Missionary Creepsby Emily Votruba
Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, with Stacy Mattingly
Prisoners of Hope: The Story of Our Captivity and Freedom in Afghanistan
Not every literary debut gets blurbed by the president of the United States, and not every Christian proselytizer (soi disant ou non) gets out of darkest heath alive, saved by three Special Forces helicopters in the dead of night in time to have their hair done in Islamabad before a press conference in the morning. But this was the astonishing, if not miraculous, fate of Dayna Curry, 30, and Heather Mercer, then 24, when their three-month ordeal in Afghanistan came to a close on November 14, 2001.
Less fortunate were Gracia Burnham and her late husband, Martin Burnham, 18-year resident missionaries in the Philippines. For a year ending June 8, 2002, the Burnhams were held captive by the Muslim guerrilla group Abu Sayyaf and were prey to malnutrition, seven-inch scorpions, gunpoint marches, and jungle diseases. Martin Burnham was shot and killed in a firefight between the rebels and U.S.-trained Filipino soldiers; Gracia escaped with a gunshot wound to her thigh. Abu Sayyaf had kidnapped them along with 18 other foreign nationals from a resort where the Burnhams were celebrating their 18th anniversary; eight of their fellow captives were released shortly afterward, 10 others were beheaded. The Burnhams’ nightmare was the culmination of over 40 years of their family’s humanitarian and religious work in the Philipines with the New Tribes Mission, a group that focuses on translating the Bible into tribal languages and converting people unexposed to other organized religions. Martin Burnham had spent 15 years piloting a supply plane from remote island to remote island. Now that would have been a book. The experiences of Curry and Mercer as related in Prisoners of Hope contrast strikingly with those of the Burnhams in many ways (not the least of which being the U.S. military’s involvement in their respective rescues) which must for now remain unsatisfactorily explored.
The value of Prisoners of Hope does not lie in the excitement of its plot. For the reader, the most suspenseful thing that goes down (and comes back up) for the two Texas girls is Mercer’s truly barf-tastic case of tapeworm. Their Taliban captors and interrogators are alternately Hogan’s Heroesesque bumblers and downright reasonable, even kind. Prison conditions are not much shabbier than those at some sleepaway camps, and royal in comparison to those of native women prisoners. Heather and Dayna regularly send their female jailer to the market for provisions including candy bars, clothing, towels, makeup, and batteries for their Walkman.
The book’s first-person singular and plural narrative moves from Heather’s to Dayna’s point of view, with occasional duets, in sections headed either “Dayna,” “Heather,” or “Dayna and Heather.” Each woman tells the circumstances of her religious awakening and decision to go abroad to work in humanitarian aid. As travel literature the book has some bright moments, such as their description of a trip along the Kabul Road, with absorbing detail about the treacherousness of the road itself, a desolate and dangerous stretch of dirt and rock, and the bare-bones commerce that goes on along it, including impoverished locals collecting change from travelers for the service of filling in the massive mine—and bomb-created potholes.
For the most part, however, neither the whiny Heather nor the more mature but passive-aggressive Dayna shows herself to be a satisfactory observer or analyst of her social context in Afghanistan, or any personal transformation she might have experienced there. By their own admission, their first real encounter with the day-to-day lives of Afghani women occurs when they are shacked up in the relatively posh compound of an ex-Taliban commander on his way out of town after the Taliban falls. They come off as having been incredibly naive, even willfully so, about the potential dangers and hardships they would face in their travels, as if admitting that they might have known the risks would make them subject to criticism or disqualify them for sympathy.
They also demonstrate a profound, dismissive disrespect for Islam in their complete failure to address that religion and tradition in any serious or thoughtful way. It is a kind of naivete and blinkeredness cultivated in certain evangelical Christian groups, especially youth-oriented ones, whose creed runs something like “Escape to Jesus.” The obsessive, unreflective way in which Heather and Dayna lapse into prayer or song when confronted by the slightest conflict or challenge is a far cry from the honest confrontation of excruciating doubt, and intrepid personal, anthropological, and even scientific exploration of missionaries and religious figures from St. Augustine to Thomas Merton.
But the most disappointing thing about this story of two lipstick Levites (the acquisition, loss, and blessed deliverance of cosmetics being a motif) is not that they didn’t suffer (being in prison is bad, and who can define pain, anyway?). It’s that they repeatedly refuse to confess the truth of the Taliban’s accusation, supported by oodles of incriminating evidence (DVDs on the life of Jesus, Bibles in the local language of Dari, religious-themed reading-exercise books, and their own admission that they’d taught their hosts Christian songs and prayers), that they were, yes, missionaries. Their argument to the contrary is cravenly semantic: Oh, if they ever mentioned Jesus or sang a song or said a prayer next to the bed of a leishmaniasis victim, it was really because they just couldn’t help themselves. “This is what I do when I’m feeling upset,” they’d say to a starving Afghani child, or a woman horribly beaten by her husband. “Maybe it will give you comfort, too.” They never actively tried to convert, they claim, but would only answer questions if asked. Moreover, they would make sure to offer the disclaimer, to those Afghanis who demonstrated an interest, that belief in Jesus would not necessarily improve their earthly lot, say, by making it easier to emigrate to the States. The most it would do would be to give them inner peace—and pave the way to a glorious afterlife in heaven.
Heather and Dayna explain that their continuing caginess about their activities in Afghanistan is due to a desire to protect the families they worked with there (they were quite aware at the time that the penalty for Muslims convicted of converting to Christianity was death). But even now, with the Taliban defeated, the 16 Afghanis who worked with Heather and Dayna’s aid organization released, and the family to whom they showed the Jesus DVD still apparently unidentified, Curry and Mercer won’t come clean and say they were trying to gather hearts for Christ.
Let’s leave aside for the moment the suspicion on the part of some that Heather and Dayna were working for the C.I.A. (quite frankly, I would fear for our national security were this the case). More interesting questions arise if we take them and their faith at their word. Now back home, Curry and Mercer have lived to spin (courtesy of Doubleday) the tale of their imprisonment by the Taliban into a small franchise. They have recorded a CD of their favorite worship songs, several of which they composed while incarcerated, and have appeared on talk shows to promote it and their book. They have a website (www.prisonersofhope.com) with links directly to Focus on the Family’s and Billy Graham’s pages on how to become a Christian. Through their songs and their site, they explicitly encourage new Christians, as an integral part of the faith, to evangelize. Everything they say and do, every breath they take, both as shown in the book and by their subsequent activities, appears to be geared toward the espousal of their faith. If they hadn’t been trying to convert Muslims to Christianity, they would have been, by their own marks, deplorably selfish. Too late now—the really crucial time for unabashed preaching ended when they got on that helicopter in November. Perhaps the greatest revelation of Prisoners of Hope is how utterly unheroic Christian missionaries can be.
Emily Votruba is the copy chief at Cargo magazine.