The Taliban takeover of Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 15 made my heart go out to the Afghan people. It also prompted me to reflect on a book I had read several years ago: Prisoners of Hope by Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer. Curry and Mercer were serving as missionaries in Kabul in the summer of 2001 when they were arrested by the Taliban. The events of 9/11 happened in the middle of their trial. After spending 105 days in Taliban prisons, they were released and returned home to America. Soon after, I heard one of the authors speak at a women’s event at my church, and I was so moved that I sought out the book.
I remember thinking at the time how brave these women were and how much they must have trusted God in order to choose to serve him in a place where it was not only dangerous to practice Christianity, it was dangerous for women to travel alone. I was inspired by their courage. God had used these women, who didn’t look so different from myself, who were raised in a similar way, as part of the Great Commission. God gave them the inner fortitude to travel to a land very different from their own, and then, when they were arrested by a group of men who had little or no respect for their faith, God protected them.
In light of the tragic end to the protracted and, as others have attested, poorly managed war in Afghanistan, and this being the 20th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11—and, consequently, of Curry and Mercer’s captivity—I decided to reread the book. It was harder this time. Maybe it was because I’ve read so many more books over the past two decades, and, since reading promotes empathy, I have that much more compassion for these two women. This time, it felt like in some way I was there. Since the mind doesn’t know the difference between reading about an emergency, watching a movie about it, or actually experiencing it, it’s like I was alongside Dayna in the back of a taxi when an Afghan man slid into the seat next to her looking for Heather.
Maybe it’s because I now know that when the Taliban fled Kabul and Northern Alliance forces rescued these women in November 2001, it was not the end of the Taliban’s oppressive reign in Afghanistan. Maybe it’s because I share some things in common with these women. Not only do we have somewhat similar upbringings, Curry is my age and Mercer is my sister’s age. Perhaps it was a combination of factors that made this a difficult read for me. But I believe we need to read books that challenge our perceptions and beliefs, that shake us from our complacencies.
In the book, Mercer says that while she was privileged growing up, she also learned to value people who were not like her. I may never go to Afghanistan, but reading accounts of others who have been there helps me to better understand a culture and life so different from my own. The better I understand, the better I can pray for those living there and fulfill God’s calling for me to love my neighbor and pray for my enemies.
At the same time, there are aspects of life there that are difficult for me to wrap my mind around. Women there set themselves on fire to escape abusive husbands. Poor children sell squares of toilet paper for pennies to feed their families. The thought of it, the weight of it . . . How can this be? I am blessed (some would say privileged) because this is not my experience. What I see is kids throwing out their school lunches and driving around in BMWs their parents bought for them. When our family went to Guatemala on a mission trip, we served lunch at a soup kitchen that was set up in the middle of a dump where people were living. To this day, the memory sobers me. Sometimes I pray that God will give me his heart for his people. But honestly? I don’t know if I’m strong enough.
As I reread the book, I was chastened into admitting that I often take my religious freedom for granted. I can choose to go to church and worship with other believers. I have a variety of churches to choose from, and I can freely walk into any one of them. In places like Afghanistan, Christians are persecuted for their belief. The reason Curry and Mercer were arrested by the Taliban? They had shown a movie about the life of Jesus to an Afghan family and, because of this, were accused of inviting the family to accept Christianity. They were arrested and the man of the house was beaten.
Before the two women showed the family the movie, they explained to them that if they were caught, they risked such persecution. The family wanted to know more about Jesus anyway. To them, it was worth the risk. I have to ask myself: Do I love Jesus that much? Enough to be beaten for him?
Not all of us will be called to a witness as dramatic as Curry and Mercer’s. This does not mean that we cannot take inspiration from their acts of radical compassion. In our own cities, towns, and neighborhoods, there are people in need of the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy. To evangelize is not necessarily to proselytize: we are more likely to win souls for Christ by who we are as living examples of our faith than by what we say. Curry and Mercer’s story, so powerfully expressed in this book, shows us the struggles and the fruits of faith in action.
Amy Nicholson hopes to encourage and inspire others through her writing. She has been published in Country Woman, The Old Schoolhouse, The Lookout, and other publications. In addition to writing and discovering grace in ordinary places, Amy substitute teaches. Visit her at: www.amynicholson14.wordpress.com.