By Lauren D'Avolio
Iris Liang was brought up to do it herself, never to take a handout.
Her parents were raised in Communist China at a time when religion was forbidden. They came here to live out the American dream, sending their daughter to an Ivy League college, where she was expected to follow in their footsteps of hard work and upward progress.“I grew up with a really works- and merit-based mentality,” Liang says. “My parents came to America to get me the American dream. That meant if you worked hard enough and got a good education, you could climb the ladder and get to the upper middle-class lifestyle. They sacrificed a lot to get me here.”
Then her lack of religion failed her, and she found herself in desperate need of God.
Today, as a born-again Christian and executive director of Dallas-based Videre Microfinance Institution, she helps carry out the Great Commission by bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ, modest loans, and entrepreneurial training to the poor, needy, and hurting people of Sudan, one of the world’s most turbulent countries.
Liang’s parents don’t always understand, but Liang, 24, knows she has a deep and irrepressible compassion for the poor--and it can be traced to the time she gave her life to Jesus. Liang has seen how Sudanese people--much like people anywhere--are in need of Christ’s love and Christian laborers who are willing to give them a leg up.
“We’re not giving them a handout,” Liang says. “We’re empowering them to get out of poverty.
Sudan is the only country where Videre operates, though it is exploring other sites. Whenever Videre issues a loan, recipients work hard so their business can generate a profit and they can repay it. When the loan is paid off, Videre gives that money to someone else--a sort of financial recycling. Liang also trains local people on the ground in Sudan who’ll be able to run the lending program and model effective entrepreneurial skills in their community.
Christ’s compassion for the poor took root in Liang the year after she became a Christian during her sophomore year in college. Until then, Liang had no concept of grace--not only God’s grace, but any grace--because she, like her parents, worked for everything they had. She says God put people in her life who told her about repentance and belief in Christ.
Liang was an applied economics and management major at Cornell University, from which she graduated in 2007, when a pastor told her that the crux of Christianity is not works but Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, His resurrection and ascension, making it possible for humans to have a relationship with the Father and inherit the Kingdom. That was the first in a series of light-bulb moments for Liang.
The summer between her freshman and sophomore years, Liang had stayed on Cornell’s campus and lived a worldly lifestyle. There was partying and personal drama in Liang’s life, but what pushed her to desperation was the knowledge that all of it was so temporary. There was a futility to it, and it made her miserable.
“Looking back, I can see it must have been the Holy Spirit giving me the insight that there was something meaningless about all of that,” Liang says. “That’s what made me realize, What’s the meaning of this? Why are we engaging in these relationships if they’re so temporary?”
For the first time, Liang wasn’t ever alone, but she’d never felt so lonely.One day, she was at a party in her apartment as a thunderstorm raged outside. She started to cry. Around midnight she decided she wanted to be alone, so she grabbed an umbrella and ran to a footbridge on campus with a waterfall splashing powerfully onto it. It was still pouring.
No one could hear her. No one was there--except God.“I cried out to God. I literally screamed to Him, for the first time,” Liang says. “‘God, I don’t know if you’re there, but if you can hear me, I’m miserable, and I don’t know what to do. What do I do? What do I do?’”Liang abruptly became silent when God spoke to her for the first time. He told her to “be quiet and know that I’m here.” At the time, she’d never read the Bible, so she didn’t recognize that what she’d heard was remarkably similar to Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I’m God." She's realized since that the second part of that verse is just as important: "I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the Earth."“God said, ‘All you have to do is give it to me. You keep asking what you can do, but you need to know you can’t do anything,’” Liang says. “My whole life I did what I could do to get me out of a problem. God said…give it to me. He spoke into my heart.”
Liang traveled to India in 2005 with a nonprofit, Synergy Ministries, which administered microfinance loans to the poor. During her time in India, Liang saw a way to reconcile her business education with helping the poor. She found that amounts of money small by U.S. standards can grow businesses, help raise children, and buy malaria medicine.Right then Liang knew she wanted to do international development, but that was a long-term vision. Meanwhile, she began working 90-hour weeks at UBS investment banking in New York City. She thought her high salary would help her pay off her student loans so she could focus solely on Kingdom-minded business, but she quickly realized that financial security and safety are myths.God also put her in a strong church, Trinity Grace Church in New York City, where she became rooted spiritually. When an elder at the church spoke about being obedient in daily things, Liang understood that her obedience meant leaving New York City--her bubble and comfort zone. She quit her job at UBS without another job lined up and at the height of the recession in 2008, because she knew God had something bigger for her. Liang also knew she needed to pursue her newfound passion, economic development. She thought she needed to prepare for such a bold step, but God told her she simply needed to be willing.“One of the hardest things was talking to my parents about how I was quitting my job and moving away from them,” Liang says. “They didn’t understand why they took me out of a developing country, and now I was going back to a developing country. When I say ‘God told me to,’ they don’t understand.”
Two months later, Liang moved to Dallas to start Videre--a Christian microfinance organization. Its name means “to see” in Latin. Liang traveled to Yei in Southern Sudan in April 2009 and dispensed 89 loans. The average size of a loan from Videre is $156, and this money has funded businesses in Sudan such as tea shops, knitters, and vegetable sellers. Videre administers the loans with the help of two members of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Yei, Sudan.
Embed Embed this video on your site
Video of Iris sharing her testimony
Liang plans to return to Sudan and support the business owners who’ve received loans, and she’s also looking for American businesspeople who will support her and her work through labor or finances. Liang raises her own support, earning about 20 percent of what she did in New York City.
Liang attends The Village Church in Dallas, a 6,000-people Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated church. Videre has partnered with The Village in Sudan, where the church is providing pastors' training.Ben Chatraw, a Videre board member, is one of two businessmen who originally brought Liang on board. He and his partner, Tyler Self, are 2004 Harvard Business School graduates who run Vision Research Capital--an investment management firm based in Uptown that shares office space with Videre. The pair came up with the idea for Videre, then asked Liang to launch it.Chatraw and Self have made it their mission to make an impact for Christ inside the business world by generating profit for investors and building missions and charities with their resources.“The great thing about Iris is that she's 100 percent devoted and committed to the Lord, and she's proven that over and over,” Chatraw says. “She's willing to do things in a very, very challenging environment.”
What people see in Iris is the Lord, Chatraw says. He and Liang can sit down with believers and non-believers alike, and she has an ability to connect with all of them. Chatraw also praises Liang for her aptitude and willingness to launch a pilot program in Sudan, combining money and Christ’s command to make disciples—a combination that’s always difficult to navigate, he says.“Any time you have money involved or if you're giving things away, you risk buying people for the gospel or having your intentions misunderstood and people raising their hand because there's something material that's perceived to be attached to that,” Chatraw says. “She's done a great job in a short time at creating a model that's going to be very effective at not only bringing people out of poverty, but also bringing Christ and discipleship to the people she's helping.”