This story appears in FCA Magazine’s January/February 2017 issue. Subscribe today!
“Your will be done.”
When a life is given to the Lord, this declaration is often spoken in surrender–Jesus’ words in the Garden of Gethsemane echoed two millennia later. The commitment to Christ can then take believers to places far outside the safety of their comfort zones.
But despite one’s truest desires to go and a heart eager to serve, how many of us are actually willing to forgo our own agendas and live out our heart’s offering? Would we truly be ready to journey into the most dangerous areas on earth and risk everything—safety, plans, comfort, even our lives?
Heather Mercer has a spacious and genuine heart for God’s world and His children. She is tender with love, burns with passion against injustice, and is bold and courageous in the face of fear, most notably through months of captivity by the Taliban in 2001. Mercer is tuned into the Spirit and unwavering in her quest to bring the hope and healing of Christ to people in worlds so different than her own.
All because God reached for her heart as a high schooler who had happened to find her way to FCA.
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Heather Mercer grew up in a “culturally Christian” home life in Vienna, Virginia. Yet, as a freshman track and cross country athlete at James Madison High School, she somehow found herself surrounded by people who knew and loved Jesus. Her track coach was an FCA Huddle sponsor, and her close friend Mindi (Hardison) Adams was also involved in FCA. Adams invited Mercer to join her, and it was there that she was exposed to the gospel for the first time.
“Those relationships forever changed and impacted my life,” Mercer said. “I saw how they lived and handled the challenges of life. I saw hope and joy—all the things I was hungry for.”
The hunger intensified as Mercer immersed herself in a team Bible study and then attended FCA track camp in the summer. In November of her sophomore year, Adams invited her to a concert at her church, and a pastor presented an invitation to know Jesus.
Mercer’s life radically changed in that moment.
“All I knew was that he was talking about this man named Jesus who sounded so wonderful and loving. I realized He must be the answer to all my unanswerable questions,” she said.
She began to devour the Bible. She and Adams met with their Huddle sponsor and mentor, Cynthia (Rahal) Styers, in the morning before school at the local McDonald’s during their junior and senior years.
Heather Mercer, Cynthia (Rahal) Styers and Mindi (Hardison) Adams grew in their faith and impacted James Madison High School for Christ through FCA.
“We had breakfast burritos and shared prayer requests, and kept each other accountable,” Styers said.
The trio developed ideas to expand leadership that would impact their school for Christ through FCA. Mercer credits the Huddle as a big part of her spiritual foundation, including when she stood firm in her faith when it faced criticism. FCA Executive Vice President of International Ministry Dan Britton, then the Northern Virginia FCA Director, challenged the group to be obedient to God’s directive in exercising their rights to continue to meet on campus.
“That established a foundation for boldness to share my faith,” Mercer said. “Even when people misunderstand or oppose Christ and the gospel, we still need to boldly proclaim who Jesus is.”
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While her athletic journey ended after graduating high school and enrolling at Baylor University, Mercer’s spiritual growth was only beginning. She continued to pour into Scripture and discovered God’s mandate to “go” into all the world, feeling specifically called to Muslim peoples in Central Asia and the Middle East. With fewer than one Christian worker serving among every one million Muslims worldwide, Mercer’s heart was broken for those who had never heard about Jesus. She wanted to see that statistic change.
“I remember what it was like to be lost, and being lost is horrible,” Mercer said. “I thought, ‘That is not OK with me, and it is not OK with God.’”
While in college in 1996, she dedicated her life to serve Jesus overseas. Mercer traveled to Afghanistan with her church during her junior year in college, much to the dismay of family and friends. Tensions were rising in the surrounding area, yet Mercer longed to move there permanently. Those closest to her feared she may never return alive, but Mercer was not deterred. She found the place for which she was made.
After graduation, Mercer spent one year in a
church-planting school and then moved to Afghanistan in 2001. Amidst rapidly escalating global angst, she immersed herself in the people and culture, learning the language, visiting hospitals where women lay sick and dying, befriending street kids and their families, and assisting in various humanitarian efforts. Mercer brought Jesus through her actions, heart and prayers, witnessing many miracles of God in just the first few months.
Relationships flourished as she crossed cultural barriers and brought the love of Christ to longing hearts. Encouraged and hopeful, Mercer was filled with a sure sense of being in exactly the place the Lord wanted her.
Soon that hope and clarity would be challenged.
