Missionaries or Not?
by Dennis R. Hoover
At a Rose Garden event November 26 President Bush welcomed "two good
souls," 24-year-old Heather Mercer and 30-year-old Dayna Curry. Along
with six other westerners involved in aid projects under the auspices of
Shelter Now Afghanistan—an operation administratively based in Germany,
and ambiguously related to the Shelter Now International, headquartered in
Wisconsin—the two were freed November 14 after enduring three and a half
months of imprisonment on charges of Christian proselytizing.
Bush said this was (a) a story about how "Heather Mercer and Dayna
Curry decided to go to help people who needed help. Their faith led them to
Afghanistan." And (b) "a story about the faith that sustained them…
[and] a story about people in our country who rallied for them. People
prayed all around the country."
While Mercer and Curry were still in prison, most journalists declined to
deviate too far from these stock frames of faith as a motivator for acts of
service, and prayer as a source of strength and solidarity in times of
crisis. The question of whether the evangelical faith of these workers
motivated them to seek converts, and whether and how they acted on these
motivations—in other words, whether they might have been guilty as charged—was
left largely unasked until after their release.
Before then, the vast majority of news stories identified Mercer and
Curry simply as "aid workers," the preferred phraseology of
Shelter Now and other evangelical organizations that help westerners enter
and work in Islamic countries which do not grant visas to
Whether this was an act of journalistic chivalry (on the theory that
covering them as missionaries might jeopardize their physical safety while
in the hands of the capriciously brutal Taliban) or a product of anemic
religion reporting, the result was the same. Dimensions of the story that
might have been explored earlier—especially the effort to combine social
service with "friendship evangelism" in Islamic countries—were
mostly missing from the pre-release coverage.
In her first-day story August 6, NPR’s Vicky Ohara spoke with Shelter
Now representative Mike Heil, who explained the role of Christianity in
their workers’ activities as conversation, not proclamation: "[I]f in
the course of conversations with individuals the subject of religion comes
up, in a religious society like Pakistan or Afghanistan, questions may be
asked. And I could say that we don’t put restrictions on people from, you
know, sharing their point of view when asked. But going out and pursuing
encounters, I can say that they’re not doing that."
Mercer and Curry had been arrested after visiting the home of an Afghan
family. Shortly after the arrests and a raid on Shelter Now offices the
Taliban religious police displayed materials they claimed to have seized,
including Bibles translated into Dari, slips of paper with the frequency of
a Christian radio station on them, a film about Jesus, and a book entitled
"Sharing Your Faith With a Muslim."
In late August the Taliban produced what was described as a
"confession," signed by Mercer and Curry and admitting that they
showed a Christian film and gave Christian literature to the Afghan family.
Yet journalists were seemingly incurious about this material. (In fact,
among evangelical Protestants the seized movie is known simply as the Jesus
film; a favorite tool of evangelization efforts for over two decades, it has
been dubbed into 685 languages.)
As Newsday reported November 17 (after the release of the
two women), technically the "natural conversations" defense was
never relevant to the Taliban. "Although the two women described their
meetings with the family as part of ‘natural discussions’ about Islam
and Christianity, they broke two laws imposed under the Taliban: bans on
spreading information about Christianity and on foreigners visiting homes of
In many Islamic countries authorities often look the other way when rules
against disseminating Christian material are broken by evangelical aid
workers, because they want the services these people are providing. But the
Taliban were not look-the-other-way guys, and the workers discovered that
implicit gentlemen’s agreements were no protection against Islamist
Through the first half of November most journalists were less interested
in the fine points of Muslim-Evangelical Christian relations and more
interested in rebuking the Taliban for threatening "aid workers"
in a desperately needy country. On August 27, ABC World News reporter Nathan
Thomas ended his report with the verb-less summation, "The Taliban,
seemingly more concerned with religious control than with the physical needs
of the people they rule." On August 18 a Los Angeles Times editorial
lamented that the Taliban regime "sends emissaries abroad to plead for
humanitarian aid and then persecutes those who respond. Clearly it’s not
outsiders that Afghans must fear but their own fanatical rulers."
