UCC churches erase almost $5.5 million in medical debt in California
Continuing the mission started by the United Church of Christ in 2019, several UCC churches in the San Francisco area, with assistance from the national setting, have erased $5,473,959.51 in medical debt for 2,604 families in 34 counties in California.
This effort in the Northern California Nevada Conference kicked off during the season of Lent just before the coronavirus pandemic, with the debt buy completed the last week in July. Letters bearing the UCC logo will soon be mailed to the affected households, advising that their medical debt has been forgiven.
The campaign idea began with the UCC’s largest East Bay church, First Church Berkeley, led by Rev. Molly Baskette.
“Our effort began in late February and was completed even as our communities were negatively impacted by the global coronavirus pandemic,” said the First Church pastor. “While we know that current economic conditions and public health emergency will soon create more medical debt, we are glad to be able to give so many neighbors a clean slate right now.”
Nine congregations contribute
The campaign grew to include eight other area churches: Arlington Community Church in Kensington, Berkeley Chinese Community Church (UCC), First Congregational Church of Alameda UCC, First Congregational Church of Oakland UCC, First Congregational Church of Auburn, The Good Table UCC in El Cerrito, Hillcrest Congregational Church in Pleasant Hill, and Skyland UCC in Los Gatos.
“As a diverse group of churches, we all knew that medical debt was a big problem for the most vulnerable in our communities: the sick, the elderly, the poor, and veterans. In addition, we learned that medical debt seriously impacts the middle class, driving many families who were formerly stable into poverty,” said the Rev. Melinda McLain, pastor of The Good Table UCC. “By forgiving this debt, we hope to give struggling individuals, and their families, a fresh start.”
The California congregations raised $44,000, and with a contribution of $8,000 from the UCC national setting, they hoped to concentrate the debt buy in two counties in the East Bay area. The churches are located in Contra Costa and Alameda counties, which include the large cities of Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond. Not only did their donations abolish close to $3 million in debt for almost 1,000 households in those counties, they assisted families in 32 others. Solano, San Joaquin and Los Angeles counties made up a large part of the rest of the buy, where almost $2 million was erased. The average amount forgiven — $2,102.
Latest in series of UCC buys across U.S.
The West Coast campaign was inspired by similar efforts by UCC churches in Chicago and St. Louis. The Rev. Traci Blackmon, UCC associate general minister, is leading the denomination’s initiative to reach low-income Americans living in every one of the UCC’s geographic regions.
“This is a time when good news is needed by so many,” said the Rev. Traci Blackmon. “We offer the participating congregations our congratulations and gratitude for allowing us the opportunity to assist in this great work!”
The UCC national effort to forgive medical debt began last year in the Great Lakes Region with the Chicago buy. Local church, Conference and Justice and Local Church Ministries donations combined to abolish $5.3 million in debt for 5,888 families on the city’s South Side in late September 2019.
In January, 11,108 families in St. Louis, the West Central Region, learned that their outstanding medical debt has been forgiven. Local churches, regional bodies, the national office and inspired individuals, matched in part by a generous investment from the Deaconess Foundation, wiped out $12.9 million in debt for low-income households in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County.
Who qualifies; why it matters
Qualifying debtors were those earning less than two times the federal poverty level; in financial hardship, with out-of-pocket expenses that are 5 percent or more of their annual income; or facing insolvency, with debts greater than assets.
“Remembering that the Psalmist said ‘God heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds,’ and that Jesus himself in Matthew 25 told us that when we tend to those who are sick, we are tending to Jesus himself, we take up this holy work not just to heal bodies but to mend lives destroyed by astronomical debt,” said McLain.
“We’ve also come to understand that medical debt is a huge driver of the destabilizing forces that can lead individuals and families to become homeless, so we hope that relieving our neighbors of medical debt will prevent the further exacerbation of the homelessness crisis in the East Bay,” Baskette said.
“I am so grateful for the work of the East Bay churches that came together to make this happen,” said the Rev. Diane Weible, Conference Minister. “It is a reminder not just of the power of covenant but of what can happen when we work together to address serious issues.”
The California campaign, in the UCC’s Western Region, will be followed by a buy this month in the Southern New England Conference, and another in the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference.
The UCC, which collected over $112,000 in a Dec. 2019 Giving Tuesday campaign to supplement local and regional efforts, is able to make medical debt forgiveness possible in partnership with the nonprofit organization, RIP Medical Debt, founded in 2014 by two former debt collection executives. RIP buys up and then forgives medical debt for pennies on the dollar.
Working with groups like the UCC, RIP has been able to erase over $1.4 billion dollars in medical debt across the nation.
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