On August 3 last year, Shelter Now aid workers Dayna Curry, 30, and Heather Mercer, 25, were arrested by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Their situation was precarious—and then came September 11. Many people despaired of the pair's leaving Afghanistan alive, so their release on November 15 was a joyous answer to prayers worldwide.
Curry and Mercer talk about their work, imprisonment, and release in Prisoners of Hope: The Story of our Captivity and Freedom in Afghanistan (Doubleday). Christianity Today's associate news editor Stan Guthrie, who has covered missions for various publications, and CT senior writer Wendy Murray Zoba, a former missionary, recently spoke with Curry and Mercer about their experiences and their plans for the future.
When did you become friends?
Mercer: We met in November 1997 when we were both looking at going on our first short-term trip to Afghanistan in the summer of 1998. Dayna was working in social work. I was still a sophomore in college. We ended up being roommates on that trip. A year later, Dayna moved to Afghanistan. She had already been there almost two years before I showed up. We lived together there because we were both a part of the same team that had been sent out by our local church. We were the only two single girls on the team, so we ended up getting a house together and living in Kabul. Then we started tag-teaming on the ministry side of things as we interacted with Afghans.
Curry: I'd been there a year and five months. I came back to America for two months and I don't know if I would have come back if Heather wasn't coming. I had gone there originally with another single girl, but she got married and left. I hope I would still have decided to stay in Afghanistan, but I don't know. Heather's coming was one of the deciding factors for my committing another two years to Afghanistan.
Before you went, Heather, you prayed, "Lord, send me to the hardest place on the face of the Earth." Why?
Mercer: I've always had a sense of adventure. I've never been content with the status quo. I've never wanted to do what was "normal." Afghanistan ended up fitting the bill as far as the kind of place I wanted to go. I always wanted to go somewhere nobody else was going.
What was the hardest thing you ever did before this?
Mercer: Probably the thing that required the most determination and perseverance was running track and cross country in high school.
You've endured other trials, though. How old were you when your parents got divorced?
Mercer: They got separated when I was 13, and they were divorced when I was 15. I had a strong will, which isn't always the easiest with parents. I had to grow up really fast. I was the oldest, so there was already the expectation there.
Also, your sister died shortly before you went to Afghanistan.
Mercer: She had chronic physical problems, but she also had some emotional problems. She was taking some pain medicine prescribed by a doctor and she overdosed on it and nobody caught it in time. She had just turned 21. She was not quite two and a half years younger than I was.
Dayna, what made you go to this rugged landscape?
Curry: God's love just filled me and overwhelmed me. I never knew that that kind of love existed. When I heard more about Islam and the women, I wanted them to be able to know God's love. I felt like God's heart was breaking because they didn't know that they are cherished by him. When I was working in Uzbekistan—I worked in Tashkent for two years right after college—every once in a while I'd see the women fully veiled and would think, How do you reach them? Who's reaching these women? A family from our church came through Uzbekistan on their way to Afghanistan to serve there. And they told me, "If you ever want to be a part of our team, come." I thought, "If I'm willing to go, it's crazy not to go." So many people aren't willing to go.
How did you build relationships with Afghan women?
Curry: We both learned the language. I went through five and a half months of language school before I started working with the project. Then you try to create work for them so that they have an income. You have them make you your clothes or bookmarks or tablecloths—stuff you can send home to your supporters.
Mercer: In a place like Afghanistan, everybody wears their heart on their sleeves because life is hard. Everybody knows it's hard, and so you share your heart experiences. Every time the Afghan women would come over, they'd be weeping. Some would share what happened with their husbands or if they were being beaten.
How did you respond to them?
Mercer: Just cry with them, tell them that Jesus loves them, and that we'll pray for them. We care about them.
Was there mutual trust or was there one corner of your heart that wondered if something could go wrong and they might turn on you?
Mercer: You're going to have to take a risk if you're going to live in a place like Afghanistan. You dealt with that before you'd gotten there. You say, Well, it's worth taking a risk for those who are hungry.
How did your church train you to go to Afghanistan?
Curry: It's about 10 months of training—and two months of that is an overseas outreach where you're implementing the things that you tried to acquire in the classroom. A lot of it is basic Christian disciplines: prayer, fasting, studying the Word, discipleship, evangelism, particularly in the context of small groups that meet from house to house, as found in the Book of Acts, chapter 2. We learned how to build bridges with Muslims, the worldview of Muslims. We did study all the world religions.
One of the people you ministered to turned you in. Did you feel betrayed at the time?
