Down Debt

Church helps neighbors pay off medical debt

Over the next 35 minutes, Senior Pastor Jim Keck will quote his mother, baptize a 3-year-old, uplift moral courage, share a short version of the church’s long history, and move from the Lord’s Prayer to the new initiative of the church. .

“That moment when we say, ‘Forgive us our debts?’ You see here, during these months we are trying to help pay the medical debt in the center of Lincoln.

Everything you put on the plate, every penny, helps pay off your neighbors’ healthcare debts.

It all started with Juan Carlos Huertas.

Keck had been surfing sermons on Facebook in the spring of 2020. Huertas lured him. Here is a man passionate about justice and community.

Here’s the guy who could help our church write its post-pandemic chapter, Keck thought.


Cindy Lange Kubick

Credit: contributed

Cindy Lange Kubick

Credit: contributed

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Cindy Lange Kubick

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

He invited the Methodist minister from Puerto Rico to preach in Lincoln, eventually luring him away from Louisiana, where he had served for 16 years.

The two pastors started throwing big ideas. The pandemic has brought health care and inequality into the spotlight. They knew that churches across the country had redeemed large amounts of medical debt.

“But we didn’t want to do that in America as a whole,” Keck said. “We wanted to help our own neighbors in downtown Lincoln.”

Over the next few months, Huertas dug. He read as much as he could about medical debt, made phone calls and emails, learned all he could about this thorny American issue.

The more he learned, the more he realized, “It’s a problem with our neighbors.”

‘give a hand’

It’s easy for people to fall behind on medical bills, he said. Missing payments and ending up in collections. Your child falls ill. You get sick.

During his months of research, Huertas tracked down the three debt collection agencies responsible for collecting most of the medical debt near the church.

Only one called back.

They made a deal. The debt collector would be a silent partner, providing the church with a small discount on the balance and a list of Lincoln’s central neighbors in debt. No names. No addresses.

The church had its own rules. Beneficiaries had to be up to date with their payments and demonstrate good faith in repaying their debt.

Rule #2: The church would give without expectation. No strings attached. No acknowledgment required.

The project was launched in late February, cobbled together with money from fundraising plates and start-up funds from members who knew the rollout was coming.

A small committee sat down with $8,000 and a list.

A cancer patient unable to work who owed $1,500.

A retiree living on Social Security who owed $300.

A single parent without child support who needed $800 to pay off his debts.

That night, they paid off the debt of 11 neighbors.

Stephanie Dinger is a committee member. She remembers how good it was.

“You can never move forward if you have medical bills. For me, it’s God, giving someone a hand.

A form letter from the collection agency was sent to each recipient which included a phone number and email for First-Plymouth’s justNeighbors project and the balance of each account: $0.

A few days later the phone rang in First-Plymouth. On the other end of the line was a woman who had racked up $3,000 in debt for years.

Keck recounts what she said next: “I don’t even have words to let you know how it feels. The only thing I can feel is thank you, Jesus.

“crushing medical debt”

Paul Rea has been a Lincoln bankruptcy attorney for nearly 30 years, long enough to know why his fellow Nebraskas are going bankrupt.

“When you look at the typical bankruptcy, the vast majority will have medical debt, and there’s a significant minority of cases where people have crippling medical debt.”

Last fall, Lori Seibel, president of the Community Health Endowment, a nonprofit whose lofty goal is to try to make Lincoln the healthiest community in the country, sat down with Huertas to give her some insight into the demographics around First-Plymouth and church power. as the anchor of the neighborhood.

But she was also skeptical of the grand church plan.

“My first thought was, ‘This is such a huge problem and what can one entity do? “Said Seibel.

Then she realised, “Will they be able to resolve each person’s medical debt?” No. But for the people they do, it’s life changing.

That first day of spring, when church leaders emptied the morning service collection plates, they counted everything from pennies to $100 bills.

They added that to money from collection plates the first two weekends in March, as well as checks posted and donations to its online medical debt portal. They arrived at a total: $45,000.

The committee met a second time on March 22. They looked at a new list.

A restaurant worker who owed $1,300.

A parent who owed $600.

A tenant working and living alone paying off a debt of $1,000.

A letter would soon be on its way to 35 households whose medical debt has been erased.

Over the past month, collector’s plate offerings have doubled.

Trustees are willing to see money that might otherwise have gone into church coffers collected for this other purpose. Church members embraced the idea. A collection agent has voluntarily partnered with First-Plymouth.

“I think this is a great opportunity for the community to get the help they need,” Leah Kash-Brown, 25, said after the 11:59 a.m. service. “And a great opportunity to help the community.”

Cindy Lange-Kubick writes for Flatwater Free Press, an independent, nonprofit newsroom. This story is republished by the Solutions Journalism Network.

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