Deep Abiding Love in Afghanistan: the Life and Work of Dan Terry
by David Wildman
Before his death at age 64 in August 2010, Dan Terry had worked with Global Ministries in Afghanistan for nearly 40 years. He was one of ten volunteers who were conducting a Nuristan Eye Camp when they were ambushed in a remote northeastern section of the country. Terry and his wife, Seija, a nurse, raised their three daughters in Afghanistan. They spent many years in Lal-wa Sarjangal, working with local communities and serving as liaisons with aid groups and the government. The Terry family members spent most of their lives as Christians in the midst of an overwhelming Muslim majority.
The first time I stayed at Dan and Seija Terry’s home in Afghanistan, I noticed a small book on the nightstand. It was Victory Through Surrender by E. Stanley Jones, the well-known Methodist mission worker who lived and served in India for many years. Written in the 1960s, the book invites us to return to a New Testament expression of Christianity, summed up as “self-surrender to God.” It continues to offer a profound yet simple challenge to the self-fulfillment, spiritual growth, and consumptive corporate-oriented values of many wealthy and middle class Christians in the West today.
As I read through the book, I began to realize how much growing up in India and the Christian community there shaped and informed Dan’s faith. In 1948, when Dan was two, his parents, George and Pat Terry, went to a newly independent India to serve in mission on behalf of Global Ministries. Betsy Taylor, a lifelong family friend from the early days in India, recalled, “Our families were shaped by the international, broadly humanitarian vision of Social Gospel Christianity.” In India, they found much common ground between Gandhian values and their social gospel faith. Taylor states “There was a shared sense of spiritual responsibility to end war and poverty, to build peace, to fight hunger and illness, to humble the rich and proud. Central to this was the sense that inequality is incompatible with a spiritual life.” (From “Islam, violence and mourning in America” in North of Center, November 24, 2010.)
Self-surrender remains a challenging, contrarian concept in a society like the United States, which celebrates military might—the United States has more guns, it has ‘stand your ground’ laws, and it devotes nearly as much to military spending as the rest of the world combined. So too in Afghanistan, surrender seems an unlikely and unpopular approach after more than 30 years of war. Tragically, too many Christians and Muslims today seem more interested in imposing on others by armed force their version of God’s will than in surrendering their will to God. Religion serves as a fault line dividing communities and justifying violence. By contrast, then, surrender offers a point of deep connection in a Muslim country like Afghanistan. A Christian surrenders one’s self to Christ and a Muslim surrenders one’s will to Allah (God in Arabic).
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace. Isaiah 52:7a
Dan had invited me to join him for travel to a remote mountain valley to meet several local commanders as well as several women trained as midwives. We hoped to discuss future community development work in an impoverished area that was considered increasingly dangerous. Suddenly, Jones’ Victory Through Surrender took on very concrete implications for me. Was my surrender of self to Christ strong enough that I would also trust our Afghan hosts—or was this a fool’s errand, an unnecessary risk for all involved, with little to be gained?
As we inched our way further and further up the rocky mountain roads, we were immersed and dwarfed by the grandeur and beauty of God’s amazing creation. What a joy! And yet the danger of armed men also lurked nearby. The remote villages we visited were incredibly poor, subject to violence from foreign troops and opposition forces alike, yet also blessed to be in such close harmony with the rhythm of God’s unfolding creation.
Dan first fell in love with the mountains of Afghanistan while traveling as a teen with his family through the country. He returned right after college and devoted the rest of his life to living in and serving with the people he loved so deeply. In fact, he kept inviting anyone and everyone, foreigners and Afghans, to join him on various sojourns to some of the most remote mountain areas. Why? Was it simply a stunning trek or to surrender oneself to the awesome wonder of God’s handiwork?
As we met with one local commander after another and with the midwives, we heard about the struggles each village faced in health care, jobs, and education. With each conversation, I began to realize the depth of this transformative invitation. The invitation to visit remote mountain villages was not primarily to learn more about the situation in Afghanistan or to learn how to help; it was an invitation into vulnerability.
Becoming Vulnerable: Opening Our Hearts
The word vulnerable comes from the Latin, vulnerare, which means “to wound.” Being vulnerable means being exposed to harm and more likely to be wounded. Remote mountain villages are far from health care, from gasoline and repair services, and from the supposed safety of fortified compounds and armed guards. But that very vulnerability also opens us to others. More than 80 percent of Afghans live in such remote villages, vulnerable to some of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates, as well as drought, war, and famine. Each visit to a remote vulnerable community reminds us that surrender of self is not a passive “let go and let God.” When we surrender, we actively embrace a vulnerability that opens us up not only to being wounded but to building loving relations with the least of these and even with enemies. Rather than charitable action for others, or violent action against others, Dan kept inviting people to become vulnerable/open to sharing with one another. In just such moments of shared vulnerability and interdependence, when we draw closer to one another, we find we have drawn closer to God.