Mercer: We didn't know what had happened. But we prayed that the family [to whom we showed the Jesus film] would have been the ones who turned us in, because then that meant they wouldn't be hurt. We didn't want them to suffer punishment when they weren't even followers of Jesus.
What was your mission or objective when you got into the country? What were you willing to do evangelistically?
Mercer: The goal really was twofold—to meet the practical needs of the people whom we went to serve through relief and development, and then, as we had opportunity in the context of relationships, to talk about Jesus. We knew if we were doing one without the other, we were dealing with a half-gospel.
We responded to whatever the people's needs were. If they were sick and needed God to touch them, or if they had a financial need, we prayed for them. If they were asking questions about Jesus, we'd respond by giving a radio or showing the Jesus film. There really wasn't a systematic plan.
Did you have to break Taliban law or did you get around it to share the gospel in some way?
Curry: I think we were just careful. Of course, with a country like Afghanistan, it's a given: You're going to break the law if you're going to ever share about Jesus. But that's one of those things where God's law is higher. He says, Go and share with all nations, all peoples, that he died for every tribe, tongue, nation, language, and people. That rule overrode any law. So we were going to be careful and not be stupid. Plus, we didn't want to put other people in danger unnecessarily unless they knew the risks as well. So it was about building relationships and praying that God would open doors and bring opportunities to share with people whose hearts were hungry.
Some of the time, it was being connected to people. I got to go visit one woman who worked for us, and on her own she had found a Christian radio program and had already become a believer. She asked us, "Are you Christians?" So God connected us with someone whom we could help grow in faith. Then we were able to connect her with another believing lady we knew. Now, they meet together.
How did you relate to the Taliban men?
Curry: Within the Taliban there were some that were in it for the job; their hearts were not in it. One time, a Taliban asked me, "Where are you from?" Although I was scared, I answered truthfully: America. He said, "Will you take me with you?" He was so friendly, it surprised me. Another Taliban man asked me over for tea. He was blown away by our morals. Others hated Westerners.
There was a time during your imprisonment when you two seemed to run into bumpy weather in your friendship. What happened?
Curry: I think we had different viewpoints of the situation.
Mercer: Whether it's lack of faith or whatever people want to call it, I had a more realistic perspective of what the consequence could be. There wasn't a doubt in my mind from the first day that a death sentence could have been a real possibility. The others didn't think that was the case.
I dealt with some serious issues about how to find God in the midst of all this. Every night we went to bed, there was no guarantee that we were going to wake up the next morning. This happened a lot faster than I expected. We both were having totally different experiences. Both were valid, but we had a hard time validating the other's perspective.
You never felt like you would be executed, Dayna?
Curry: No. My understanding of Shari'ah law [told me] that even on the strictest [interpretation] the worst they could give us was five years. Although once the war began, who knew? But we felt like the Lord had given us so many Scriptures about trust, and we felt he was going to get us out. I did say, "Lord, if it's the best for me to die and be a martyr so that there will be a breakthrough in Afghanistan, then that's okay." But I just had a supernatural peace most of the time. Actually, I'm going through way more stress now than I ever did in prison.
If a ransom had been necessary, would you have supported it?
Curry: I didn't want ransom money to be the thing that got us out. I wanted it to be the prayers of the people. When you pay ransom money, it continues that whole cycle of people being kidnapped for money. I didn't want to contribute to that.
Heather, was this one of those issues where you differed?
Mercer: Yes and no. Dayna and I are very different. I agree that it's not the best thing, but I was willing to at least talk with other people and say, "What needs to happen here? Are we looking at [paying a ransom], or are we all going to get hung? What are the options?" So, yes, we did differ on that. But I wasn't totally for it, either.
Looking back on this experience, do you feel that going in you knew enough of the history of Afghanistan, or did some things really surprise you?
Mercer: I don't think I went with my eyes closed. I wrote a letter to my parents before I left, saying I might not come back. I was surprised that it happened so fast, but I wasn't really surprised that we got thrown in prison. It's always been dangerous to associate with Jesus. I remember in 1998 sitting with the family, saying, "I won't be surprised if I end up in prison someday." That was a very real thing in my mind.
The two things that were surprising were how quickly it happened and my response to the trial. I thought I would have handled it better. That's why my favorite guy in the Bible is Peter. He blew it when it counted the most, but God blessed him and loved him enough to deal with the issues in his heart. He went on to preach the gospel and see thousands of people saved. I regret that I didn't hold it together in prison, but it was the mercy of God to let me fail so that I could find his strength in my weakness.
