Religion News: February 2020

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After much unfavorable publicity, the U.Va. Health System and other institutions have revamped their most aggressive debt collection practices, but medical debt is still a major problem for families nationwide.

Christmas Donation Provides Relief to Those with Medical Debt

It’s no secret that unpaid medical bills are a major cause of debt, and medical institutions continue to seize salaries and bank accounts, put liens on homes and force families into bankruptcy, according to reporting by Kaiser Health News. Recent exposure of some of the harsher practices of medical debt collections has caused some changes in financial aid guidelines, but existing medical debt remains.

Crozet United Methodist Church targeted this issue by choosing a charity (RIP Medical Debt) that’s making a difference nationwide. And like all good investments, the church’s considerable financial support will have a return far greater than the original amount.

This year, the generous $18,000 raised by the congregation at Christmas time will go to an organization formed specifically to address the problem, and will actually reduce medical debt by $1.8 million, a huge return by anyone’s standards.

The return on investment is great, but the inspiration is Biblical, according to the church, inspired by the mandate to the faithful to help those in need. There’s no doubt that the need is great: A 2019 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that illness or medical bills contributed to 66.5% of the bankruptcies in America each year.

Another study, at Northwestern University, found that out-of-pocket medical costs are central in more than a quarter of personal bankruptcies among low-income households. RIP Medical Debt seeks to solve this problem by purchasing and forgiving the medical debt of those in need. The charity buys the debt of those who earn less than two times the federal poverty level, have debts that are five percent or more of gross annual income, and whose debts are greater than their assets. All of this is done with no expectations from the debtors.

Because medical debt is often bought by institutions and then devalued, RIP Medical Debt buys it for pennies on a dollar, allowing the charity to put $100 worth of debt to rest for each dollar donated.

After buying the debt, the charity notifies each recipient by mail, and there are hundreds of stories of shock, disbelief and joy when the letters of forgiveness are received. 

One recipient spoke about putting an envelope in a pile, thinking it was another collection notice, then finally opening it and realizing that his whole life had been changed.

Although the church will have no contact with the recipients, according to RIP Medical Debt, the generosity of Crozet UMC will be acknowledged in a letter to each recipient. 

Churches Cooperate to Serve People in the North Garden Area

Eighteen rural churches of different denominations have found ways to plan and participate in cooperative events, sometimes in combinations of three or four, sometimes involving every one of the churches. 

There’s a certain amount of diplomacy in finding common ground among Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, said Tim Worley, pastor of three of the Methodist Churches. “Well, for one thing, we don’t discuss theology,” he said. 

Although Worley is the vice president of the North Garden Area Christian Cooperative, it’s basically a lay organization, he said, so it’s not so hard to avoid discussions of the fine points of scripture and tradition. 

The North Garden Area Christian Cooperative participates in a community day every summer.

That doesn’t mean it’s an easy process, respecting the input of 18 vastly different small churches, said James Starr, a deacon at Moreland Baptist Church, who manages the website for the cooperative: “It took us three years to write a mission statement.”

Rather than dwelling on differences, the members focus on ways they can support each other and inspire the community with events that the small churches could not manage individually. They participate in North Garden’s “Community Day,” each summer, where church members help with the planning and are invited to display materials about their congregation’s activities and ministries. “Everyone shows up,” Worley said. They sample the free hamburgers and hot dogs and catch up with each other.

A number of the churches were involved in the community Christmas musical, held in December at the Batesville United Methodist Church. The service included praise dancers from Zion Baptist Church as well as choir members from eight different churches who had practiced together for three months. The congregants outnumbered the church’s parking spaces at this event, so Worley arranged a shuttle from the parsonage to accommodate them. 

Worley is presently making an inventory of the services provided by the cooperative’s churches. He’s partnering with Love, Inc., to make sure rural clients will know where they can turn for food, clothing, and firewood. “We’re good at serving people in need but not so good at vetting clients,” he said, “so this is a good partnership.” The inventory will allow Love, Inc. to refer rural clients to church-sponsored services near them.

Many of the churches in the cooperative have part-time pastors, or a pastor who lives far away and travels in on certain Sundays. As Worley sees it, the main duty for pastors of these small rural churches is to provide inspiration and administration when needed. “As far as looking out for each other, these communities have that covered,” he said. 

One upcoming cooperative project is packing food for distribution by RISE Against Hunger on February 9, Starr said. This event will be at the North Garden Volunteer Fire Department at 1 p.m., and is a joint project of the cooperative and Cove Presbyterian Church, which jointly have raised $3,400 for the bulk food to be packed for individual use. For information, or to volunteer, call the cooperative office at (434) 295-1463. 

The 2019 Christmas Musical at Batesville UMW included praise dancers from Zion Baptist Church.

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