“I don’t think I’d ever thought about a poor person.”
As a senior from the University of Illinois at Urbana 96, Marie Koch sat in the auditorium spellbound by the short video on the screen about the poor. “It was haunting,” she said. “I was crying and overwhelmed. I felt powerless—this is happening and I didn’t even care.”
Majoring in finance, Marie was prepared to help companies grow their businesses. But at Urbana, she realized that, in all her studies, she had never considered the plight of the poor.
Ironically, just three years earlier Marie was frustrated that students—Christian students—would be taking over her dorm room during Christmas break to attend Urbana, hosted at that time by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “They stayed in my dorm and then left us Jesus literature that I read in a mocking voice to girls on my hall,” she recalled. “I couldn’t have imagined that over the next few years I would get connected to Christians through my sorority and that I would end up deciding to follow Jesus at an InterVarsity conference for Greek students.”
Mindy Meier, Marie’s InterVarsity staff member at the time, recalled, “Marie was a party girl. She always had a spirit of adventure and an attraction to risk. But it was beautiful to see how God redirected those longings in a more positive direction.”
Urbana played an important role in that redirection. Though Marie had chosen to go to the conference simply because other students in her InterVarsity chapter were excited about it, God used it to expand her heart in ways she couldn’t have imagined. “Urbana filled a vacuum of purpose for me,” she said. “I always felt there was something bigger out there but I didn’t know what. God used Urbana to break my heart for the poor—both those living in material poverty and those living in spiritual poverty. The kingdom of God became something real to me. I decided that this was something I could live for. I could spend my life pursing this and it was big enough to absorb any goal or dream I had.”
Out of Urbana and into Business
After graduation Marie accepted a position with GE with the desire to serve God through her work. Though she had been invited to become a Greek InterVarsity staff member, she felt that God was calling her into the business world, and GE’s global presence appealed to her. “I was able to love my colleagues from around the world in the name of Jesus,” she said. “I never doubted that God was using me to reach people in the business world.”
After working for GE for a few years she transitioned into investment banking in Texas and Florida and then took a position with a venture capital fund located in New York City, to which she eventually relocated. Her life in all three states was consumed by 80-hour work weeks, which took a toll on her spiritual, emotional, and physical life. “I traveled a lot for work and so I wasn’t able to go to church or small group consistently,” she said. “I still loved Jesus, but I was so tired—so, so tired.”
The intense work environment and her own spiritual exhaustion helped Marie begin to see in deeper ways the spiritual poverty many people live in, disconnected from Jesus. The wealthy businessman or businesswoman pushing hard to acquire more or work harder lives in a poverty of community that is just as real as a lack of food and shelter. The call that Marie had sensed at Urbana to help people escape from poverty reappeared and began to be a theme for her.
But it had to start in her own life. “God had to teach me how to say no, how to set boundaries,” she said. “I remember nervously asking my boss if I could have off until noon on Sunday so I could go to church. He was grumpy about it and said I still had to come back to work after church, but I knew I needed that space to be reflective and pray about my life.”
Business that Blesses the World
As Marie sought God’s guidance about the future, she decided to leave her career to pursue theological training. During her studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary she became involved with their Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace. “God began to give me a new vision of his plan for business—that it was a high calling,” Marie said. “Doing good finance is something that blesses God’s world and God’s people.”
When the time came to do a ministry practicum for her degree, she got reconnected with InterVarsity, this time as a staff member to MBA students in Boston. Knowing that the students she was ministering to would struggle with the same things she did post-college, Marie wanted to help them nurture their relationship with God as well as foster an understanding of business through the lens of his kingdom. And she did this in part by helping recruit students from graduate programs in the Boston area to attend Urbana Conferences and explore God’s call on their own lives.
It was also at Gordon-Conwell that Marie met her husband, Andy Williams. Like her, he had sensed God’s call to step away from his career in college admissions to pursue theological studies. They married in 2005, and continued to ask Jesus how they could serve his kingdom. Christian microfinance seemed to be a great fit for both their business and ministry interests.
As life changed and children came, Marie and Andy’s desire to live a simpler life grew, along with hopes of tangibly serving the poor by educating others about God’s vision for business and helping them live that out in practical ways. After a year exploring different options for ministry, God started clearly opening doors for them to work with HOPE International, a microfinance organization that they already had connections to.
In 2010, Marie and Andy moved their family to the Dominican Republic to begin working with HOPE’s partner, Esperanza International, providing loans, savings, and training that enabled people to lift themselves out of poverty.
After almost four years in the Dominican Republic and some time back in the U.S., they sensed God calling them to serve those in poverty in another part of the world. And so, in January 2015, Marie, Andy, and their three young kids moved to Kigali, Rwanda, to serve the communities that HOPE International is connected to there. Andy works for HOPE’s Savings Program, which partners with four Rwandan church denominations to serve 175,000 savers, and Marie works for Urwego Opportunity Bank—49 percent of which is owned by HOPE—providing small loans and savings products for customers.
Though they work with both women and men, “women are our star clients,” Marie explained. And their work is truly helping others escape from many kinds of poverty. “One of the women who got involved was a prostitute here in Rwanda who wanted something more for her life,” Marie said. “The church savings group welcomed her and farmed alongside her, asking her to save a little money each week. Through her own small savings and loans from the savings group, she eventually bought a goat, a mattress, a cow, and a one-room home, and paid for her daughter’s wedding! And she saw how much God loved her through the other women’s words and actions. She sees that she has gifts and talents to use, and even sings in the church choir now. Other women believe in her and encourage her.”
Whether in New York City or Kigali, God is fulfilling his call on Marie’s life, using her to help others see their value and worth through Jesus. Thinking about how far Marie has come since the InterVarsity conference where she gave her life to Christ, Mindy commented, “What I love about Marie’s story is how God does not strip away our given personality but takes our traits and refines them and refashions them as he forms Christ in us. Marie is still the fun, adventure-seeking, risk-taking Marie—but all for God’s kingdom.”
It’s not just Marie who’s been transformed, though. The people she is working with have caught a glimpse of what she learned at her first Urbana: the kingdom of God is worth investing your life in.
Jessica Fick serves as a writer on InterVarsity’s Communications Team. She blogs at jessicafick.com. Her first book, Beautiful Feet: Unleashing Women to Everyday Witness is available beginning September 2015 from InterVarsity Press.