Several Washington Times editorials took a strongly defensive tone
vis-à-vis Mercer and Curry. "They have wrongly been written off by
some as ‘missionaries’ who should have known the cost of talking about
their faith. Instead, they should be commended for their bravery," the Times
argued October 30. It is not clear, however, who exactly was writing Mercer
and Curry off.
Much of the news media, especially the broadcast news media, made the
detention into a compelling human interest story, focusing on the anguish of
the American detainees’ family, friends, and home church (Antioch
Community Church in Waco, Texas).
The most common reporting highlighted Antioch’s round-the-clock prayer
vigil and quoted various Antioch pastors soliciting the nation’s prayers.
On the September 18 installment of NBC "Nightly News," Bob Faw
observed, "As this nation gears up for a military confrontation, the
friends, the family steel themselves with prayer. ‘And what we’re
praying for,’ said one, ‘is a miracle.’"
Prior to the September 11 attacks, friends and family were relatively
tight-lipped with the media, fearing that a high public profile might
somehow offend the thin-skinned Taliban. But when war on Afghanistan became
inevitable, a symbiotic relationship instantly emerged. The family needed a
media platform to engage in an agonizingly delicate effort in domestic
diplomacy, and the media wanted interviews. "We appreciate so much your
joining us this morning and making sure that we keep this right in the
headlines," Diane Sawyer assured Deborah Oddy, Heather Mercer’s
mother, on ABC’s Good Morning America October 17. "Thank you."
Many such interviews provided opportunities to reiterate the denial of
the Taliban’s charges. Conspicuously absent from most of the coverage were
serious profiles of the religious motivations and programs of Antioch or
Shelter Now. Indeed, many reports inaccurately described the women as
"employees" of Shelter Now. But as the Buffalo News’ Lou
Michel noted October 21, foreign workers for Shelter Now in Afghanistan were
unpaid volunteers. By calling them "employees" the coverage
avoided the question of whether Antioch was the women’s primary financial
sponsor. (It was.)
The only U.S. papers that covered the religious background were ones with
strong local proprietorship: the Waco Herald Tribune, Fort Worth
Star-Telegram, and Dallas Morning News (all in the geographic
vicinity of Antioch and Baylor University, the women’s alma mater), and
the Buffalo News (which benefited from the upstate New York residence
of several of Mercer’s family members).
Mike Cochran’s article for the Star-Telegram October 14 provided
an excellent illustration of an evangelical mode of service that refuses to
secularize compassion, that gently but persistently (and if necessary
discreetly) makes the religious character and motivations of the aid giver
clear to the recipient. Cochran relayed a story told by Mercer’s former
roommate Jeannie McGinnis about how the two women once came upon a young
woman around their own age, barefoot and in obvious poverty. Mercer stopped,
asked the woman if she could pray for her, and then immediately took off her
own brand-new shoes and gave them to her. "That typifies who Heather
is," McGinnis said. "On the one hand she prayed for the girl, and
on the other, she helped her out in a practical way."
It was the Herald Tribune’s Terri Jo Ryan who on October 6
provided the first extended profile of Antioch: "Waco’s Antioch
church may have ‘Community’ in its name, but it’s got the whole world
in its sights. Pastor Jimmy Seibert has a world map that takes up much of
one office wall at Antioch Community Church. A chart shows the goal of
having 30 new churches worldwide before the year is out…. [Seibert
envisions] a worldwide awakening to Jesus Christ through sending out
missionaries around the world."
Seibert, Ryan reported, started the Antioch Training School to
"prepare missionaries for international duties." Among the
graduates were Mercer and Curry.
