By Elaine Phillips, Washington UBF
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will direct your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6, NLT)
On her first trip to Afghanistan in 1998, Heather Mercer had a dream. God took her to a place far above Kabul, the capitol city and told her to look down. Bombs were being dropped on the city, and war was breaking out everywhere. Then she noticed a small figure walking through the midst of all the dangerous chaos. It was her!! She was walking through the middle of the war-torn city. The path she took was confusing and unpredictable, but amazingly she was unharmed. Often a bomb would fall right behind her, in the exact place she had been a moment earlier. But God was directing her: turn left, turn right; and each time she would just barely escape death (pg. 227). Heather dreamt this during peacetime, but it ended up being somewhat prophetic of what would happen three years later. In August 2001, while serving as missionaries in Kabul, Afghanistan, Heather Mercer and her co-worker Dayna Curry were arrested and imprisoned by the Taliban, the Muslim religious police of Afghanistan. During their imprisonment, war broke out between the United States and Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks on September 11th. In spite of these hardships, Heather and Dayna trusted God who blessed them, protected them and through this used them to be a light.
Heather Mercer grew up in an upper-middle class family (15). She has always loved adventure and risk, and has a strong and driven personality (16). In her adolescent years, though, she struggled much with insecurity, fear of failure, fear of rejection and discouragement. She tried really hard to succeed, and would get discouraged if she didn’t meet the standards she set for herself. Heather confessed that she would often look around at people who had much talent and become frustrated “when their talent beat out [her] hard work” (17).
In November of 1992, at a Christian concert she heard about a man named Jesus who loved her unconditionally (17). Oh how she longed for that! She prayed to Jesus asking Him to love and heal her, and surrendering to follow Him (18). From that time on Jesus began to change her. She now had hope and purpose through Jesus’ plan for her. While Heather was in college God began to work in her heart to call her to serve the poor overseas. She felt unqualified but God showed her that it is not great talents that he needs, but rather compassion (21). Already God had been building this compassion in her heart. It began when she was young and, through travels with her parents, she was able to observe those in other countries who were less privileged than herself (16). Even in college Heather tried to connect with the less fortunate and would often hang out with the homeless people on the streets (20). On a short trip to Afghanistan in 1998, she developed a deep love for the Afghani people (23). After she graduated in 1999, made a commitment to go back for 3 years. And in March of 2001, Heather returned to Afghanistan through a Christian organization called Shelter Now International (SNI) (24, 47). She knew there were many risks involved in going to Afghanistan, but she felt God calling her to show His love to the Afghani people (24-25).
Dayna Curry grew up in Nashville TN, with Christian parents who loved her (30). When she was in 6th grade her parents divorced. Dayna struggle a lot after that. Soon she dropped all of her many extra curricular activities. Rather than trying to please her parents as she used to, she began, partying, drinking and seeking affirmation from boys (31). When she was 17, she had an abortion (32). Dayna felt ashamed and hopeless after that, and began to realize that she was out of control. Even though she wanted to stop the sinful things that she was doing, she was unable to do so. When the time came for her to go off to college, her mom chose Baylor University for her due to their strong business program and Christian emphasis (33). There Dayna met Jesus personally at a campus meeting with students from Antioch Community Church, the church that both she and Heather eventually attended. Jesus came and met her, forgiving her and healing her (34). Dayna still struggled with some of her past sins but soon made a decision to commit herself completely to God. She prayed, “I’m going to give myself to you, Lord, a hundred percent and see what happens, see if you really meet my needs.” God answered her. It wasn’t long before her heart and attitudes were changing and she was reaching out to others (35). Dayna had experienced God’s love and forgiveness so profoundly that she had an insatiable desire to share it with everyone. During and after college, Dayna went on several missions trips, including a two-year term in Tashkent (36). After her trip to Tashkent, she came back and worked in America for 3 years. But God began to work in her heart to serve again overseas (37). He showed her that she didn’t need “some big dramatic sense of calling or vision,” just the willingness to actually go and serve—and if she did that God would satisfy her. So in August of 1999, Dayna left for Afghanistan.
