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A Higher Calling

After their miraculous release from a Taliban prison, Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer reveal how God revolutionized their lives.

The thing that strikes you most about Dayna Curry, 30, and Heather Mercer, 25, is how unlikely they seem to be the kind of women who'd become pawns in the war on terrorism. Or that they'd be the central figures in a controversy over a missionary's role in a country that outlaws proselytizing. Today, as they curl up on a couch in a hotel room in their hometown of Waco, Texas, for their TCW interview, they're more like the girls next door.

That girl-next-door image has been reinforced by countless media stories. Yet as the women reflect on the 105 days they spent in the custody of the Taliban in Afghanistan for sharing their Christian faith, a more complex picture emerges. It becomes apparent their troubled pasts led each into a life-changing relationship with Jesus—and to the kind of risk-taking faith that motivated them to serve the "poorest of the poor" in Afghanistan with the relief agency Shelter Germany.

While Heather seriously questioned God during captivity and readily admits "prison was devastatingly hard," she and Dayna still wrote and sang praise songs amidst the mice and filth to the God they'd already seen perform miracles in Afghanistan, to the God they hoped would perform just one more on their behalf.

What hasn't often been discussed is how Heather and Dayna, often shown smiling with arms linked, experienced periods of friction in prison due to the different ways they responded to the crisis of their imprisonment. Yet today they hold a united front when answering tough questions about the "real agenda" of their work in Afghanistan, a controversy stirred by Heather's mother's appearance on Dateline NBC to protest what she considered an illegal mission from the outset. They also speak in unison about their desire to go back to the country where they ironically claim they experienced the greatest sense of freedom ever.

out of the frying pan…

A year ago on November 15, the American public couldn't get enough photos of Heather and Dayna in Afghan dresses embracing their parents on an airstrip in Islamabad, Pakistan. Their exuberant smiles said it all: At long last, they were free. This happy ending was preceded by months of confusion, fear, parasites and scorpions, squalid living conditions, and countless prayers for Heather, Dayna, and the six other Shelter workers arrested with them for sharing their Christian faith in a Muslim land. Through the prayers of believers around the world and the efforts of U.S. and anti-Taliban Northern Alliance troops, the group was miraculously freed.

Unfortunately, the drama didn't end in Afghanistan. As the women began making national appearances on TV shows ranging from Larry King Live to the Today show, and in magazines such as People and Glamour, a dissenting voice emerged from the most unlikely place. Heather's mom, Deb Oddy, began making public the protests she'd voiced since her daughter first told her she wanted to go to Afghanistan. When Heather had told her mother of her intentions, Oddy, still reeling from the death of Heather's sister Hannah from a prescription drug overdose just eight months before Heather's proposed departure date, pleaded with her not to go. She feared for her daughter's safety. When Oddy's words seemed to fall on deaf ears, she wrote her congressman and the State Department, carbon-copying Heather on each letter, urging them to stop what she called an "unconscionable, ill-fated mission." But because the trip didn't break any U.S. laws, there was nothing the government could do.

"I know it's never going to be okay with my mom that I live this way," says Heather. "But in , Jesus said, 'Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.' Although I love my mom very much, I felt that in the midst of all this, God was saying, I've still called you. This isn't a reason for you not to live out what I've told you to do."

So Heather went to Afghanistan—and, true to Oddy's worst fears, wound up in prison. When her daughter was freed, Oddy thought her worries were over. That is, until Heather expressed a desire to go back to Afghanistan to continue her humanitarian aid work and to seek other opportunities to share about God. With these intentions clear, Oddy stepped up her efforts to stop her daughter's plans. On an episode of Dateline NBC this past June, she told reporters she thought her daughter's actions in Afghanistan had blatantly broken the edict Taliban officials handed down four months before Heather arrived in the volatile land. The rule stated that any non-Muslim found trying to convert Muslims would be killed. Oddy also alleged her daughter and the rest of the Shelter team endangered the lives of Afghans by breaking a similar rule that called for the death penalty for anyone who converted from Islam to another religion.