Curry: I knew the possibilities, but I was pretty shocked that we were taken prisoner. People had been working in Afghanistan for over 30 years doing relationship evangelism, and no one was ever put in prison.
What made the difference this time?
Curry: Some people think it was in conjunction with September 11, that [the Taliban] wanted some pawns. I don't know. People from our organization who had friends in the top Taliban leadership were told, "It's from [Mullah] Omar"—the leader of Afghanistan.
Did you catch any flak from the aid workers who got expelled?
Curry: When we heard about this in prison, [we thought] something that we did had caused all of them to have to leave. That was one of the hardest things we dealt with. I think there were a few that were upset. But overall, the majority said, "It could have been any of us." Now that it's all turned around and everyone is able to go back, it's so wonderful.
When did you realize finally that you were set up?
Mercer: The first few days [of our imprisonment]. Looking back, we noticed a few things that were red flags. Had we known a little bit better what to look for, we would have caught them.
Can you give an example of one red flag?
Mercer: The persistence of the family who wanted us to come to their home. Every day during the week before we were arrested, they said, "Come to our family. You have to come to our house this week." They wanted to know how many were coming, and so on.
Was there any kind of talk among the various people in Shelter Now about how and when to share the gospel, or did you feel you had a green light when someone indicated an openness to Christ?
Curry: They just said [to] be careful. What you did on your own personal time was your own judgment, following the Holy Spirit. There was some communication, some working together. We would pray over families before we would visit them.
So none of the other team members would say, "You know, Dayna and Heather, you're really taking some risks here. Maybe you ought to pull back"?
Mercer: It was an organization of a bunch of people who are kind of crazy that way. In the aid community, you have people in both camps. You have people who say, "We're humanitarian aid workers. You can't ever say the name of Jesus." And then there were those who were saying, "Hey, [evangelism is] why we're here." We were working within an organization of people who were like-minded. We were all kingdom-minded people.
Have you kept in touch with the people you witnessed to?
Curry: Most of them are doing well. There's a couple of them that were bitter that all of this happened and [because] we weren't giving them visas to America. But for the most part, all of them are thankful that the Taliban have gone and they have new opportunities. One of the men who was imprisoned said, "God has used this to strengthen my faith." There are powerful stories of God ministering to these Afghans while they were in prison. They haven't come out bitter.
To your knowledge, was anyone connected with you killed?
You both have said you plan to go back. Do you know yet what you will be doing and when?
Curry: I'm in the process of thinking through how to get back and when to go back. So I haven't even really gotten to talk in detail with my pastor. He knows I want to go back, and he's encouraging us both.
Is there anything you would do differently this time?
Curry: I know particularly that we did not have that many people praying for us the day we were arrested. Normally we did, but on that one day we didn't. If you are going to do something like show the Jesus film, make sure there's a whole lot of prayer coverage. And if someone asks for a Bible, make sure they know the risks even at a greater level.
Will there be as much risk now with the new government?
Curry: I don't know. It's all in formation, so maybe it will be freer, and that will be wonderful.
The country is different, and you're international celebrities now. Will you be able to return in obscurity and blend in?
Mercer: That would be ideal.
Curry: In the more remote areas of Afghanistan, they don't have TVs. They have radio, but they haven't seen our faces. It will be interesting to find out. I think a lot of these areas are so remote, people wouldn't have a clue.
Have you considered not going back and using the platform you have now to help evangelicals become aware not only of the needs of Afghans but of the Muslim world?
Mercer: Everybody has a great plan for our lives. It's really funny: "You should do this, you should do that." All of this has actually solidified the desire of my heart to go and live among the poor and invest in people one life at a time and, I hope, see local churches established among people where there's never been a church before. I'm more confident than ever that spending my life on that and being obscure forever really can change the world.
Some missions observers praise you for your zeal in evangelism, but wonder whether your situation might make it harder for missionaries who try to fly in under the radar and do things quietly. Do you feel like it's going to be harder to reach Muslims in that part of the world?
Mercer: I'm sure it will affect people as they look at going back. Different governments might put their antennae up a little bit more. But I rest in the fact that I know God has sovereignly put all of this together. It has nothing to do with us; we're just trying to respond to God in the midst of it. God knows what's happening across the board in the missions movement around the world. This is somehow fitting into part of that big picture to ultimately see his glory fill the Earth and for all mankind to know him.
Others will disagree or agree, but there will be a point in this whole area of missions among Muslims where you're not going to be able to slip under the radar anymore. If we're going to see the glory of God and local communities of believers established in these places where there's never been a gospel witness before, it's going to mean people standing up in the midst of persecution saying, "Yes, I follow Jesus. I know it's not the popular thing here, but I'm going to boldly make known his name." And it will cost people their lives.
