited at first, mind you,” she said, laughing, but over the next two years her conviction grew to a point of “burning desire.” She thought of the millions of people around the world who have never heard about God’s love. “It was like God was showing me how broken his heart was that people didn’t know him.”

Mercer described that moment as a stepping stone toward the life to come. Meanwhile, during her junior year of college, she became specifically interested in Afghanistan after hearing some people at her church talk about their work there. “I had been thinking, ‘God — give me the place on the map where no one else will go.’ And God put his finger on Afghanistan.”

She first traveled there in 1998, which was another tumultuous time in Afghan history. All of the aid organizations were forced to evacuate because of pressure from the Taliban. “So I got a little taste of what was to come.” It was during that trip that Mercer fell in love with the Afghan people, and she was indelibly moved by the poverty, illness and hurt she saw.

Following college graduation and two years of additional training, Mercer returned to Afghanistan.

She said her goal was to meet the practical needs of the people and serve them in everyday ways. Then, if and when relationships were established, she would share what the Lord had done in her life. “The needs of the people were overwhelming,” Mercer added. The aid group worked in simple ways — passing out food and medicine, praying for the sick, helping people find jobs.

“It was these interactions that landed us in prison on Aug. 3,” she continued. A family begged the workers to come to their home to “dialogue about their faith.” Mercer, Dayna Curry and the others agreed. “They had never heard in their life that God loved them,” Mercer recounted. Watching a video about Jesus, the family learned about hope and eternal life.

As Mercer and the others left the family’s home and got into a taxi, the Taliban was waiting. It was Aug. 3. She was arrested “for preaching Christ” and thrown into jail.

“I thought I knew the risks,” Mercer said. “I knew that Afghanistan was a dangerous place. I knew that prison could be a reality. But it happened a lot sooner than I expected it would.”

She called prison “the most terrorizing” experience of her life, but the 24-year-old also said “it was the greatest privilege” of her life. “If the world gave me all it had to offer, I would not trade it in. … I stand in awe at all the millions around the world who have heard this story and have had the opportunity to see that God works miracles and that God answers prayers.”

Mercer continued, “It was God who put us in prison. It was not the Taliban. He used them for his greater purpose. Now I am seeing more of what that purpose is.”

Prison life was hard, she acknowledged. Fear was a constant struggle and she was terrified during various interrogations. Mercer also battled doubt and wondered, “Why?” when the situation intensified. She cried out: “God, are you really real? Are you who you say you are? Do you really answer prayer?”

During this phase, Mercer described herself as “a mess.” There were days she felt she’d rather be dead. “I fought with God. I fought with him hard. And I lost.”

That was the turning point, when she surrendered it all to him. “I had the choice to either grow up and find God in the situation or to become bitter. I chose to find God. He built character in us and gave us hope. And I experienced freedom like I never knew before.”

Clinging to Scripture, she continued to pray, “I will not die, I will live, and I will proclaim what he did.”

And now she is. God has given her “an amazing platform” to proclaim his glory, Mercer acknowledged. This self-described “simple servant” said she never thought she had anything to offer. “I hope the world sees that we are not heroes, but because of our obedience, he used us.” And through this story, “God is telling the world that he is real, that he answers prayer and that he works miracles.”

After concluding her testimony, Mercer gave the audience the opportunity to accept Christ. She led a salvation prayer and challenged those who were already Christians to be used by the Lord “wherever you are.”

In an interview following the service, Mercer shared that she longs to return to missions work overseas, but for now, needs time to process and heal with her family. She is seeking the Lord’s will for the future and doesn’t think she wants to spend the rest of her life telling this story. Rather, she said, her heart is to serve, once more, the Afghan people.
Chismar is editor of the Religion Today section on Crosswalk, at www.crosswalk.com. Used by permission.

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  • Janet Chismar