When, the following morning, the Today show's host Matt Lauer asked Heather about the "real reason" the women were in Afghanistan, she responded boldly… and carefully. "We were there to serve the poor through relief and development," she replied. "That was our job, and we really were doing that. But because we love Jesus, as we related with Afghans, we shared where we found hope, where we found life. That came up in daily conversation, because in Afghanistan, faith is of the highest priority."

Before their imprisonment, Heather and Dayna spent their days working with street children, feeding widows, and helping women market home-based skills such as sewing and embroidery. Sure, they hoped for chances to share why they were halfway around the world in a dangerous location attempting to alleviate some of the pain and poverty of complete strangers. As Heather told Dateline, "I'm doing a disservice to the people if all I'm doing is meeting their practical needs and not addressing the condition of their hearts." Both Heather and Dayna assert they're simply following the example Jesus set during his three years of ministry on the earth, during which he served the poor and talked about his Father. Likewise, Heather asked the Dateline reporter, "Who's going to tell them, 'There's hope for you. There's hope for your nation. God loves you. He has a plan and a destiny for your life.'? That's all I wanted to do, and so if that's wrong, then I'm guilty."

In the end, Heather says, she and her mom had to agree to disagree. "But we still talk often and love one another greatly," Heather says. "I don't want to disobey her, but I know I must follow Jesus no matter the cost."

finding faith

It's difficult to believe these women who graciously answer difficult questions on television and who spoke powerfully at the Rose Garden with President Bush right after their release ever wrestled with insecurity, isolation, rejection, and fear of failure. But, ironically, these very issues started them down the road to Afghanistan.

Dayna's problems began when she was in sixth grade, just before her parents divorced. Some of the kids she hung out with in her Nashville, Tennessee suburb exposed her to R-rated movies and pornography. Her parents' split only reinforced her confusion and insecurity, and she started looking for acceptance from boys. In high school Dayna began drinking, experimenting with drugs, and shoplifting. While she regretted her first sexual encounter and vowed to save sex until marriage from then on, a subsequent boyfriend took advantage of her after they'd been dating for several months. Feeling like "damaged goods," she became sexually active after that, and eventually became pregnant at 17.

Fearing she'd be expelled from school, disowned by her parents, and rejected at the church her mother had started taking her to, she thought abortion was her only option. Some of the women at the restaurant where she worked had gotten abortions, and the Tennessee laws didn't require parental consent. She was a tangle of emotions sitting in the abortion clinic waiting room as she silently prayed, Lord, let this baby go to heaven, and send me to hell.

When Dayna's parents found out about her abortion, they tearfully and lovingly confronted her. At church, she began to feel as though God was drawing her to him. Singing praises to God, she felt the peace she'd desperately sought in the friends, bars, and parties that had taken up most of her free time. When it came time for college, Dayna's mom suggested Baylor University in Waco, Texas, because of its good business program and Christian emphasis. "I wanted to start all over and have a new life," says Dayna. So in 1989, she headed to Texas.

Meanwhile, in northern Virginia, Heather's growing-up years were less dramatic but laced with the same self-esteem issues. A self-described "driven kid," Heather's parents' divorce during her high-school years dealt a devastating blow. The school activities, friends, and physical appearance from which she took her identity became all the more important as her family life fractured and her mother and one of her sisters moved to another state. She buried her emotional turmoil in school activities. Yet while she worked harder than any of her peers, someone was always smarter, faster, or more talented. "I felt like a failure," she admits. "I wondered, Will I ever measure up? Will I always be second best?"

Then one of her best friends, a Christian, invited her to a concert at her church one weekend. After the concert, a man shared about Jesus' revolutionary life, unconditional love, and deep desire to have a personal relationship with each person there. "Why have I never heard this message before? I wondered," says Heather. "I'd gone to church. I celebrated Christmas and Easter. I knew Jesus had died on a cross and came back to life three days later. This was different. This was relevant."

Heather prayed to become a Christian that night, nine years from the day she eventually would be freed from prison for sharing that faith on the other side of the globe. A few years later, faced with the college decision, she chose Baylor University because she thought her fledgling faith would be fostered there, and because, like Dayna, she wanted a chance to start over in a new place. So in 1995, Heather left for Texas.

