WACO, Texas - Worshippers filed into Antioch Community Church yesterday morning to rejoice over what they say was undoubtedly a miracle.
Two of their own, Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, were among the eight Christian aid workers rescued by U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan last week. A recorded message from the two women was played during services at the church, which occupies a refurbished grocery building in a fading commercial district in Waco.
"I love you guys so much," said Curry, who, like Mercer, is expected to return to Waco in several weeks. "Thanks for all the hours you spent praying - that is really what gave us strength."
Mercer told the gathering: "Hi, all! We're free. Hallelujah."
At any given time, Antioch has several dozen members spreading their faith in different parts of the world, and there have been other occasions when members have been imprisoned for preaching Christianity in nations that do not accept the faith.
But church leaders said those aid workers were held for only a day or so and never encountered the dangers that Curry and Mercer faced, having been detained for months by a regime that was being bombed by the military from their home country.
Yesterday's services capped an unusual week in this part of Texas, an odd place to become a hub of attention from the news media covering the war on terrorism. A half-hour from Waco, in Crawford, President Bush held a summit last week with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. But that event was eclipsed in the local newspapers once word hit Wednesday that Curry and Mercer, both graduates of Baylor University in Waco, were free.
When he appeared with Putin Thursday morning, Bush said he had spoken with the two women after they had been flown to safety by U.S. military helicopters. "They both said to say thanks to everybody for their prayers," he said. "They realize there is a good and gracious God."
The associate pastor at Antioch, Kevin Johnson, gave God all the credit for bringing about a "miracle" and saving Curry and Mercer.
"It's God who did it," Johnson, 34, told the assembly yesterday morning. "It's not man. God used our prayers, he worked with the soldiers and worked with every situation. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for being so good. Thank you for being so faithful."
Curry, 30, and Mercer, 24, were in Afghanistan as members of a German-based Christian organization called Shelter Now International, and were also supported by Antioch. Church leaders said yesterday that the two women plan to try to resume normal lives in Waco for a time but that they have expressed interest in returning to Afghanistan.
The women and the six other Westerners were arrested in August and accused of spreading Christianity to Muslims, charges that carry the death penalty under Taliban law. They have said that most of the accusations were false, but acknowledged giving a book of stories about Christ to an Afghan family.
Last week, the women spoke to reporters in Pakistan about the tense night when the U.S. helicopters plucked them from danger. "I don't think Hollywood would have done it better," said Mercer, who, like Curry, appeared healthy.
Their energy and their desire to spread their faith seem to be shared by a congregation that is predominantly young - few in the assembly appeared older than 35, and many were in their teens or 20s - and contemporary. Many worshippers wore blue jeans or shorts yesterday. A Christian rock band - no choir - played several songs that had worshippers waving their hands and tapping their feet.
The nondenominational church opened two years ago after splintering from a Baptist church in Waco. Many of the younger members of the Baptist congregation were already holding well-attended college services in the evenings and decided to organize their own place to worship. For six months, while the old supermarket building was being renovated, they held services in the parking lot or at a local fairgrounds.
"This is the only church where there aren't grown-ups getting in between me and my worshipping," said Antioch member Katie Van Houten. Another member described Sunday mornings at Antioch as "the greatest party."
Leading the upbeat service yesterday morning, Johnson - who was filling in for Jimmy Seibert, the 37-year-old senior pastor who has flown to join Curry and Mercer - told the assembly that the two women set a good example by continuing to thank God even in the worst of circumstances. "That's a sacrifice," he said. "It was looking worse than ever" for them.
Johnson told the assembly that they should avoid complaining when life becomes difficult. "When we grumble and complain, we're literally taking God out of the picture. It's like saying God is not enough." At one point, Johnson put on a white T-shirt with an oversized smiling face on the front. God, he said, "is so smiling on me. God is happy, man. He's pleased."
In the church lobby, a television was playing a tape of Curry and Mercer's news conference, in which they thanked God for their rescue.
Dan Baumann said after the service that he had accompanied the two women to Afghanistan in 1998, when they made their first of several visits. He said that Mercer was already bracing herself for what might happen if the Taliban discovered what she was doing. "She asked me, 'What should I do if I ever get put in prison?'" he recalled.
Antioch member Sarah Dodds, a 24-year-old community college student, said that Curry and Mercer sent a letter to the congregation through their attorney several weeks ago.
"It sounded like they were being treated fairly well and had food," she said. "They were letting us know they were OK, and they asked us to read a psalm."
Dodds said she would be interested in doing similar missionary work at some point - even in a country like Afghanistan. "I'd have to go wherever God led me," she said.