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CAPTURED BY FAITH <br> HER AID MISSION TO AFGHANISTAN HAS PUT HEATHER MERCER AT THE MERCY OF A HOSTILE TALIBAN COURT. BUT HER FAMILY AND ASSOCIATES SAY SHE INSISTED ON RISKING EVERYTHING FOR HER CHRISTIAN IDEALS.

Halfway around the globe, Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry remain under arrest in the battered, bomb-rocked capital of Afghanistan.

The two American women and six other aid workers are captives of the Taliban, which rules the impoverished people they risked everything to help.

Forbidden by the nation's strict Muslim rulers to enter Afghan homes or spread Christianity, they allegedly admitted playing a movie about Jesus for an Afghan family.

Why would young, well-educated women move to Afghanistan, possibly the most hostile place on earth for people like them: American Christian women determined to share their faith in Jesus?

Their road to Kabul passed through this sun-baked Texas city, and so must any search for answers.

For the two young women, according to friends and family, moving to Afghanistan was a simple act of faith. They went because God wanted them to.

"They knew they were going into a civil war and that their lives were in danger," said Jimmy Seibert, senior pastor at Waco's Antioch Community Church, where fellow churchgoers have prayed, in shifts, for their deliverance 24 hours a day since news of their arrests in August. "They took that risk. They were willing to go and serve, even knowing the risks of (putting) their lives in jeopardy."

They agreed with the Taliban to restrictions on preaching in their day jobs, Seibert said -- but the deal didn't cover their spare time.

"If people asked, they wouldn't deny Jesus and their love for him," Seibert said. "It's like putting a fish in water and asking her not to swim."

Mercer -- whose mother and stepfather live in Lewiston, N.Y. -- and Curry believe that the highest purpose of their lives is determining what God wants them to do, and then "laying down their lives" for him, Seibert said. He spoke here in the spacious Antioch worship space, carved out of a former Safeway supermarket.

In this brand of Christianity, "laying down your life" refers to the goal of total subordination of a person's will to the will of God.

In this air-conditioned church, with its rows of padded seats, smell of fresh paint and the raised stage where the musicians plug in their instruments to praise Jesus, the phrase sounds like a stirring metaphor.

But in the Kabul jail, where men with AK-47s guard Mercer, Curry and the six other foreign aid workers arrested with them, will the axiom become, instead, a sentence?

Passion for Jesus

Mercer, 24, came to Waco from Virginia. Curry, 29, arrived from Tennessee. They were drawn by the same beacon: Baylor University, the largest Baptist school in the world.

At James Madison High School in the Washington suburb of Vienna, Va., Mercer made her passion for Jesus well known. After her parents divorced, she stayed in Virginia with her father, John; her mother, Deborah, went home to the Niagara Falls area. Deborah later married Del Oddy, a longtime Youngstown resident, and settled in Lewiston.

In Virginia, Heather Mercer ran track and was an active member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The school's 1995 yearbook shows a smiling, demure girl with wide-set blue eyes and long, wavy brown hair.

The yearbook entry listing her activities ends with the words, "Love ya all! Fly with Christ," and cites Isaiah 40:30-31.

That passage reads: "Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint."

By the time Mercer arrived at Baylor, Dayna Curry had graduated with a degree in social work. After spending summers in Mexico and Guatemala working with the poor, Curry was hired by the Waco school system to help students at an alternative high school.

At Baylor, Mercer found an institution dedicated not only to education, but to turning Christian thought into action.

Even measured against other Bible Belt schools, Baylor is "a different kind of place," said Steve Graves, director of student missions.

Baylor's undergraduate population of 13,000 certainly includes many who aren't devout, Graves said. But the school attracts a high proportion of students already committed to making Jesus the center of their lives, he said. Freshmen are required to attend chapel twice a week for two semesters and take courses on the Old Testament, New Testament and Baptist thought.

On Monday night, folks settled in across Texas to watch the Dallas Cowboys battle the arch-rival Washington Redskins on "Monday Night Football."

In Waco, a few blocks from the Baylor campus, hundreds of college students in slacks and sweats and baseball caps gathered, too. But they were carrying Bibles -- not six-packs -- as they headed to Baylor's traditional Monday night Bible study.

Was the turnout because the Cowboys were 0-4? Hardly, laughed Graves.

The school also places an emphasis on student "missions," which combine volunteer work with sharing their faith with those they serve. From 500 to 800 of the school's 13,000 undergraduates will spend spring break far from beaches and beer funnels, Graves said, helping the poor and unfortunate while spreading the Christian gospel.

Some answer the call by becoming lawyers, or computer programmers, and integrating their faith into the way they do business, he said. Others serve the poor and needy, in Waco or elsewhere in America.

Then there are those who go even further to answer God's call. Like Mercer and Curry, they are led to foreign lands, serving in the face of obstacles unknown in America.

In the past five years, Graves said, he has noticed a "real movement of students looking at giving their lives away."

Making her faith known

At Baylor, Mercer pursued a degree in German, telling teachers she was interested in language study for foreign aid work.

"She felt she could help people in need if she could communicate with them," said Ann McGlashan, an assistant professor in the German department. "From the time she got here, she was on her mission."

She made her faith known to all, though not in an aggressive way, McGlashan said.

"She would mention her prayer life," the professor said. "You knew that she tried to live her life as an example. Some people can be threatening like that, but she was nonjudgmental."

Mercer was a pleasure, said her German professor, Frauke Harvey.

"She was very pleasant, always came prepared, didn't cut class," Harvey said. "Her family, her church and her studies, those were the areas she was engaged in."