In the September 5 Dallas Morning News Laura Heinauer reported on
the evangelical leanings of Baylor itself, where Bible courses and chapel
attendance are required and many students choose to use their spring breaks
to participate in "missionary trips." Asked for a reaction to the
arrest of Mercer and Curry, one sophomore told Heinauer, "It’s scary
but at the same time awesome to be arrested and jailed in the name of the
Lord." Todd Lake, dean of university ministries, was less upbeat.
Missionary work is "inherently risky business. This isn’t just
tourism for Jesus," he said.
In "Missionaries Say Their Message is Needed More Than Ever,"
published November 9, the Star-Telegram’s Darren Barbee linked the
evangelical aid worker story to an "oil-and-water mix of evangelical
Christian and Muslim culture," and noted recent incidents of Muslim
violence against Christians and the risks perceived by evangelical mission
officials. The Star-Telegram’s Rebecca Rodriguez had also done some
spadework. Her November 17 article was the first post-release story to
discuss some of the theological roots (especially Jesus’ "Great
Commission," Matthew 28:19) of the women’s work in Afghanistan, while
also drawing on a variety of secular academic perspectives.
Once or twice, the missionary angle of the story made it into the
national media. In an August 23 story from Kabul, Barry Bearak of the New
York Times reported the frustration of various non-evangelical relief
workers in Afghanistan: "Many people here presume that the arrested
foreigners were guilty of reckless proselytizing; however well-intentioned
the preaching, that forbidden endeavor to save a few dozen souls has
imperiled thousands of lives." But the New York Times never
traveled very far down this road. Indeed, the Times’ Douglas Frantz
would display a loose grip on the Waco end of the story when he wrote that
Mercer and Curry had first met "at a small church there." Antioch
has about 1,200 members.
The dramatic circumstances of their release, which some media
commentaries likened to a divine miracle, gave the women instant celebrity.
Reporters loved the story—damsels in distress, lifted to safety by U.S.
Special Forces, whose helicopter they signaled to by burning their burqas.
It was made-for-TV symbolism, and television news/talk shows eagerly booked
their appearances. Some journalists entertained speculation about a TV movie
of the week. "Two pretty young girls in danger? That’s an evergreen
topic. Young girls in jail always has a subliminal sexiness" a
publicity agent mused to the New York Post.
But readers of the Waco Tribune-Herald already knew that the women’s
future was not in secular pop culture but in their own evangelical
subculture. On December 7 the Tribune-Herald’s Jason Embry quoted
Calvin College professor Quentin Schultze, an expert on evangelical media,
saying that the two women were likely to become "contemporary
saints" among evangelicals.
Schultze was right. On December 8 Mercer and Curry agreed to be
represented by the Nashville-based Ambassador Agency (which also represents
other famous evangelicals, such as the family of Rachel Joy Scott, one of
the victims of the Columbine High School massacre). The AP reported February
4 that they are currently on a yearlong speaking tour, "hoping to
encourage others to go into missionary work." Among their engagements
so far have been a Youth for Christ conference in Niagara Falls, an
evangelism conference in Colorado Springs, and a mega-church in Louisville.
At an annual dinner for Christians in the media, the Wall Street
Journal reported, Mercer and Curry "urged the journalists to focus
on the missionary couple [Gracia and Martin Burnham] held by Islamic
radicals in the Philippines. ‘We’re here today because the media kept
our story out in the eyes of the world,’ Mercer said. ‘Please share
But the two may need to rethink the role of the media in their own
preservation. Most journalists did not tell their whole story, and it seems
that at least some believed an over-abundance of candor would undermine the
women’s chances of being released unharmed.
An object lesson came in October when Australian Prime Minister John
Howard blurted, "We can’t have a situation where the safety and the
treatment of people who are doing nothing but preaching Christianity are put
under threat." As the AP reported, Howard immediately drew flak for his
phrasing. A spokesman later "clarified" that the prime minister
"accepts fully that they were not preaching Christianity."