We can't forever be incognito Christians and expect it to happen. The church is grown and birthed in the midst of persecution. It was that way in the New Testament, and I believe it will be that way in our generation, too.
So are you ready to die?
Mercer: I've said, "Jesus, if I have to die, then I'm willing to die." I hope and pray that God's gone deep enough in me that I will do better than I did, but I think there might be a next time. I just trust that whatever happens, there will be grace for it. I'm not looking for it; I just want to obey God. I trust that he gives whatever we need.
Dayna, are you ready to die?
Curry: I hope so. I feel like I'm going to be here awhile and maybe have grandkids one day. I don't know, so I'm just going to go and trust the Lord. I don't feel like I'm going to die when I go, but I guess I just trust. In prison there was grace, and if I have to face death, there'll be grace there as well. He'll prepare me for it.
Do either of you have a love interest yet at this stage of your life? At some point, would either of you like to get married?
Mercer: No. I'm quite content.
Curry: I hope so. You do too, Heather!
Mercer: Really, I can honestly say, with as much integrity in my heart that I know, I feel like God's speaking about the future and what he's giving me to do. I am so committed to walking that path that unless God hits me over the head, I think I can be content being single. Some of what I do now I don't know if I could continue to do if I were married. So I don't know. We'll see. Maybe I'll end up getting married somewhere down the line.
What do you plan to do with the money that's going to come in from the book and any other projects?
Curry: It all goes into our Hope Afghanistan foundation. Almost all the funds are going to go to help with the rebuilding of Afghanistan and to help the people who are there to serve the Afghans. It's exciting. Before, the needs would overwhelm us, and we couldn't help everybody. But now we're going to help way more people than we ever thought imaginable.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
A ready-to-download Bible Study on this article is available at ChristianBibleStudies.com. These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.
Also appearing on our site today:
From Afghanistan Aid Workers to Hostages of the TalibanExcerpts from Prisoners of Hope, the book by Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer with Stacy Mattingly.
'Their Faith and Courage Has Strengthened Me'Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry speak about Martin and Gracia Burnham.
Previous Christianity Today coverage of Dayna and Heather's imprisonment includes:
The Agony of the FamiliesAs aid workers in Afghanistan went from defendants under draconian law to hostages in a war, their loved ones at home also underwent a trial.
Entrapment SuspectedShelter Now leader believes workers were pawns in Taliban scheme. (January 18, 2002)
Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry Go Home to WacoChurch will send short-term mission to Afghanistan in the spring. (Dec. 11, 2001)
Free at Last!All 24 Shelter Now aid workers are going home. (Nov. 15, 2001)
Dayna Curry Will Celebrate Her 30th Birthday in a Taliban PrisonWith trial indefinitely postponed, the future is murky for Shelter Now hostages. (Nov. 2, 2001)
Caught in the CrossfireFamily, churches press for release of American missionaries in Kabul. (Oct. 31, 2001)
In Perspective: The Friendliest Murderous Militants in the WorldThe Soviet Union, United States, and others helped create Afghanistan's ruling Taliban. Will the world's most Islamic state backfire? (August 30, 2001)
Aid Workers Held CaptiveTaliban alleges housing group's staff engaged in evangelism. (August 30, 2001)
Diplomats Receive Visas Into Afghanistan, but Will Only Meet with OfficialsOver a week after raid on Shelter Germany, future for workers still unclear. (Aug. 13, 2001)
Mercer and Curry's book, Prisoners of Hope, is available at Christianbook.com.
CNN's People in the News section on includes a profile of Dayna and Heather in addition to a timeline of their captivity.
M2.0 Records recently announced it will produce and distribute the Prisoners of Hope: Songs of Freedom CD featuring Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer.
For more articles on Afghanistan, see Christianity Today's World Report and Yahoo! full coverage.
Special Report: Afghanistan features ongoing PBS' Online NewsHour coverage of the situation in Afghanistan.
Recent media coverage and interviews with Mercer and Curry include:
Ex-Taliban captives cope with celebrity—Atlanta Journal-Constitution (June 22, 2002)
Aid workers tell of Taliban prison experience—CBN (December 7, 2001)
Curry, Mercer tell students to desire God's best—Baptist Press News
Former Taliban captives tell tale of frightful contrasts—The Washington Post (November 17, 2001)
Witness to atrocities in Taliban jail—San Francisco Chronicle (November 17, 2001)
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