Chicago churches erase over $5 million in medical debt for nearly 6,000 Illinois families

United Church of Christ announces 'Giving Tuesday' campaign to eradicate medical debt

The Rev. Ottis Moss announces a church coalition effort to abolish medical debt at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, on Oct. 20, 2019.
The Rev. Ottis Moss announces a church coalition effort to abolish medical debt at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, on Oct. 20, 2019. | YouTube/ United Church of Christ

United Church of Christ churches in Chicago have joined together to eliminate over $5.3 million in medical debt impacting nearly 6,000 Illinois families. Meanwhile, the UCC national church body has dedicated this year’s Giving Tuesday to the cause of erasing medical debt nationwide. 

Local church leaders affiliated with the 5,000-church mainline Protestant denomination announced Sunday that they had raised over $38,000 that was used to purchase medical debt plaguing 5,888 families.  

As medical debt is the most common cause of bankruptcy in the United States, the New York-based nonprofit RIP Medical Debt works with organizations and donors to purchase unpaid debt from medical institutions incurred by struggling families for just pennies on the dollar.

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Instead of that debt being sold off to third-party collection companies looking to make a profit, the debt is purchased by RIP Medical Debt and the individual or family is freed from the financial burden with no strings attached. 

Speaking at a news conference Sunday afternoon at Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street, the church’s pastor, Ottis Moss, told churchgoers that the nearly 6,000 families will receive an anonymous letter before Thanksgiving informing them that their debt has been forgiven. 

“RIP Medical Debt was able to work with us so that we were able to target certain zip codes to ensure that that poorest of the poor would benefit from this,” Moss explained. “I am happy to say that communities in Chicago that received the largest portion of debt relief [are] Englewood, Auburn Gresham, Washington Heights, Roslyn, and West Pullman.”

“But people throughout Cook County will have their debt relieved,” Moss continued. “They will receive a very special card before Thanksgiving that is completely anonymous. They don’t know that this is coming. The card will simply say: ‘Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. We want you to know that all your debts have been forgiven.’”

The major contributions for the campaign came from Trinity United Church of Christ, St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Lincoln Park, Covenant United Church of Christ in South Holland, and the Leadership Network, a consortium of local Baptist churches serving Chicago's black neighborhoods.

“The sisters and brothers who stand behind me joined in with this movement,” Moss said during the news conference.

“We are calling it a movement. This is not one time. We want to see a movement of debt relief. Instead of people praying on individuals, we want to see people relieved of that debt so that they can go about their business and realize the dreams that God has placed in their hearts.”

Traci Blackmon, UCC’s associate general minister of justice and local church ministries, announced at the news conference that the national denomination’s “Giving Tuesday” campaign on Dec. 3 will be dedicated to erasing medical debt for people living below the poverty level who are facing insolvency across the country. 

The denomination has set a goal to raise $50,000 for RIP Medical Debt this Giving Tuesday, the Tuesday following Thanksgiving. 

Blackmon explained that the average debt that was forgiven by the coalition’s $38,000 donation was $907 per family. 

“What that means is for every dollar that we contributed, we were able to abolish approximately $142 worth of debt,” she detailed. “That matters because that means what held them hostage we were able to alleviate with about $7 per family.”

“I am glad that we could do it but there is absolutely no reason why people should be held hostage so that other people can be enriched on their backs,” she continued. “There is absolutely no reason why debt collectors can purchase debt pennies on the dollar and pay $7 for debt for which some people are losing their homes. Enough is enough. So we stand here not just as gifters but as agitators.” 

A number of the Chicago churches that helped raise the $38,000 are themselves struggling financially.

“Our funds were collected from people who needed help themselves but who saw this as an opportunity to help somebody else,” the Rev. Marshall Hatch of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield said during the news conference. 

“We believed that it gave us the opportunity to represent what we would call an organic theology. That would be the people in the pews on the West Side, we believe that medical doctors and medical staff can open opportunities for healing but only God does the healing and nobody should go into debt for the healing that God does.”

Blackmon challenged the 2020 presidential candidates to fix the “Jericho road” of high medical costs plaguing so many American families today. 

“The Jericho road story is a familiar story to all of us. I am grateful that we don’t represent the priest or the Levite,” she said.

“But we represent the Samaritan who didn’t leave the person beaten on the side of the road. Make no mistake about it, we are not just here as the Samaritans. For we are thinking people of faith and we are going to hold accountable in 2020 and beyond our elected leaders for repairing Jericho Road in the first place. We should not be here because we should not have Jericho roads.”

The UCC’s efforts come as several churches nationwide have partnered with RIP Medical Debt to erase crippling medical debt for people in their communities. 

In September, a Missouri church erased $43 million in medical debt by raising over $430,000. 

In July, a Southern Baptist church in Florida erased $7.2 million in medical debt impacting over 6,500 individuals and families living at or below the poverty line in five Florida counties.

In 2018, a Texas church erased over $10 million in medical debt by donating the $100,000 it was slated to spend on advertising its Easter service.

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