On Aug. 3, 2001, just 39 days before 9/11, Mercer and fellow American Dayna Curry were set up and arrested by the Taliban after a secret informant alerted officials to their showing of the “Jesus Film” to a local family. One month later, they were put on trial before the Supreme Court of Afghanistan and tried for the crime of sharing the gospel, a crime punishable by death under the strict Sharia Law.
For 105 days, spanning before and after the 9/11 attacks and subsequent military action, Mercer and seven other captives were held hostage in harrowing conditions with relentless interrogations and the threat of execution becoming increasingly probable. It was a time of deep wrestling with the One who allowed it all to happen. Battling fear of the unknown, finding God in the dark night of the soul while imprisoned in the terror of her holding cell, Mercer laid it all on the line.
“I really struggled with the thought that I knew God could get us out of prison, but I didn’t know if He would. Sometimes He calls His children to give their lives for the gospel,” she said. “Ultimately, it was a journey of digging deeper into the character of God. Was He trustworthy? Was He good? And was He good no matter the outcome?”
At times paralyzed by fear and wrestling with these deep spiritual realities, she wondered if her life would come to an end. But one day, amidst a coalition bombing raid, she opened her Bible and heard God speak with refreshing clarity: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it” (Matthew 16:25).
Only by His grace was Mercer able to firmly resolve God was good in all His ways, and she could trust Him with her life. From that point of true surrender, her heart was set free. She joined her fellow captives in morning and evening worship and prayer, realizing that no matter what happened to her, nobody could take her faith and trust in Jesus from her.
Then, on Nov. 15, in a scene straight from a Hollywood action film, Mercer, Curry and six of their colleagues escaped their prison during an air attack and were subsequently rescued in a secret, midnight helicopter rescue by U.S. Special Forces and airlifted out of Afghanistan. Now, Mercer admitted she would not want to live those 105 days again, but she also would never trade the rich relationship with God that she discovered during them. In the midst of such deep danger, she considers it a privilege to endure for the sake of the gospel and bring the light of Christ into one of the world’s darkest places.
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Since her rescue, Mercer made numerous media appearances, strolled through the White House with former President George W. Bush, and co-authored (with Curry) a bestselling book, “Prisoners of Hope.”
“Ultimately, it was a journey of digging deeper into the character of God. Was He trustworthy? Was He good? And was He good no matter the outcome?” -Heather Mercer
But her heart for the women of the Muslim world hasn’t changed. She has continued to serve overseas throughout the Middle East, and specifically Iraq for almost the last 15 years. Through Global Hope, a non-profit organization she founded in 2008, Mercer launched the Hope4Iraq Campaign to raise awareness and financial support for the millions of refugees. Her work today focuses on women and child victims of gender-based violence and the rescue of those held in captivity.
Despite her improbable story, Mercer shrugs off any “hero” labels. In her mind, she simply followed the God with whom she fell in love, and she believes anyone can partner with Him and His work around the world.
“The same God who loved us in prison is at work today,” she said. “His presence is available for all of us, wherever we are and whatever He calls us to.”
Inside the belly of the beast, Mercer found an emblazoned audacity for the gospel, and as she said, “Jesus is worthy and the lost are worth it. I am so glad someone shared with me.”
Mercer’s life message is to live faithfully and fearlessly for the Kingdom of God, an identity first forged during her FCA days back in Virginia where she learned to stand for Jesus. Her story began like so many others. A simple step of obedience. Love a little, then a lot. Do what is in front of you, and never stop asking God to give you more capacity in your calling.
“It’s being obedient to the little things that will let you do big things for God,” Britton said. “Heather didn’t suddenly just wake up and become a missionary to Afghanistan. She first responded to the Spirit’s prompting. Then, as her faith began to grow, she could take the step to say, ‘God, send me wherever you want me to go.’”
Through Global Hope, a non-profit organization she founded in 2008, Heather Mercer launched the Hope4Iraq Campaign. For more information or to get involved, visit: hope4iraq.org.
TEAMING UP WITH FCA
FCA International is ministering to coaches and athletes in 60 countries. To further extend God’s impact, the ministry desires to connect its 450 field offices and more than 1,400 staff members in the U.S. with the world, in order for each field office to engage with a specific area of the world by praying, giving and going. For more information or to get involved, visit: fcaworld.com.
Photos courtesy of Esther Havens, Heather Mercer and Liberty News