While they were there a few years apart from each other, Heather and Dayna's experiences at Baylor and at nearby Antioch Community Church were similar. Both women grew in their faith and developed a heart for God's work in other countries where people didn't know about the life transformation a personal faith in Jesus could bring—the kind of transformation they'd experienced firsthand and couldn't stop talking about.

After graduation, Dayna served as a missionary in Uzbekistan for two years, then returned to Waco, where she became a social worker in a school for troubled youth. At the same time, Heather felt a tug to go serve God in radical ways overseas. However, she was concerned she didn't have enough to offer people in devastated lands such as Afghanistan. So she prayed for guidance. "I had no experience to qualify me—only average talents and abilities," she admits. "In prayer I felt God ask me if I could do three things: Can you love your neighbor? Can you serve the poor? Can you weep as I weep for the poor and broken people? I came to see that God didn't need someone with extraordinary gifts and achievements. He just needed someone who could love, share her life, and feel for others as he did." Dayna's motivations were similar. "I desired to extend friendship to veiled women long before I ever went to Afghanistan—because I've known isolation myself," she says.

This common desire to share about God's saving love in places others weren't willing to go allowed Heather and Dayna to meet in November of 1997, when Dayna was a social worker and Heather was a college sophomore. Through their church, they both signed up for a short-term missions trip to Afghanistan, a trip during which they ended up being roommates. And a trip where they first encountered the "blue ghosts," the dark blue burqa-clad Afghan women who broke their hearts.

haunted by "blue ghosts"

One afternoon during that trip, the group went to an Afghan refugee camp in the city of Peshawar. The only thing to cool the patients in the 115-degree heat were a few fans, and the only thing to combat the rampant illness were a few underqualified doctors and a small stock of medicine. Most of the children suffered from malnutrition. One in particular caught Heather's attention. "Every bone in her body protruded against her skin," she recalls. "She literally looked like a skeleton.

"I didn't know how to respond," Heather admits. "I watched as the little girl's mother attempted to cool her by waving a straw fan. I wondered, How could this have happened?" She prayed for the girl's healing, and as soon as she left the room, Heather burst into tears. "Nothing else in life made sense at that point except living and working among the Afghan people." Dayna felt a similar pull.

Once they moved to Afghanistan to do full-time relief work with Shelter Germany (Dayna in August of 1999 and Heather in March of 2001), their home in Kabul's Wazir Akhbar Khan neighborhood was a decrepit two-story concrete home distinguished by one constant sight: a crowd of street children and poor women in burqas asking for food, medicine, money, and work.

These were women who lived in homes with no running water or electricity. When they weren't hauling water to their homes for daily use, the women begged for money or food. Taliban law forbid women from working outside the home, yet a quarter of the women are widows and many of the rest have sick or unemployed husbands, leaving them few options for feeding their hungry children.

During Dayna's first year and a half in Kabul, she worked in a women and children's health clinic. In summer, when the women would come in and take off their burqas, they'd be nearly hyperventilating from the heat. When she talked with these women, they'd tell heartbreaking stories of loved ones lost, chronic illness, hunger, abuse from their husband, or mistreatment by the Taliban. "They tried to keep their heads up, but the pain would emerge if our conversations went deep enough," Dayna recalls. "I think I was able to help a little by listening. I love the Afghan women and wish-ed with all of my heart for them to know better days."

One such woman Heather and Dayna attempted to help was Omira, a 30-something mother who suffered from a stomach illness. Her family lived in a two-story mud house with no toilets and no electricity. As Heather and Dayna got to know Omira, they learned her husband once ran a business selling fruit and vegetables from a small cart in the town's bazaar. That is, until the Taliban confiscated the cart. The women used money from a special benevolence fund established by people in their church back in Texas to buy the man a new cart and enough produce to get his business off the ground again. They planned to provide money for produce every week for six weeks on a decreasing scale. Unfortunately, Heather and Dayna were arrested only two weeks into this plan.

