The converted grocery store on North 20th Street roared with clapping and joyous tumult until the early hours Thursday. "Praise the Lord!" worshipers shouted. "Jesus has heard the prayers!"
Heather and Dayna were coming home from their Afghanistan nightmare.
For 104 days, the congregation of the evangelical Antioch Community Church had held a round-the-clock prayer vigil for two members whom the Taliban regime had jailed for allegedly trying to spread Christianity in the Muslim country. Now the news had come that they were free.
And the party rolled on and on until pastor Jimmy Seibert realized that it was 4 a.m. and time for bed.
"We're thankful for the Lord Jesus. It's wonderful to see with your own eyes your prayers answered," a bleary-eyed Seibert told a news conference later Thursday after Heather Mercer, 24, and Dayna Curry, 30, had safely reached Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
Mercer and Curry, both graduates of Baylor University in Waco, were arrested in early August after they allegedly went to an Afghan home to show a CD-ROM depicting the life of Jesus.
Their trial on charges of proselytizing--a serious charge in Afghanistan--began in early September but was suspended indefinitely after the United States and Britain began bombing the country Oct. 7.
"Ever since the girls were detained, we decided the only way to get their release was through prayer," said Emily Wamsley, a member of the church. "We didn't think any government could do it. We didn't think their trial was going to do it. Only prayer and the hope that God's mercy would make them free."
So for more than three months, Antioch's worshipers filed night and day into a small prayer room in the back of the old grocery store. On the wall is a map of Afghanistan, and stretched across a chair is an American flag, on which is pinned a portrait of President Bush and a group picture of the U.S. Supreme Court justices. There the congregation prayed, wrote notes to the girls in two guest books and sang "Happy Birthday" on Nov. 4, when Curry turned 30.
"They didn't go to Afghanistan with their eyes shut," Wamsley said. "They had read books on the Taliban. They had been briefed. But they loved the Afghan people. They said, 'If we don't help them, if we don't care for the widows and orphans, who's going to do it?' I can't speak for them, but I wouldn't be surprised if they went back."
The Antioch church was formed two years ago and has about 1,300 members, many of them young married couples and students at Baylor, a Baptist university. The Antioch church interprets the Bible's scriptures as guaranteeing eternal life to only Christians and follows fundamentalist tenets, including abstention from alcohol, baptism by immersion and opposition to abortion and homosexuality.
"Heather was so passionate about Jesus," said Stefanie Heber, a former Baylor classmate. "She loved people unconditionally. And now she's free. God's heart is always for the people. It's so neat."
Seibert, the pastor, wouldn't say whether proselytizing is part of Antioch's mission abroad.
Of the two released women, he said, "They weren't political figures. They were just simple people trying to serve Jesus. They cared about feeding the hungry and caring for the poor. They are just people who love Jesus, and, of course, they want everyone to know how good Jesus is."
He said Mercer and Curry will return to Waco and the church after medical checkups in Pakistan and some time to decompress in Western Europe. Then what?
"I imagine they'll jump back into the flow of things," Seibert said, "and we'll see what the Lord has in mind for them next."