In 2009—as the US government devoted hundreds of billions of dollars to tripling its military presence as part of a counter-insurgency strategy that led to a dramatic escalation in casualties—Dan made the following observation. “Access and exposure must be a two-way, or better, every-which-way process if it’s to happen at all. We hear a lot about the desperate need to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan or wherever. Whose? Or to what purpose? The idea and question is utterly upside down. It is our hearts that must first be lost to be found…utterly poured out, squandered away…if any are to be ‘won.’”
Throughout most of Asia, Christians live as a minority among other faiths. Their experience reflects the experiences of the early New Testament churches that also lived as minority communities in the context of the Roman Empire. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares to his followers that “you are the salt of the earth.” (Matthew 5:13a) The symbol of salt affirms that it is the quality, not quantity, of Christian presence that matters. A Middle Eastern Christian shared recently that, as a minority faith community, Christians consider themselves the salt of the Middle East context. Without salt, the whole recipe of society would be bland. Without salt, food spoils in places without refrigeration. Yet too much salt and one gets the Dead Sea! Christians provide a vital flavor for the whole Middle East recipe. What a wonderful image of interfaith interdependence from which we all can learn.
Being the Salt of the Earth
Like remote communities facing recurring drought and other vulnerabilities, minority faith communities also recognize the need for an extravagant ethic of hospitality with strangers. If one takes a wrong turn in the mountains or in a hostile political terrain, one’s life may well depend on the hospitality of a stranger. After repeated visits and many cups of tea with local commanders in conflict zone villages, Dan tried to convince an aid organization that hospitality exchange could be a basis for common work. He wrote: “But it only happens if you are really there in person, ready to begin to trust and be trusted in the context of shared, genuine vulnerability. One of the approaches to the conundrum of community engagement is to start out as a sort of hostage-guest. This is not as reckless as it sounds but is actually part of a methodical, culturally embedded pattern. One of the safest places to be is to be the guest of your enemy.”
In an honor-and-shame culture such as Afghanistan, once one “surrenders” to an enemy, that person has a certain obligation to the other as a matter of honor. After years of living through war, Dan recognized that many of the conflicts escalated and were perpetuated more by dynamics of “mutual intimidation” between sides than by any inherent hatred of one another. The act of surrender then carried with it a possibility of opening a door to future cooperation among enemies that would reverse a downward spiral of violence.
Love Your Enemy
Throughout nearly 40 years of calling Afghanistan home, Dan and Seija served out of a deep love—for God and for their Afghan neighbors. Whether we recognize it or not, Dan often stated, “We are all knotted together in the same carpet.” When most foreigners were kicked out by the Taliban in the summer of 2001, Kate Clark, a former BBC correspondent, recalled Dan still trying to find ways of connecting with the Taliban. He said: “We should be trying to reach out to them. Maybe we could use our shared faith to get some sort of dialogue going.” Finding ways of connecting with brutal commanders went hand-in-hand with connecting with the most vulnerable people in remote villages.
Such a vibrant faith of surrender may not always seem practical, and few Christian organizations have modeled it fully, yet it enables us in love and forgiveness to transcend even the most painful wounds and deepest divisions. In August 2010, Dan and nine other aid workers were brutally killed as they returned from providing eye care and dental care in some of the remotest mountain villages of Nuristan Province. The families of Dan and his dear friend Tom Little insisted that they both be buried in Kabul. On Dan’s tombstone in both English and Dari are these words from Paul’s letter to the Colossians:
“Bear with one another and, if anyone has a grievance against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love....” (3:13-14)
May these holy words, and Dan’s life of faithful surrender to God, bring healing to nations too long wounded by endless cycles of vengeance and violence.
David Wildman is the Executive Secretary for Human Rights and Racial Justice for Global Ministries and carries responsibilities for ministries and personnel in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Dan, far right, with Afghan friends, rebuilding a Soviet-era jeep.
Photo: David Wildman
A bakery, where naan, the Afghan bread, is made daily. Photo: David Wildman
Dan’s tombstone in the British cemetery in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo: David Wildman