Often when women such as Omira shared details of their difficult lives with Heather and Dayna, the duo offered to pray for them in Jesus' name. Sometimes they saw direct answers to these prayers—a woman's sick child suddenly would get well—and sometimes they simply saw peace pass over faces that had known only strife for so long. Some women asked questions about Jesus and what it means to follow him. Heather and Dayna carefully explained that believing in him could have dangerous consequences, that it didn't ensure a trouble-free life. But they did talk about the peace, hope, and eternal life that could be theirs through a relationship with Jesus. While Heather and Dayna pray these efforts helped change some of these women's eternal destiny, it was also such conversations that landed them in a Taliban prison.

prison life

The main source of the difference in the way Heather and Dayna reacted to prison stems from their differing interpretation of Taliban law. Dayna was convinced the maximum penalty they faced was five years in prison; Heather feared the death penalty.

Heather's belief in the possibility of death at the hands of the Taliban led to her intense battle with fear. As the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, as she battled lice and parasites, as the U.S. bombs that started dropping shook the windows and her bones, she began to question where God was in all of this. Suddenly her prayers, which she'd seen answered in miraculous ways during her five months in Afghanistan, seemed to fall on deaf ears. Heather says she was exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally, and that she started asking God, "Okay, are you real? Do you see me sitting here in prison in agony wanting to go home to my family? Do you really hear me crying every day?"

The fact that Dayna and the rest of the Shelter prisoners didn't struggle as much didn't help matters. "I had an extreme amount of peace the entire time," says Dayna. "Overall I felt we were going to get out. I could have been wrong, but I truly believed God was going to get us out of there so we could tell about how good he is."

What Dayna did struggle with, however, was her singleness. Since she turned 30 in prison and had all kinds of time to reflect on a previous relationship she'd hoped would work out, a deep loneliness tugged at her. She journaled all these thoughts, and eventually felt God telling her, I love you. I have good things for your life. You can trust me. Dayna also took comfort from the four other female Shelter workers with them, all of whom were older than Dayna and still single.

While Dayna worked through this relational loneliness, Heather wrestled with a more present, pressing loneliness. "I don't think I've ever felt so lonely in my whole life," she says. "I hurt so bad, and I was angry that nobody else was hurting with me."

Still, the women gathered every morning and evening for prayer and singing. On Heather's really bad days, she kept to herself. Finally, she knew something had to change. "I could choose to give God what he was asking for—total surrender—or go crazy. I realized I could trust God, or I could trust me," she says. "And by his grace I chose to trust him." Heather took comfort in the biblical accounts of Job and King David, two men described as godly but who also wrestled with God. She appreciated Job's words to God, "Though you slay me, yet will I trust you" (), as well as David's conclusions to his gut-wrenching Psalms. "In the end he always said, 'Lord, you're worthy. I bless your name. I'll follow you.'" At that point of blind faith and surrender, Heather says that though she was still in prison, she "experienced a freedom I've never known before."

And despite differences in the way she and the other Shelter prisoners handled the ordeal, Heather says they were able to love and respect each other throughout this trying time. "We all chose to forgive, bless, and love one another," she says.

Another major lesson she and Dayna learned in prison was the power of prayer. "When you have nothing else, you pray," says Dayna. "There were times when we literally had nothing else. In fact, it seemed like God's mercy to take everything away but prayer so his power could be seen and our release could be credited to nothing else."

"I think that's why we got out of prison," adds Heather. "People didn't give up praying until we were freed." However, she's quick to add, "Even if we'd died in prison, even if the Taliban had killed us, God would still be good. God would still be who he says he is."

lessons and longings

In the year since their release, Heather and Dayna have spent much of their time sharing about their harrowing captivity, miraculous release, and Christian beliefs. Just as prison was more difficult for Heather, all the media attention has been more difficult for Dayna. "I don't like to speak in front of people," she admits. Though it's been stretching, both women are thrilled to share their experiences, and more importantly their faith, with diverse audiences.

As they reflect on how last year's events changed them, Dayna says, "I now know without a doubt God's sovereign. Even if I have to face death or imprisonment again, I know his grace and presence will be there."

