Two UCC church campaigns wipe out more than $13.6 million in medical debt

Faith in action. Two recent fundraising campaigns in the United Church of Christ have wiped out more than $13.6 million in medical debt for 13,115 families.

In College Station, Tex., a church youth group wanted to abolish the medical debt of their neighbors. They forgave all the debt in their county and in 17 others.

In Charlottesville Va., a congregation without a pastor led a fundraising campaign to forgive medical debt in their neighboring state of West Virginia. They eliminated bills for people in 52 of that state’s 55 counties.

‘Exceeded our hopes

The young people of Friends Congregational Church, UCC, coordinated the Texas buy. They raised more than $51,000 in a campaign that ended in late April. They sent those funds to RIP Medical Debt, a New York based non-profit that purchases debt for pennies on the dollar, which bought up all the portfolios in their locality, Brazos County, and 17 more.  

Members of the Friends Congregational UCC youth group at work during their 2022 mission trip on July 12, composting at Mandy’s Farm, a farm and residential coop that helps disabled people in Albuquerque, N.M. The young people took a quick photo before they continued shoveling up several square feet of manure and tree brush.

“RIP Medical Debt provided the youth group with information about the counties with the most debt in Texas along with the demographics for those areas,” said Friends pastor, the Rev. Dan De Leon. “The youth group had been learning about how medical debt disproportionately affects people of color, so they chose the 17 counties that would receive debt relief based on highest levels of debt and greatest minority populations.

“The results far exceeded our hopes. The Brazos Valley Medical Debt Forgiveness campaign was able to forgive medical debt in 18 Texas counties for 10,770 recipients with a total of $11,136,845.37 forgiven, averaging $1,034.06 forgiven per household.

“The group was hoping to forgive $5.1 million in medical debt. The funds they raised forgave more than twice that.”

‘Pure joy’

The young people got the good news just before they left on a mission trip in Albuquerque, N.M.

“This was amazing news!” said Chance Roblyer, 12. “I thought that getting rid of $5 million of medical debt was so much, but $11 million blesses so many more people.”

Another day spent helping others in mission in Albuquerque, N.M. On July 11, the Friends youth volunteered at Road Runner Food Bank, which serves more than 1,000 people daily.

De Leon said his reactoin was “pure joy.” “I was literally brought to tears. All along I knew that it was nothing shy of a miracle for our small youth group to raise over $51,000, but when I saw how far those funds went to relieve debt, and to perhaps lift a household out of cyclical poverty, I thought of Isaiah 58:6, about the fast God chooses for us to loose the chains of injustice and set the oppressed free and break every yoke, and I gave thanks for our youth putting their faith into action.”

“I genuinely thought I would never be able to help so many people,” said 14-year old Kylen Harvey. “It feels great to think that such a small church could make such a big difference.”

When the youth group shared the report with the congregation on Sunday, July 17, De Leon said they had to pause after almost every sentence because of the cheers and the applause.

‘Neighbors All’

Sojourners Church, UCC, focused its “Neighbors All” project on relieving debt for it nearest neighbors in West Virginia.

“We had originally hoped to do a campaign for Virginia,” said the Rev. Karen Mann, a Sojourners member. But after RIP discovered there was not enough purchasable debt available support that, “the congregation was happy to switch our focus to West Virginia, believing we are called to love our neighbors whether they live in our state or not,” Mann said. “That’s why we named our campaign Neighbors All. Once we learned more about the level of medical debt and need in West Virginia, it only cemented our resolve to support our neighbors there.”

Members of Sojourners Church, UCC gather under a 100+ year-old American Elm, recently designated as a Landmark Tree by the city of Charlottesville. The tree, treasured by the congregation, shades their parking lot.

The effort, driven by Sojourners and joined by UCC churches in Maryland and West Virginia, raised $24,660, abolishing $2,466,445.45 in medical debt for 2,345 families in West Virginia.

“There, 27 percent of the population has unpayable past-due medical debt,” the church noted in a news release. “In some areas of West Virginia, 37 percent of the population has unpayable medical debt.

“The money collected by ‘Neighbors All’ relieved the debt of persons or families in West Virginia who make less than twice the poverty level, whose debts are greater than 5 percent of their income, or whose overall debts are greater than their assets. RIP is able to turn every $10 donated into roughly $1,000 worth of debt relieved, and that’s the size of the average medical debt.”

Feeling a connection

“I have been so proud of the way this congregation came together for this campaign,” Mann said. “These last six months have been an uncertain time for us as a congregation while we navigated a time between pastors. But the congregation rallied around this campaign with enthusiasm and generosity.

“We have been delighted and humbled by how much good the campaign was able to do and can only imagine how relieved folks must feel when they open their debt relief letter.”

“It puts things in perspective when I think about Jesus inviting us to be neighbors to one another, rather than wasting time determining who our neighbors are,” De Leon said.

“It’s hard to explain, but after I read that report, I walked around the neighborhood where our church building is located, and I thought, ‘One of these neighbors might have received assistance from our youth group’s medical debt relief campaign. They might never come through the doors of our church and I might never meet them, but they are my neighbors; and now I feel that much more of a connection with them and am even more compelled to be a neighbor to them however I can.’”

Read more about the UCC medical debt initiative, which has now abolished more than $118 million, here. Fact sheets on medical debt’s impact are here.

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Categories: United Church of Christ News

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