LINCOLN – The minister of First-Plymouth Congregational Church wears sneakers and jeans for the 11:59 service – a relaxed worship where you come as you are.
A breeze blows through the open doors into the sanctuary of the grand old church with its high ceilings surrounded by stately two-story houses, modest bungalows and boxy granny flats in one of Lincoln’s most economically diverse neighborhoods.
Over the next 35 minutes, Senior Pastor Jim Keck will quote his mother, baptize a three-year-old, praise moral courage, share a brief version of the church’s long history, recite the Beatitudes, and step away from the Lord’s Prayer, the church’s latest initiative.
“That moment when we say, ‘Forgive us our debts?’ You see, these months we’re trying to pay off the medical debt in downtown Lincoln.”
If you’ve got five bucks in your pocket, he says. Ten. Everything you put on the plate, every penny, helps pay our neighbors’ health debts.
“I hope you have courage this week,” says the pastor. “I hope you hold on to what is good.”
As the community marches into the sunny first day of spring, a volunteer waits, shielding the collection plate from the wind to keep the growing pile of cash from flying out the door.
Although that’s exactly where it’s supposed to land.
It started with Juan Carlos Huertas.
Keck had surfed sermons on Facebook in spring 2020. Huertas put it on. Here is a man passionate about justice and community and the love of Jesus.
Here’s the guy who could help our church write its post-pandemic chapter, Keck thought.
A pastor’s son like Keck. A church freak like Keck.
He invited the Puerto Rican Methodist minister to preach in Lincoln and eventually lured him away from Louisiana, where he had ministered for 16 years.
“We hired him as a preacher and an innovator in social justice work,” Keck said.
Last summer he and his family moved into a house four blocks from First-Plymouth.
He started justNeighbors, a way to walk side by side with people in the neighborhood and show their love. They hung out at the corner laundromat offering coffee and snacks, providing quarters for the washers and dryers, and helping to fold and move laundry. They carpooled to volunteer at a medical clinic that helps sick Lincolnites without health insurance. They hope to find a way to fill gas tanks.
But first, the two pastors came up with bigger ideas. The pandemic had shed a light on health care and injustice. They knew that churches across the country had been buying up vast amounts of medical debt.
“But we didn’t want to do that in America as a whole,” said Keck. “We wanted to help our own neighbors in central Lincoln.”
Over the next few months, Huertas dug in. He read as much as he could about medical debt, made unannounced calls and emails, learned all he could about this thorny American problem.
“I lost track of how many people I sat down with,” Huertas said.
The more he learned, the more he realized: “This is a problem with our neighbors.”
It’s easy for people to fall behind on medical bills, he said. Missing payments and ending up in collections. your child becomes ill. You will get sick.
“You owe the hospital and the pathologist and the respiratory therapist; People don’t understand the billing process.”
Huertas learned as he walked.
He learned that there are programs that are already tackling medical debt here. The Lancaster County Medical Society offers heavily discounted rates to patients overwhelmed by medical bills with the help of grants from the Community Health Endowment. Lincoln’s hospitals donate millions to charity; $42 million at Bryan Health alone in 2021.
He learned that some patients come to Lincoln’s volunteer Clinic with a Heart for care because they have debts they can’t pay in their own doctor’s offices.
He learned that people living in the clusters of neighborhoods in the city’s core – near First-Plymouth – had a life expectancy nearly 10 years shorter than those living in the suburbs on the fringes.
During his months of research, Huertas located the three collection agencies responsible for collecting most of the medical debt near the church.
They negotiated a deal. The debt collector would be a silent partner who would provide the church with a small discount on the balance and a list of central Lincoln neighbors with debts. No names. No addresses.
The church had its own rules. Recipients had to be current with payments and show good faith in settling their debts.
Rule 2: The church would give without expectation. No strings attached. No confirmation required.
Launched in late February, the project was cobbled together with cash from collectors’ plates and entry fees from members who knew the launch was coming.
