TOPEKA — The Rev. Traci Blackmon counts each modest contribution to an ambitious United Church of Christ program aiding people trapped by medical debt in Kansas and Oklahoma as a gospel-infused demand for justice.
Indeed, the pastor said, $5.2 million in health care debt held by more than 3,200 households in these two states was forgiven at this Thanksgiving holiday through the magnanimity of UCC congregations. This emancipating stride offers recipients an opportunity to revise their outlook on life, she said.
Blackmon said they know filling a prescription or making a clinic appointment isn’t wishful thinking. Freedom from the onus of impossible debt means deferred dreams of owning a car, finishing school or qualifying for a home loan are not fantasy.
“This effort on behalf of the United Church of Christ is not solely about charity and it is certainly not so we can pat ourselves on the back,” said Blackmon, associate general minister in UCC’s Kansas-Oklahoma conference. “It is our way of calling attention to a justice issue that runs deep in the fabric of our United States.”
“The purpose is to sound the alarm that we cannot be a country of prosperity, a country of more than enough, and be silent about those who suffer among us. The rising cost of health care has made living a healthy life prohibitive for too many,” she said.
Impact: 3,234 households
United Church of Christ has 40 congregations in Kansas and 13 in Oklahoma with about 7,000 members. Collectively, these mostly small churches and the UCC national ministry raised $40,000 to purchase medical debt, sometimes at pennies on the dollar, from the New York-based nonprofit RIP Medical Debt.
In October, the transaction eliminated $5.2 million in health-related debt in 3,234 households. The average amount forgiven in Oklahoma and Kansas was $1,612.
Qualifying debtors had to earn less than two times the federal poverty level; in financial hardship, with out-of-pocket expenses amounting to 5% or more of their annual income; or facing insolvency, with debts greater than assets.
The churches don’t know the identity of people whose debt was erased. RIP Medical Debt is responsible for sending letters to recipients naming the congregations and organizations that help make the forgiveness possible.
The letter’s core: “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. And most importantly, you are beloved by God and your debt has been forgiven.”
Lori Herpich, a member of Plymouth Congregational Church in Lawrence, said she’s familiar with the anxiety-inducing burden of lingering health care bills. It’s a predicament that can sneak up on people and frequently goes unnoticed by communities, she said. As the bills stack up from month to month, she said, the only option for some is bankruptcy.
“I definitely know what it’s like to have medical debt,” Herpich said. “A few years ago, I had to have multiple surgeries and the bills that came from them were just huge. It caused stress, it was overwhelming and it seemed like it was never going to end.”
She can imagine the joy of people opening a letter revealing how a cluster of church congregations reached out to them.
“Just knowing that there are families that are going to get contacted, that their debt has been eliminated, that it has been resolved — this is going to be huge, believe me,” Herpich said.
Just gotta believe
The Rev. Lori Walke, senior pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, said a portion of the congregation’s benevolence fund was donated to the relief project. The image of one-fourth of Oklahoma’s population carrying $1.2 billion in medical debt is to harrowing to ignore, she said.
“The numbers around medical debt in America are just staggering,” Walke said. “Some would say there can’t possibly be enough of anything to fix this, but the church has a different story.”
She said the Gospel of John offers insight into what has been referred to as the miracle of five loaves of bread and two fish. The story says there were 5,000 people in a hungry crowd following Jesus. The disciples were concerned there wasn’t enough food for the throng. Jesus was undeterred. He took what little was on hand, looked to heaven, gave thanks and broke bread for all to share.
“We believe. That is how it works,” Walke said. “If everyone gives what they can — prayer, mercy, dollars and determination — it will somehow be enough, because it will be given with a blessing.”
The Rev. Michael Vollbrecht, pastor of Peace United Church of Christ in Alma, said the tiny congregation raised money from its Lenten suppers last winter. He said time had come to expand Medicaid in Kansas and address viability of rural hospitals. It’s likely COVID-19 will exacerbate medical-debt problems of Kansans, he said.
He said being part of a $5.2 million reduction in health care bills in Kansas and Oklahoma was powerful stuff. It reminded him of young David standing up to the giant Goliath.
“It showed us no matter our size, no matter where you are in the state or country, large or small, what you do matters. Where you put your resources matters. What you choose to do for others matters. Let us be David. Let us stand up.”
The Rev. Gage Church, pastor of Central Congregational Church in Topeka, said the congregation raised $3,140 primarily through its annual chocolate sale for the medical debt program. He worries each year there won’t be enough chocolate to generate much money, but the voluntary candymakers astound with the volume and variety of goodies.
“To find out that little bit mixed with little bits with other congregations was able to wipe out more than $5 million in medical debt for families in Kansas and Oklahoma is amazing,” he said. “Just like the chocolate sale. A little bit went a long way.”
A little disruption
Chris Moore, pastor of Fellowship Congregational in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said one role of a church was to offer charity. Another is to disrupt unjust systems that undermine people financially, he said.
“During a pandemic, it becomes even more important for the church to step in, disrupting unjust systems like ones that subject people to financial ruin simply because they have become sick or injured. If marshaling our resources for medical debt relief isn’t ‘being the church,’ I don’t know what is,” he said.
In Kansas, distribution of disruption included: Sedgwick County, $264,000, 117 households; Dickinson County, $93,000, 10 households; Finney County, $66,000, 16 households; Johnson County, $63,000; 47 households; Montgomery County, $53,000, 15 households.
Oklahoma debt relief was funneled to Cleveland County, $1.6 million; 1,258 households; Oklahoma County, $1.2 million, 802 households; Garvin County, $276,000, 128 households; Pottawatomie County, $260,000, 131 households; Comanche County, $56,000, 28 households.
Edith Guffey, UCC conference minister in Kansas and Oklahoma, said the coalition of congregations had diverse perspectives but were united in a belief the church was there to be an ambassodors of God’s love.
“We did this important ministry together, across two states, because medical debt doesn’t care who you are or how you vote or where you live,” she said. “The only thing that matters is if you can pay. Love of neighbor is easy to say, but it doesn’t pay the bills.”
Guffey said the program made a tangible difference in thousands of families at Thanksgiving in a year in which so many people fell ill and lost their lives to COVID-19.
“May it ease their burden and may their spirits be lifted,” Guffey said. “And, God, even while we are grateful for this ministry, we know that it is not enough. There are still too many that are burdened by medical debt, caught in a system that is fundamentally unjust. Even if we give thanks for all that is, we commit ourselves to continue to work for systemic change, for justice.”