Still, "she struck me as a very sheltered girl," Harvey said. "Coming from such a sheltered background, I would never have thought she would go to a country like Afghanistan."

But as Mercer explained later, once the plight of Afghan women and orphans came to her attention, she could not turn away, Harvey said.

"A 12-year-old girl steps on a mine. What's her future under the Taliban? She's doomed to life as a beggar," Harvey said. "And you're an American girl, maybe a little spoiled. What do you do? You see a hungry orphan, and it bonds you to them. You want to help."

It remains to Mercer's credit, Harvey said, that "she saw the need, and wanted to give."

Following her conscience

Even three years ago, in Austin, Texas, the sight of a poor woman her age without shoes was enough to move Mercer to act, said Jeannie McGinniss, a friend and former roommate who worked with Mercer in Antioch Community Church's college ministry.

They were shopping on a street of boutiques near the University of Texas when she saw a barefoot woman, "obviously in poverty," McGinniss said. Mercer declined to give her money, and asked if she could pray for her. Then Mercer took off her new tennis shoes and gave them to the woman, walking away barefoot until she found a place to buy another pair for herself.

"She wanted to meet that immediate need," McGinniss said.

It was not done for show, she said, because Mercer isn't like that.

"She would probably be mortified," McGinniss said, "to know how famous she is right now."

Even on vacation, when she visited the home of her mother and stepfather in Lewiston, Mercer spent time taking sandwiches and cookies to poor people in Niagara Falls, said Oddy. She collected gloves and clothes, and delivered them to shelters.

"She really took it to heart," Oddy said. "That's why I think she (went to) Afghanistan -- she took it to heart, the need there."

Mercer had heard about Afghanistan from Curry, a fellow Antioch member, who had already spent time with missions there. Curry's parents had tried to stop her, but she followed her conscience, returning with stories of tremendous need in a country battered by two decades of near-constant war.

In summer 1998, Mercer traveled to Afghanistan and saw the situation for herself, McGinniss said. When she returned to her Waco apartment, she pinned a map of Afghanistan to the wall and prayed for its people every day, McGinniss said.

Mercer's parents tried to stop her Afghanistan mission as well. Her father spent hours talking to her. Her mother even tried to enlist the U.S. State Department, members of Congress and senators in her struggle to keep her daughter away, according to the New York Times.

"Once she was determined the Lord had spoken to her, she was going to do it," said Gary Adam, an Antioch member and friend to both women. "She's a very determined young lady. Man, I wouldn't want to get in her way."

Mercer and Curry went to Kabul in March to work with the Germany-based aid group Shelter Now. Mercer expected to stay at least two years, and Curry had signed up for another two-year commitment as well.

Caring for women, children

In Kabul, Mercer helped with administration and concentrated on learning Dari, one of Afghanistan's main dialects, said their Antioch pastor Jimmy Seibert. Curry concentrated on a program to care for about 60 street children. Shelter Now had taken responsibility for thousands of women driven to cities by famine and drought, and forbidden to work by the fundamentalist Muslim Taliban government, Seibert said.

The aid workers' help was a matter of life or death for these women, often reduced to begging, Seibert said.

"People were dying by the day," he said of the starvation and weakness of being without food.

In July, the Taliban distributed a letter to foreign aid groups operating in the country, officially notifying them of forbidden practices, including eating pork and trying to convert Muslims to other religions. The groups had to sign to stay.

Two weeks later, Mercer, Curry and six other Shelter Now employees were arrested. Taliban officials took Mercer and Curry into custody after the two women allegedly spent time in the home of a Kabul family, which is against Taliban law. Religious police raided Shelter Now buildings, and other Christian aid groups were expelled from the country.

If convicted, the aid workers could serve more jail time, then be expelled from the country, Taliban officials said.

Taliban officials allowed a New York Times reporter to review the evidence against the Shelter Now workers. It included a signed statement from Mercer and Curry.

"We gave two copies of one book about Jesus to one family," it read in part. "We have not given anything else, no other books or material to anyone else. We sang alone one song about God, not about Jesus. They did not sing with us. We drank green tea."

The women also allegedly reported playing a CD-ROM movie about the life of Jesus on a computer. It lasted an hour, until stopped by a malfunction. Another Shelter Now worker's statement refers to playing Afghans a CD movie about Jesus, translated into Dari.

The detainees' parents hired a Pakistani lawyer to represent their children before the Taliban court. The courtroom where their trial began in early September was adorned only with a leather strap used in public floggings, Quran verses, two swords and a calendar depicting a U.S. missile attack on Afghanistan in 1998.

Parents get messages

When terrorists crashed jetliners into U.S. targets on Sept. 11, the parents of Mercer and Curry had just visited their children. They have been in Islamabad, Pakistan, since, waiting for a chance to see them.

On Oct. 7, the United States started bombing targets in Kabul and across Afghanistan after the Taliban refused to deliver Osama bin Laden, the top terrorism suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks.

The detainees have been able to get messages out to their parents during the U.S. bombing campaign, Oddy said. Several days ago, Mercer said in a message, an American bomb rocked the jail she's in so severely that her cell door popped open. But there was no chance for escape. "Where was she going to go?" Oddy said. "The kid in the hall with the AK-47 didn't move anyways."

All family and friends can do is turn to God and pray for him to send another angel of deliverance, Jimmy Seibert said.

In the New Testament, the apostle Peter, jailed for preaching, was delivered by an angel of God after fellow Christians prayed for him, Seibert said.

"Whether that angel is a Taliban official that he has favor with, or a literal angel of heaven opening the gates for them," Seibert said, "we are trusting that God will make a way for them."

News Washington Bureau Reporter Jerry Zremski contributed to this report.
e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com

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