Before we committed to working in Afghanistan long-term, we each asked ourselves hard questions. We also answered hard questions posed by our families and friends. Extraordinary are the parents who don’t balk at the idea of their child moving to a third-world, war-ravaged, drought-stricken country—and, in this case, a country serving as a hub for international terrorist activity. That we had decided to go as Christian aid workers to a country where a harsh, unpredictable regime severely curtailed religious freedom gave most of our loved ones pause at best, and otherwise prompted serious alarm. We were asked: “Aren’t you being foolish? Why would you jeopardize your own safety?”
Of course, countless individuals choose to put themselves in harm’s way every day because they believe in what they are doing. Police officers, fire fighters, journalists, CIA agents, U.S. special forces, United Nations peacekeepers—these people sacrifice their own security to pursue their passions, convictions and dreams. We were no different. Our dream was to go to hard-to-reach places and demonstrate God’s love by serving the poorest of the poor.
Just as some people are motivated in their vocations by political ideology or patriotism, we were motivated to serve the poor by our love for Jesus. He loved us enough to rescue us from our destructive behaviors, selfishness, bitterness and isolation. He was a faithful friend who protected and provided for us. We wanted to do the things that he considered important.
In reading the Bible, we learned that feeding the hungry and clothing the naked were of paramount concern to Jesus. When you do these things, he told his disciples, you do them to me. If Jesus lived among the poor and dying, the widowed and orphaned; then we, too, wanted to live among such people. We knew we didn’t have to go to Afghanistan to serve the poor—Waco, Texas, is home to plenty of people without adequate means to live. We wanted to go to Afghanistan because we knew few others were willing to do so.
“But aren’t you really going to Afghanistan to try to convert people to Christianity?” we were asked. “Isn’t the work with the poor just a way into people’s lives so you can preach to them?”
We certainly hoped we would have opportunities to share about Jesus with those who were interested. Jesus turned our lives upside down in a way that brought us enormous joy and hope. Of course we wanted to share this with others. If something touches your life in a powerful way, you don’t keep silent about it. To use a simple analogy, if you get hooked on a new diet and lose twenty pounds, you want to share that diet plan with others because it’s effective. For us, Jesus did something that defied even what we could imagine in our own minds—he healed our emotions; he gave us the ability to love and forgive; he mended our relationships; he showed us he had purpose for our lives. That’s good news. Naturally, we wanted others to hear it if they desired.
But the word “convert” does not accurately reflect our intentions; it implies something vaguely manipulative, even dishonest. What we wanted to do was serve the Afghan people because we felt God had put a special love for them in our hearts. If the Afghans asked us, “Why are you doing this? Why did you leave your good life in America and come to this place?” we wanted them to know: “Because God utterly changed our lives and healed our broken hearts with his love. He loves you that much and has a purpose for your life, too.”
Ultimately, many Afghans asked us questions about Jesus. The Afghans were very curious about our beliefs, and the topic of religion came up in conversation on a daily basis. Even while we were in prison, the Taliban officials with whom we interacted asked us questions frequently about our faith. We honestly talked more about Jesus in Afghanistan than we ever did in America. Was this because we were out trying to force our religious beliefs on others who didn’t want anything to do with us? No, it was because the Afghans wouldn’t stop asking us questions about our God.
Further, in a war-torn country where people barely survive meal-to-meal, hearts are worn on the sleeve—talk of God comes naturally. A taxi driver might say, “Oh, the country is being destroyed. There’s no hope.”
We might respond, “We’re praying for your country, that God will restore and rebuild it.”
He might agree: “We hope God will do that, too; but it doesn’t look like it.”
People showed up in desperate straits at our door every day asking for help. Even our Taliban neighbors came to us and asked whether we could do anything for their disabled son. Our conversations with Afghan women would include mention of spiritual things largely because the women were so depressed about their circumstances. When talking to a widow despairing over her sick, malnourished children, we naturally would tend to comfort her—as we would comfort anyone here in America—with the things that had given us hope.
“God loves you and He wants to help you,” we might say. “When we’re sad we tell Him about our problems, and He gives us peace. Can we pray for you and ask God to give you peace?” The Afghan women welcomed our prayers. We would ask permission to pray in the name of Jesus, and permission was always granted. Always. We would give them food and medicine, too, but these alone weren’t enough to address the wounds of the heart.
