Home for Christmas

National | Waco's Antioch Community Church welcomes back its most famous missionaries

Issue: "Daniel of the year 2001," Dec. 22, 2001

in Waco-Antioch Community Church is housed in a former Waco supermarket with an arch on top. The arch is painted the same bland off-white as the rest of the brick building, which is surrounded by pawnshops, a lottery joint, and a discount auto supply store. Not the stuff that church dreams are made of, but Saturday, Dec. 8, was a dream come true for Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, the American aid workers rescued Nov. 14 after 104 days in prison and sometimes despair in Afghanistan ("Sheltered, now," Dec. 1). Inside the church's 900-seat auditorium, cameras started popping and cheers rang out as Miss Mercer, 24, told reporters at a press conference: "Waco is really a home for us. We feel like we are back with family. This is a day we dreamed about. This is a day we prayed for." They had already made stops in New York, the Washington, D.C., area, and Nashville. Chatting with President Bush in the Oval Office and appearing on Larry King and the Today show were all part of their welcome home party. "It's been a huge adjustment," Miss Curry, 30, said, "walking in an airport and someone asks you for an autograph or a photo. It's weird." The weirdness is likely to continue. The women have hired an agent to field 30 book offers, 20 movie proposals, 200 media requests-including Oprah, Barbara Walters, and 60 Minutes-and 300 speaking requests from churches. They are "feeling good" about doing a book, but "still haven't had time to think about doing a movie." They also want to produce a CD of worship songs they sang in prison, and "donate all the proceeds to Afghanistan," explained Miss Curry in a Texas drawl. "We thought of that one in prison." But their weekend in Waco was largely a time to visit with friends. They flew in on Friday, ate at Fresh Choice, and spent the night with two close friends. One of them was Susan Whitlatch, 40, who during the press conference sat in the back of the church quietly addressing Christmas cards. She met Miss Curry on a mission trip to Russia in 1992 and was her roommate for three years. They exchanged over 100 e-mails while Miss Curry was in Afghanistan, but after the arrest "there were no more." When they met again in Waco, "We screamed, and then hugged. I can't believe it has happened at last." Church members who had prayed for the women's release in a round-the-clock prayer group that met in a room in the back of the church for three months also were amazed. "You just want to pinch yourself-is it real?" said Sara Jones, who attended Baylor with Miss Mercer and was a church "accountability partner" with her. They met again Saturday at a lunch for Miss Mercer and church staff members at Ninfa's, a Mexican restaurant chosen "because Heather wrote [from prison] that she really missed chicken quesadillas," Miss Curry explained. Now the prayer room is empty, holding only deserted coffee mugs, a leather Bible, guitar, pictures of the women, an American flag, and the last few prayer sign-up sheets before their release. "We probably wouldn't be alive if people hadn't prayed," said Miss Curry. "I think people's faith has been increased. Since I've been out, different ones have come up to me and said, 'You got me praying again.' I think this whole situation has brought people back to God like never before." She may be right. On Saturday night, 4,000 people filled Ferrell Center-Baylor's gold-plated dome basketball auditorium-for a citywide celebration. "We're here to celebrate!" boomed Antioch pastor Jimmy Seibert, 37, from the simple black stage erected on the shiny wood floor. Miss Curry shook her fist in the air triumphantly, and Miss Mercer told the crowd, "God is good. I am overwhelmed by the support and prayers and people that have given their lives that we might remain free." At Antioch's Sunday morning 9 a.m. service, with cameras banned, all the songs were those sung by the women during their imprisonment. During remarks, Miss Curry confessed she had lied during interrogation by the Taliban when asked if she had given Bibles to any Afghans. She expressed regret at replying "no," even though a "yes" might have resulted in harsher punishment for shielding names of the recipients. She said the first time she broke down in prison was when all her underwear was stolen. "But Heather was gracious enough to give me one of hers," she laughed. "Hey, this is family, right?" During the service, the two returnees and other church members laid hands on two missionary families leaving for Asia. Pastor Seibert reminded his congregation that "these people are just as important as Dayna and Heather," and noted that the two women "have really given fire to all our other missionaries, and our church." The church plans to send off an Afghanistan missionary team next spring, and by now it knows the terrain well. Antioch sent one of its pastors, white-bearded Danny Mulkey, to Kabul on Sept. 5 for the duration of the Mercer/Curry confinement to help in any way he could. He had to transfer to Islamabad with the women's parents after American bombing began, but he wanted the two women "to know they were covered, and that we were as close as we could possibly get to them." Miss Curry and Miss Mercer ultimately hope to return to Afghanistan as well, despite parental opposition. "My heart is in Afghanistan," said Miss Mercer. "I belong there. Those people are my people. I feel like that's where I fit. We've prayed so long for the rebuilding of Afghanistan.... We don't want to miss it." But at the Dec. 9 service, Miss Curry and Miss Mercer sang three songs they had composed in prison, including a jazzy tune titled, "We Wanna Go Home," with these words: "We've learned a lot, but now it's colder, and the food is greasier, and we want to go home, Lord." Now they are home, for Christmas.

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