Afghanistan was, at that time, a country torn by war, parched by drought, and oppressed by religious law. The Taliban, a ruthless group of strict religious Muslims, held much of the country in a tight religious and political grip. The proclaimed many oppressive laws, and would beat and imprison the people for even small infractions. “Vice and Virtue police” patrolled the city and punished those who were breaking religious rules. Shopkeepers had to close down at the appointed times of Muslim prayer (64). Women must never be seen in public unescorted by a male relative (28) and must always wear a chawdur, a head-covering and veil prescribed by religious custom that let nothing but their eyes be show (27). Girls were not permitted to attend school (51). Foreigners were not permitted to visit Afghans in their homes (49). Videos, DVDs and non-Muslim music were outlawed (57). The list of rules was endless and the people lived in constant fear. However, a political and military faction in the north called the Northern Alliance opposed the Taliban (64, 171). The two groups were at war, which further strained the country. There was hope, though—at least the Taliban did not have complete control of Afghanistan.
Heather and Dayna served in Kabul, Afghanistan the capital city. Dayna was administrator over Shelter Now International’s (SNI) “street kids project,” which offered boys off the street classes in moneymaking trades, such as carpentry, paper-flower making, and printing (55-56). Heather, on the other hand, had only been Afghanistan 6 months before she was arrested and was still in language school learning Dari, one of the commonly spoken languages in the country (66).
Heather and Dayna spent most of their spare time reaching out on a personal level to the people of Afghanistan. They befriended and helped many women and children. In order to provide opportunities for the women to make money, they often hired them for odd jobs such as washing laundry; sewing curtains and pillows; embroidering; and making clothing for Heather and Dayna as well as other poor people they knew. They would often invite the women in to sit, talk and have tea with them. They truly loved the women and wanted to be part of their lives (50). Heather and Dayna also reached out to the “shoeshine boys,” a large group of boys who would show up at their house every morning looking for work. Every day they gave the boys bread, fruit, and work shining their shoes, always making sure that no boy went away empty-handed (54). Heather, especially, loved and cared for the shoeshine boys; they called her “the compassionate one” (52).
With some people Heather and Dayna were able to develop even deeper relationships, and touch their lives in specific ways. One story they shared was of a woman named Leena from whom they bought their eggs every morning (74). Leena was about 20 years old. The Taliban took her husband one day, and either imprisoned him or forced him to fight against the Northern Alliance. She lived with her two small children and her ailing mother in an area outside the city without running water and electricity, and with an older woman who would beat Leena’s children, to her utter distress. To provide for her family, Leena would collect eggs from her neighbor’s hens and sell their eggs for them. She would then get to keep part of the profit. After the cost of her bus fare into the city, though, Leena had little left of her part of the profit for her family to survive on. Heather and Dayna used some SNI benevolence money and bought Leena her own hens so she could keep all the profit. They would often listen to Leena tearfully share her worries and concerns, especially about her children being beaten. They would comfort her and pray with her (75).
August 3, 2001 Heather and Dayna were arrested by the Taliban police after visiting an Afghani family they were friends with. They were taken to a Muslim reform school for ladies where they stayed for a month and a half along with about 30 Afghani women (102) and six of their SNI co-workers were also arrested (109). It was very dirty and there was only one bathroom. Inside was a room with a single light bulb and dirty Afghani-style mattresses where the women could sleep (103). There was a large dirt courtyard adjoining the prison with one tree and a standing water faucet where they would wash dishes and clothes (102).
The Taliban immediately began interrogating Heather and Dayna, and their SNI co-workers, a grueling process that lasted 3 weeks (110). The Taliban boss would invite them up to his office for tea and questioning (108). The SNI women would try to cheer each other up, “Who gets to drink tea with the boss today?” they would ask each other lightly (125). However, it was very hard for Heather and Dayna. The Taliban were looking for ways to trap them into saying things that would incriminate them (107). Many people prayed for Heather and Dayna that they would have an ally inside the Taliban, and God blessed them with a translator, Karim, who befriended them. Karim was very kind to them, and helped them many times. He often warned them of things that were dangerous to say, and would even soften some of their answers in translation (110). Heather and Dayna tried to give as little information as possible, while still not lying (111).
