Prison, freedom 'all about Jesus,' former Afghan captives tell crowd

WACO, Texas (BP)--About 4,000 people in Waco, Texas, celebrated homecoming Dec. 8 for two American aid workers jailed 104 days by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer told the assembly that God uses ordinary people to change the world and that he used their imprisonment to change hearts in both Afghanistan and America.

Cheers filled Baylor University's Ferrell Center as people shouted, sang, clapped and raised their hands -- not for their hometown heroes, but for Jesus, the one who sent the women to Afghanistan to be living examples of God's love, carried them through three months in Taliban prisons and delivered them Nov. 14.

"This whole story is a story about Jesus and what he can do in our lives and our nation and the world," said Mercer, 24, who was a leader in Waco's Antioch Community Church before going overseas in March.

The women repeatedly pointed to Christ and his work through their lives at a news conference Saturday afternoon, at Baylor Saturday night and at Antioch on Sunday morning.

Curry and Mercer were among eight foreign and 16 Afghan workers with the Germany-based Shelter Now relief agency who were arrested in Afghanistan Aug. 3 on charges of preaching Christianity to Muslims. Curry believes God allowed their imprisonment so they could pray for Afghanistan during the conflict.

"It was God who allowed us to be put in there," said Curry, 30, who was a social worker for Waco schools before going to Afghanistan in 1999. "He wanted us to be there to pray."

The pair also believe prayer was the driving force behind their release.

"You guys are the hero in this story," Mercer said to the people who prayed for their release. "We're alive today because you prayed and didn't give up."

While Curry and Mercer were imprisoned, people at Antioch Community Church prayed 24 hours a day for their release. Those prayers were answered Nov. 14 when the workers' captors fled and Northern Alliance soldiers released them from jail.

Church members said God used the experience to strengthen their faith and intensify their passion for missions.

"It's really centered my own heart," said Cristen Almond, an Antioch member and friend of Mercer. "God is doing great things. There's a need, and they really just need people. There's a harvest there."

Danny Mulkey, associate pastor at Antioch, hopes Curry and Mercer's story will challenge young people around the nation.

"When believers go through great hardship, the result tends to be an influx of participants. That's what I'm hoping to see," he said. "This generation has been pampered, and they're saying, 'I need to sink my teeth into something that matters.'"

Curry and Mercer's story was a "reality check," for Antioch member Sammy Jones. During the women's imprisonment, he asked, "What am I living for? Is it really worth laying down my life for Jesus?"

Eventually he concluded that following Christ is worth the price, and he was encouraged by the women's faith.

"God can use anyone who's willing to be obedient," Jones said. "Heather often says, 'What can God do with a heart that's fully his?'"

Almond and Jones' comments reflect the fact that Antioch understands God's heart for the nations. One church member said the church operates a training school to prepare believers for missionary work. During the nine-month program, the school sends students on three short-term missions projects. Some of the students eventually serve as long-term missions workers.

"They're just normal girls, but they really love Jesus," said Kara Stockdale, who coordinates Antioch's ministry to inner-city children, said of Curry and Mercer. "He's radically changed them. Anything good that happens is from the Lord and his strength."

Curry and Mercer are quick to agree they are not exceptional people, and Curry hopes their story will "demystify Christians."

"We're normal people that have been changed by an extraordinary God," she said.

During the weekend, the women encouraged people to continue praying for Christians who still are imprisoned around the world, people like Martin and Gracia Burnham, an American missionary couple held captive by Muslim rebels in the Philippines.

Near the end of the homecoming celebration, Curry lifted her hands to God, and Mercer's face was upturned in praise as the congregation sang, "It's all about You, Jesus. And all this is for You, for Your glory and Your fame."

"It's not about me and Dana, but it's about God's desire to communicate his love all over the world, and he's used a bunch of simple people to do it," Mercer said. "Not only have we been changed, but a nation's been changed. Afghanistan's been changed. I believe that God is touching America as well through this story.

"God can communicate with a grieving nation that his love is real, that he is real. He still works miracles today, and he still answers prayers. And no matter what crises we face, we can come to him with our pain, our hurt, our grief, our fear, and he'll give us grace to overcome it.

"We really hope that this story will be an encouragement to our nation and draw people to the place where they can find peace through Jesus."


(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: RELEASED TO WORSHIP and READY TO ANSWER.

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