Heather echoes Dayna's words. "I'm more confident in who God is. I've learned firsthand his grace is sufficient. My prison experience has been the most glorious experience of my whole life. Even though most days were heart-wrenchingly hard, I'm thankful for it because I got to meet Jesus on a deeper level than I ever had before."

Among the lessons they hope others learn from their experiences, is how much Afghanistan still needs our prayers. "Afghanistan is in a critical place," says Heather. "It will go one of two ways—either toward a democracy, or right back to the oppressive regime it had before. We need to pray more than ever that God blesses this country, that the people would repent and turn to Christ so true freedom can finally come to Afghanistan.

"Every time I see a picture of Afghanistan, I cry," adds Heather. "As I drove home yesterday, I came to a tollbooth and handed the guy my money. He looked at me and said, 'You're the one from Afghanistan! You were in my country!' We started speaking Farsi to each other. He was so grateful for the work we did. We talked until the guy behind me started honking his horn. It reminded me of how wonderful the Afghans are."

Heather and Dayna are itching to return. "Right now we're sending financial aid," explains Dayna, referring to the proceeds from their book and the CD of praise songs they wrote while in prison. "But it's not the same as being there. Everything about our life there was of eternal value because we were living and serving people who desperately need Jesus. We miss that."

Currently Heather is in a one-year training and discipleship course to prepare her to return to Afghanistan, and Dayna's considering short- and long-term options of serving the impoverished Afghans. "I know it will be harder to get back into the country. Obscurity's better than notoriety when it comes to situations like this," Heather says. "But we know the God who was big enough to get us out will be big enough to get us back in."

— Camerin Courtney

the great escape

Their ordeal began on August 3, 2001,on a dusty side street in Kabul, Afghanistan. While leaving the home of an Afghan family they'd befriended and to whom they'd just shown a dramatic film depicting Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, Heather and Dayna were arrested by Taliban guards carrying rifles and whips. Though this wasn't the first time they'd gone into an Afghan home, answered questions about faith, or shown the Jesus film, this was the first time they or any of their fellow missionaries had been taken into custody.

Heather, Dayna, and the six other Shelter workers also arrested that day underwent 22 hours of interrogation by the Taliban, then were locked in a cement-walled, rodent-infested building, the first and nicest of three prisons that would be their home for the next three-and-a-half months.

While they were treated well by their captors, the imprisoned Shelter workers were given sketchy details of the charges against them and limited access to their appointed legal counsel. They were allowed to see family members who'd flown to the area on several occasions in late August and early September, and a trial finally seemed to be underway several weeks after their arrest. Then the tragic events of September 11, 2001 unfolded, and the climate changed considerably. The Shelter workers were moved to a maximum-security prison in Kabul a week after the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were hit by al Qaeda-hijacked airplanes.

When anti-Taliban Northern Alliance troops and U.S. bombings seemed to be getting the better of the Taliban stronghold, the Shelter captives were moved to an abandoned prison in Ghazni 80 miles away. The day they arrived, American bombs began falling near the decrepit building in which they were held. While the prisoners feared they might become casualties of "friendly fire," they were surprised by an opposition soldier running into their compound screaming, "You're free! You're free!" Once outside, they saw Talib troops fleeing the city, as well as men dancing in the streets and women pulling back their burqas in celebration. "It was incredible," says Dayna. "We were celebrating with the whole country."

Their story was dramatic to the very end. When it appeared the U.S. Special Forces couldn't find them in the dark field the International Red Cross, who'd been radioed about their freedom and location, had set as their rendezvous point, Heather suggested they set their head scarves on fire to attract attention—hopefully only from "friendly" forces. It worked; a helicopter touched down to whisk them to safety. Heather calls it their "Hollywood ending" and an amazing answer to countless prayers.

—C.C.

For a full account of Heather and Dayna's experience, check out their book, Prisoners of Hope (WaterBrook/ Doubleday) or the CD of praise songs they wrote and sang while in prison, Prisoners of Hope: Songs of Freedom (M2.0). All proceeds go to the Hope Afghanistan Foundation, established by Dayna and Heather.

Go to www.HopeAfghanistan.net for more information about this humanitarian mission.


Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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