LINCOLN, Neb. (KMTV) – The leader of the Congregational Church of First-Plymouth wears sneakers and jeans for the 11:59 a.m. service – a laid-back, laid-back worship service.
A breeze blows through the open doors into the high-ceilinged sanctuary of the grand old church, surrounded by stately two-story houses, humble bungalows and box-like apartments in one of the most economically diverse neighborhoods of Lincoln.
Over the next 35 minutes, Senior Pastor Jim Keck will quote his mother, baptize a 3-year-old child, exalt moral courage, share a short version of the church’s long history, recite the Beatitudes, and move from the prayer of the Lord 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.
If you have five dollars in your pocket, he said. Ten. Everything you put on the plate, every penny, helps pay off our neighbours’ healthcare debts.
“I hope you have courage this week,” the pastor said. “I hope you cling to what is good.”
As the congregation enters the first sunny day of spring, a volunteer waits, shielding the collection plate from the wind to prevent his growing pile of money from flying out the door.
Even though that’s exactly where it’s destined to land.
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 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 nerd, like Keck.
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.
“We brought him up to be a preacher and an innovator in social justice work,” Keck said.
Huertas was ready.
He and his family moved into a house four blocks from First-Plymouth last summer.
He started justNeighbors, a way to walk side by side with people in the neighborhood and show their love. They hung out at the local laundromat offering coffee and snacks, quarters for washers and dryers, help with folding and carrying laundry. They carpooled to volunteer at a medical clinic that helps sick Lincolnites without health insurance. They hope to find a way to fill the gas tanks.
But first, the two pastors floated bigger 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.
“I lost track of how many people I sat with,” Huertas said.
The more he learned, the more he realized, “It’s 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 falls ill. You get sick.
“You need the hospital and the pathologist and the respiratory therapist; people don’t understand the billing process.
Huertas learned as he went.
He learned that there are programs that already deal with medical debt here. The Lancaster County Medical Society is offering deeply discounted rates to patients overwhelmed with medical bills with the help of grants from the Community Health Endowment. Lincoln hospitals donate millions in charitable care; $42 million to Bryan Health alone in 2021.
He learned that some patients came to the Clinic with a heart run by Lincoln volunteers for care because they had debts they couldn’t pay at their own doctor’s offices.
He learned that people living in the cluster of neighborhoods in the heart of the city – near First-Plymouth – have a life expectancy nearly 10 years shorter than those living in outlying neighborhoods.
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 balance discount and a list of indebted Lincoln central neighbors. 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.
Who could they help?
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 standard collection agency letter was sent to each recipient. It included a phone number and email 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 of the line was a woman who had racked up $3,000 in debt for years.
After her letter arrived, she had called the collection agency, sure they had made a mistake.
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.
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.”
A Harvard study determined that six out of 10 bankruptcies cite 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 file. There are literally millions of people who cannot afford to file for bankruptcy and have medical debt.
Patton’s employer is a New York-based nonprofit that buys debt at pennies on the dollar and has paid off nearly $7 billion in medical debt across America since 2014.
One in five U.S. households report medical debt, Patton said. A quarter of credit card debt can be attributed to medical bills. Medical debt represents 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 a huge source of stress for those already struggling, said Lori Seibel, president of the Community Health Endowment.
“People are less likely to seek care,” she said. “They may just live with a problem or go to the emergency room because they know they will be seen there, which leads to more expensive care.”
Seibel sat down with Huertas last fall to give him some insight into the demographics around First-Plymouth and the church’s power as a neighborhood anchor.
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 thought of attending the inauguration of a new Head Start that the endowment had helped fund, and of turning to the chairman of its board of directors: Sure, it will help 50 children; there are 800 on the waiting list.
The chairman of her board of directors replied: But Lori, it’s 50 children.
“Will they be able to resolve each person’s medical debt?” No. But for the people they do, it’s life changing.
No money blew through the doors of First-Plymouth on the first day of spring.
When church leaders emptied the collection plates from that morning’s service, they counted everything from pennies to $100 bills.
They added that to the collection plate money the first two weekends in March, as well as all checks and donations posted on 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.
“There’s an energy around this thing,” Keck said. “There’s something about this initiative that’s gained a kind of traction that I’ve never seen before.”
Collectible plate offerings have doubled in the past month.
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.”
The church is just beginning.
The campaign will continue until Easter Sunday 2023. Who knows? Maybe they can wipe out Lincoln Center’s debt in the next year. Maybe they can expand their reach to new neighborhoods and help new people weighed down by the weight of medical debt, Huertas said.
“That would be great.”
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