Perhaps the most striking example of the difference made by the release
of the women could be found on the editorial page of the San Antonio
Express-News. Just before their release the party line was toed:
"The Taliban should demonstrate some human decency and release the
workers, who are guilty of nothing other than trying to help Afghans."
Immediately after, the paper had this to say: "In retrospect, it was
naïve for these two young women to allow their missionary zeal to put
themselves in harm’s way."
In late November Deborah Caldwell’s coverage for Beliefnet.com made no
bones about it: "[N]ow that Curry and Mercer are safe, a different
story can be told. The Taliban was partly right. Curry and Mercer did spend
time in Afghanistan evangelizing—in violation of Afgani law. More
significantly, they are part of a widespread and rapidly growing effort
among American Christians to convert Muslims around the world." Noting
that many Muslims return the favor (believing that "one of their main
duties is to convert non-Muslims") Caldwell situated the theological
clash within the broader "clash of civilizations" theory proposed
by Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington.
On November 18 several reporters attended the Sunday worship service of
Antioch, and if beforehand any were yet in doubt about the evangelical
nature of the community, by the end of it they had seen the light. Typical
was Sara Fritz’s report for the St. Petersburg Times, which noted
that Antioch funds dozens of missionaries and evangelical aid workers
overseas, one of whom was once imprisoned in Iran.
In their exchanges with reporters Mercer and Curry tried to be candid but
precise about their behavior in Afghanistan—they shared their faith, but
only by invitation and only on their own time. They did not condition their
aid on a recipient’s openness to Christianity. "Being Christians, we
can’t deny who we are," said Mercer. "Jesus knew who he was and
he proclaimed it unabashedly. Relief work was our job. Being Christians is
By late November several sophisticated pieces on evangelical aid work
appeared in papers such as the Dallas Morning News, Hartford
Courant, and Washington Post. On November 29, the Post’s
David Cho and Bill Broadway filed "Answering the Call Abroad,"
which noted that not all evangelicals offered unqualified support for what
the Shelter Now episode had wrought. J. Dudley Woodbery, an expert on
missions and Islam at evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena,
warned that Muslim governments are now likely to be stingier with visas for
Christian aid workers. "Our integrity is part of God’s law,"
said Woodbery. "A lot rides on what we agree to do or not to do."
Critical perspectives (particularly in letters to the editor) began to
appear after their release. But the overall tenor of the post-release
coverage remained largely open, notwithstanding the negative journalistic
tone that is often taken regarding proselytizing.
The most enthusiastic support, usually articulated in terms of religious
freedom, appeared in conservative outlets like the Wall Street Journal,
the Washington Times, and National Review. Even a dissenting
editorial in the November 27 Rock Hill, South Carolina Herald took
care to qualify its indictment: "Freedom to practice the religion of
one’s choice and to try to persuade others to embrace that religion should
be universal. Nevertheless, Mercer and Curry not only endangered themselves
and Afghan citizens, but they also compromised the mission of the
humanitarian relief effort."
Would it really have been bad for the detainees’ health if most U.S.
news organizations had covered them as "missionaries" rather than
as "aid workers"? It is an arguable point. After September 11, the
Taliban’s responsiveness to American media characterizations, one way or
the other, was presumably limited. The possibility that media reticence had
more to do with domestic attitudes (whose side are you on anyway?) should
not be discounted.
In any event, the most accurate way of characterizing Mercer and Curry
probably lies between the extremes of "missionary" and "aid
worker." If the latter understates the case, the former might overstate
it. There are historical connotations of imperialism associated with
"missionary" that do not fit the contemporary evangelical model of
service and witness. Mercer and Curry were "evangelical Christian aid
workers"—Christians engaged in aid work who looked for openings to
verbally witness to their faith.
As Mercer told the Waco Herald Tribune December 7, "This is a
story about Jesus and who He is, and how much He loves us and what He can do
and the miracles He can work."