Eventually, the Taliban announced that they intended to try Heather, Dayna and the other SNI workers in the Supreme Court of Afghanistan and talked about the death penalty as a possible sentence for “spread[ing] the ‘abolished Religion of Christianity’ among Afghans” (115, 211). This was very crushing news for them. Heather, especially had a hard time. During those three weeks of interrogations, she became increasingly afraid of what was going to happen to them, and cried nearly every day, afraid that she might be sentenced to death at the young age of 24 (114-115). She wanted to trust God, but she wasn’t sure that God wanted her to live as badly as she wanted to live. Later on however, after sheer exhaustion, Heather surrendered to God, after which her fear began to subside and she could trust in God promise of eternity (227). She then remembered the dream she had 3 years earlier, and shared it with the Dayna and the other SNI co-workers. They were encouraged and lovingly joked saying, “If anything happens, we will make sure we get behind you!” (228). Dayna struggled also, but she had an easier time resting in the love and presence of God. She chose to have faith in the goodness of God, and placed her life in His capable and loving hands. One of her key verses was Psalm 25:10, “All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful” (NIV) (131). Heather, Dayna and their SNI co-workers struggled a lot, but they never let go of God. Each day they came together for prayer and worship. And they spent much time alone with God wrestling, praying and reading the Bible, especially Psalms. One great blessing they could see in this was that by actually living with the Afghani women in the prison, they were able to really get to know the women, sharing their lives in a real intimate and personal way which had been their prayer all along in coming to Afghanistan (134).
The Taliban eventually did bring them to trial (167), but while the case was still in progress, war broke out between the U.S. and Afghanistan. It was not long before the sound of bombs and anti-aircraft gunfire filled both their days and nights (200). It was very scary for Heather and Dayna, but God protected them from ever being the target of one of those deadly missiles. Eventually, the Northern Alliance took advantage of the situation and attacked the Taliban in Kabul, taking the city by force and setting the prisoners free (259, 277). However, shortly before the city fell to the hands of the Northern Alliance, the Taliban fled to the city of Ghazni taking Heather, Dayna, and the SNI co-workers with them, (259). The small group was crushed—“We missed freedom by only 30 minutes!!” they thought. At that point their faith seemed very small, but God was faithful—He had not forgotten them; He had something better in store. The very next day a local insurrection overthrew the Taliban in Ghazni (276). Local soldiers burst into the prison where they were being held—“Aaazaad! Aaazaad! You are free! You are free!” they shouted (272). The whole city erupted into celebration. The oppression of the Taliban was gone and fear was vanishing—the people were finally free!!! As Heather and Dayna walked down the streets and watched the people laughing, clapping and celebrating they praised God that in His wisdom He had delayed their freedom just a bit allowing them the opportunity to celebrate with the people they had grown to love so deeply. This was the thing they had prayed for the people of Afghanistan for so long! (275)
As I read Heather and Dayna’s story, two things in particular impacted me. I was deeply touched by the servants’ hearts that Heather and Dayna possessed for the people of Afghanistan. They truly loved the Afghan people and sacrificed many of their own comforts and desires in order to serve them. I was also particularly challenged by Heather and Dayna’s faith in God. By placing their lives in his hands they were able to have peace and joy through very difficult trials. They trusted God and he blessed them: not only did He bring them through safely, but He used them in many ways during their imprisonment to be a blessing and light to the people of Afghanistan.
“Dear Lord, thank you for such a wonderful example of faith and love in the testimonies of Heather and Dayna. Please strengthen our hearts so that we will be men and women of great faith to follow You and trust You in whatever you call us to do. Fill our hearts with Your love for people that we will cheerfully deny ourselves in order to serve them. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.”
Curry, Dayna, and Heather Mercer. Ed. Stacy Mattingly. Prisoners of Hope: The Story of our Captivity and Freedom in Afghanistan. Doubleday: New York, 2002.