Some people have asked us: “By targeting people with the greatest needs, aren't you trying to influence them to become Christians? At the very least, aren’t you creating the impression that becoming a Christian would be advantageous from a material standpoint?”
We did not mislead anyone through giving. When people approached us saying they wanted to become followers of Jesus, we would explain specifically that their decision would not gain them anything special from us such as extra money or visas to America. By following Jesus, they would get Jesus—his constant companionship, his promise to love them and never leave them—not groceries or appliances or cash. All we could promise would be our friendship, and that we gave to most people who sought it.
We understood the Taliban prohibited non-Muslims from sharing their faith with Afghans. Of course, this law violated international norms. The Taliban, which had a miserable human rights record, guaranteed its citizens no religious freedom and very limited freedom of speech. Only three countries—Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates—even recognized the Taliban as a legitimate government. Though we weren’t planning to go to Afghanistan and thump our Bibles on the streets of Kabul, we hoped to be able to share deeply about Jesus in a natural way with our friends just as we do here in America. Friends share their hearts with one another in love. We wanted to exercise that freedom.
We did understand that by answering a friend’s probing question about Jesus we might indeed be breaking the Taliban’s law, though even then the lines were unclear. In their own language, the Taliban forbade foreigners to “invite Afghans to other religions.” We simply were making ourselves available to those Afghans who wanted to know about our faith. Nevertheless, we recognized that if the Taliban perceived us as having broken their law or crossed their line, we would have to be prepared to accept the consequences. In the end, we were willing to take punishment because we really believed God had called us to Afghanistan.
Further, our faith compelled us to talk openly about Jesus where opportunity arose. In the Bible, Jesus directed his followers to go and share his truth with people all over the world. We recognize that not everyone agrees with our view that the Bible is true, or with our interpretation of the Bible; but like anyone else, we have to live out our convictions. We wanted others at least to have the chance to hear about Jesus if they were interested. What they chose to do with the things we shared would be between them and God. We could not force people to embrace a religious faith even if we tried. No individual can reach that deeply into the heart of another. The inclination of a person’s heart is God’s business, not ours.
Why couldn’t we just accept that the Afghans were Muslims and keep our faith in Jesus to ourselves?, some people asked us. We respect Muslims—their devotion to prayer and desire to be fully submitted to God are remarkable. In addition, Christians could learn a great deal from the Afghans’ unflagging commitment to hospitality. At the same time, we believe the Afghans—like all people—should have the opportunity at least to hear about the teachings of Christ if they choose. Do the Afghans not have a right to study other religions if they wish and make decisions about matters of faith for themselves?
The most difficult of all the questions we faced concerned those Afghans who might decide to become followers of Jesus based on any connection with us. The Taliban ruled that for Afghan Muslims, changing religions was a crime punishable by death. The same law holds in some other Muslim countries. Some people close to us wanted to know how we in good conscience could go to Afghanistan and share anything about Jesus with Afghans, knowing that in the end those same Afghans might wind up with death sentences.
In dealing with this reality, we decided that we would only share about faith in Jesus on a deep level if Afghans approached us on their own initiative and were persistent in their inquiries. The Afghans, too, knew the risks. If they demonstrated determination to learn more about Jesus, we could not in good conscience deny them. We tried to be extraordinarily careful and we allowed the Afghans to set the boundaries for our interactions, and we went to their homes only if they repeatedly invited us. If an Afghan approached us wanting to become a follower of Jesus, we would explain the very real dangers tied to that decision and encourage the individual to consider the matter with great care. “You could lose everything,” we would say. “You could be beaten. You could die.”
Ultimately, some Afghans were willing to take a chance. In fact, even as the Taliban seemed to be tightening its control over religious minorities in the months leading up to our arrest, Afghans seemed more curious about Jesus than ever. Looking back on events, perhaps we should have been more cautious answering the Afghans’ questions during such a tense, restrictive season in Taliban history. But at the time, it was very difficult for us to turn people away who wanted to know more about Jesus.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Prisoners of Hope by Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer with Stacy Mattingly. Copyright © 2002 by Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer with Stacy Mattingly. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.