As an international development major in college, Loula Merkel thought she knew about poverty. But one book changed her perception — and her life — forever.
Loula was working at a biotech startup in Chicago when a co-worker, Tracy Mathews, invited her to a Women of Vision meeting. Tracy was president of the Chicago chapter of Women of Vision, a ministry of World Vision. Spending time with the group, Loula found herself surrounded by people who openly attributed the good things they had to God.
The group did a study of The Hole in Our Gospel, written by World Vision U.S. President Rich Stearns. “I thought I had a pretty good sense of what poverty is and what was going on in the world,” she says. “I had no idea. That book was such an eye-opener.”
Raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, Loula’s involvement with Women of Vision led her to ask questions about Jesus: “Who is this? Have I heard the full story? Am I missing something?” As she dug deeper into the answers, Loula accepted him as her Savior — and began the journey of rekindling her faith.
At the end of the day, it’s God that’s really doing the work. He carries you through.—Loula Merkel
Diving deep into the realities of poverty made Loula feel guilty. But then a World Vision staff member asked her to consider how she could use that guilt as motivation to provide for those in need. She and other women were challenged to embrace sacrificial giving — and an idea took hold of Loula.
“I decided to give up smoking and redirect the money I spent on cigarettes to World Vision,” she says. To hold herself to this promise, she signed up to run the Chicago Marathon with Team World Vision, raising money for clean water as she trained.
“You can’t run a marathon and smoke at the same time,” she says with a laugh. She recalls some revelations from God during the training process. One day she went on a run and didn’t take any water. Thirst overwhelmed her. “That just kind of cemented [it] — that’s what these people feel. They don’t have water,” Loula says.
She saw running as not just a physical act, but a means of being obedient to God’s leading in her life. Sometimes when she runs, Loula thinks about the children she sponsored through World Vision as a birthday gift to her son.
“I’d never really known what being tired and in pain felt like,” she says. “I think of these kids who feel that all the time, and it’s not optional.”
Loula completed that first marathon, but she wasn’t finished. “I thought, okay, it was a great experience for me,” she says. “I’d like to give other folks the opportunity.” She brought someone from Team World Vision to speak to her church. “I was praying for 10 people [to join Team World Vision] and now we have 60,” she says. “God was already working on people, and I think he would’ve made this happen otherwise. I feel fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time and say yes.”
Loula believes that the important part of the equation is the willingness to say yes, which doesn’t come naturally to her. But she said yes to Women of Vision, to Jesus, and to Team World Vision. This October she’ll complete her sixth Chicago Marathon. “At the end of the day, it’s God that’s really doing the work,” says Loula. “He carries you through.”