A small committee sat down with $8,000 and a list.
A disabled cancer patient who owed $1,500.
A retiree living on Social Security who owes $300.
A single parent with no child support who needed $800 to get out of debt.
That night they paid off the debts of 11 neighbors.
Stephanie Dinger is a member of the board. She remembers how good that felt.
“You never get anywhere with medical bills. For me that is God, reaching out to someone.”
A serial letter from the collection agency was sent to each recipient. It contained a phone number and email address for First-Plymouth’s justNeighbors project.
It also included the balance of each account: $0.
A few days later the phone rang in First Plymouth. On the other end was a woman who spent years paying off $3,000 in debt.
After her letter arrived, she had called the collection agency, sure they had made a mistake.
Recounting what she said next, Keck said: “I don’t even have the words to tell you how it feels. All I can feel is thank you Jesus.”
Paul Rea has been a Lincoln bankruptcy attorney for almost 30 years, long enough to know why his fellow Nebraskas are going bankrupt.
“If you look at the typical bankruptcy, the vast majority have some medical debt, and there is a significant minority of cases where people have overwhelming medical debt.”
A Harvard study found that six out of 10 bankruptcies list medical debt as a contributing factor, said Scott Patton, director of development at RIP Medical Debt. “And that’s only for people who can afford to submit. There are literally millions of people who cannot afford to file for bankruptcy because they have medical debt.”
Patton’s Employer is a New York-based nonprofit that buys debt for pennies on the dollar and has paid off nearly $7 billion in medical debt across America since 2014.
One in five American households reports medical debt, Patton said. A quarter of credit card debt can be traced back to medical bills. Medical debt is a staggering $88 billion on credit reports.
“It’s a huge problem,” he said. “It can happen to anyone who has a human body and lives in our country.”
Medical debt is an immense source of stress for those who are already struggling, said Lori Seibel, president of the Community Health Endowment.
“People are looked after less often,” she said. “They may just be living with a problem or they may go to the emergency room knowing they will see them, resulting in more expensive treatment.”
Seibel met with Huertas last fall to give him an insight into the demographics surrounding First-Plymouth and the power of the Church as an anchor in the neighborhood.
But she was also skeptical of the Church’s grand plan.
“My first thought was, ‘This is such a huge problem, and what can a unit do?'” Seibel said.
Then, thinking about being at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new lead the foundation had helped fund, she turned to her CEO: Sure, this will help 50 kids; 800 are on the waiting list.
Their CEO replied: But Lori, there are 50 children.
“Will they be able to pay off everyone’s medical debt? no But for the people who do them, it’s life-changing.”
No money burst the doors of First-Plymouth on the first day of spring.
As church leaders emptied collection plates from that morning’s service, they counted everything from pennies to $100 bills.
They added that to cash from collection platters and all mailed checks and donations to the online medical debt portal for the first two weekends in March. They came up with a total of: $45,000.
The committee met for the second time on March 22nd. They looked at a new list.
A restaurant worker who owed $1,300.
A tenant who works and lives alone pays off a $1,000 debt.
A letter would soon be on its way to 35 households whose medical debt has been paid off.
“There’s an energy surrounding this thing,” Keck said. “There’s something about this initiative that’s gained a kind of appeal that I’ve never seen before.”
The range of collection plates has doubled in the last month.
Trustees are willing to ensure that funds that would otherwise have gone to church coffers are raised for this other purpose. Church members have embraced the idea. A debt collector has readily teamed up with First-Plymouth.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for the congregation to get the help they need,” Leah Kash-Brown, 25, said after that 11:59 am service. “And a great opportunity to help the community.”
The Church is just beginning.
The campaign runs until Easter Sunday 2023. Who knows? Maybe they can pay off the debt in downtown Lincoln over the next year. Maybe they can expand their reach into new neighborhoods and help new people crushed by the weight of medical debt, Huertas said.
“That would be great.”
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