Here's where it all began for Heather Mercer. Four years ago, she was a mixed-up college kid asking questions about the meaning of her life. She found the answer last winter in Waco, Texas, at a festival for evangelical missionaries called World Mandate.

She was back last week at the three-day event, this time as a big-time evangelical celebrity and missionary hero, proclaiming, "God captured me. He called me. And he commissioned me."

Mercer, 25, along with Dayna Curry, 30, was released last November by the Taliban regime and airlifted to safety by the U.S. government after 105 days of imprisonment because they were caught preaching Christianity in Afghanistan, a Muslim country where such activity is illegal. Now they're Christian heroes-even writing a Doubleday book due out this spring about their adventures. They are such celebrities, in fact, that they were the main draw to World Mandate, even though they granted no interviews and tapes of their talks were not made available.

But they spoke various times during the conference, and that seemed to be enough for the 1,500 high school and college students who came to worship, pray and consider becoming missionaries. World Mandate is sponsored by Antioch Community Church in Waco, the church that Curry and Mercer joined while they were students at Baylor University.

Basically, World Mandate is a job fair for prospective missionaries--the kind of place where young people--like Mercer and Curry--feel loved, wanted and important. And they acted as the perfect spokeswomen and recruiters. Held in a mega-church converted from an abandoned supermarket, the event featured future missionaries praying, dancing, singing Christian rock, and listening to speakers in an auditorium festooned with flags of many nations.

Organizers tried mightily to keep celebrity from trumping the Christian ideal of humility. They dubbed young people in attendance "A Nameless, Faceless Generation." The idea, they say, is to give your life over to Christ, and he will do the rest. "God's spirit is raising up a generation consumed by passion for Jesus," the conference literature read. "A generation willing to lay down their lives so His glory may touch the unreached nations of the earth; a generation characterized not by a name or a face, but by wholehearted abandonment to Him."

Of course, the conference did, in fact, have two superstar faces and names to deliver its message. Church leaders attributed the record-breaking attendance to Curry and Mercer. Participants packed the auditorium for Mercer's and Curry's testimonies. During two sessions Mercer held about her imprisonment, the audience spilled out of the classroom into the hallway.

"There are people serving [as a result of] decisions they've made from weekends like this," said Antioch's senior pastor Jimmy Seibert. Indeed, World Mandate is where Mercer's and Curry's journey began. "I am every one of you," Mercer told participants before sharing her testimony.

Like most of the participants in World Mandate since its inception in 1987, Mercer was in search of identity when she attended her first conference four years ago. "I didn't see [that I had] any super great talents. I felt so weak and so broken. But I knew I wanted to be available for God." When the opportunity presented itself to do mission work abroad in 1997, Mercer said she was ready to drop out of college and go.

Her parents ("nonbelievers") convinced her to stay. She credits God with reining her in and making her wait. She also thanks God for challenging her by sending her to "the hardest place on the map, where people don't want to go because it's just too hard."

"Those are the places God's heart is breaking for," she said. When she did go to Afghanistan in 1998 for a short-term mission trip, the group was evacuated after 48 hours, perhaps foretelling what was to come. Mercer said with a laugh that she prayed to God, "Please leave me in the middle ... I didn't know...It's funny how God answers prayers."

The missionaries' battle cry for spiritual warfare sounds remarkably similar to that of World War II--the idea that there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Remarkably, for Mercer, this mantra became a guiding principle. "If you try to save your life, you lose it," Mercer said. "If you lose your life, God gives it back." This became especially true after their arrest and during their captivity. "I wish I'd had more preparation," Mercer said. "It was so hard to address these issues when we had been caught red-handed. It was really awesome. God gave us answers to every question they asked."

And that's what conference organizers hoped for all the young men and women at World Mandate, for whom so many of life's questions remain unanswered.

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