Spring 2002, Vol. 5, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2002

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in this issue

The Media vs. the Church

The Scandal of Secrecy

The Cardinal and the Globe

The Mormons Score a 9.6

The Indispensable Source

Harry and the Evangelicals

Returning to Normalcy


Grappling with Islam:

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 "missionaries."

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 Afghans."

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 totalitarianism.

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 their story.’"

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 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 our lifestyle."

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."

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