A Nebraska church has helped raise over $500,000 to pay off the medical bills of local residents, with the proceeds going to help around 500 households in the surrounding community.
First-Plymouth Congregational Church of Lincoln raised the total by Easter Sunday, receiving donations from around 10,000 people, many of whom did not belong to the congregation.
The total was raised throughout the 14-month campaign, with church leadership initially thinking that their efforts would only bring in around $8,000.
"Sometimes love has to be expressed in actions. We have had an initiative all year that is just love on the move," Senior Pastor Rev. Jim Keck said in his Easter sermon on Sunday. "The church decided that there were too many homes right in our neighborhood that were saddled with medical debt. ... The church decided that every dime that went into the collection plate ... would go to forgive the medical debt of homes right here in central Lincoln."
"The debt collector agreed to give us anonymized profiles to keep people's privacy. ... They would say like, 'a single mother with two kids owes $1,000 is paying $50 a month and isn't ever going to get on top of it,'" he continued.
"Each month, you put money in the plate, and we bought as many of those as possible. It now culminates this year. We have retired the debts of over 500 homes right here in the neighborhood. ... As of this morning, we will hit somewhere around $550,000."
Keck said the initiative follows the words of Jesus, who called his followers to "love their neighbor."
"This is like the Lord's Prayer in action to forgive us our debts," he said.
The church's website explains that the campaign began in March 2022 to erase medical debt in the Near South Neighborhood and surrounding communities by "committing all of our loose offerings (not pledges) to this effort until Easter 2023." The campaign was done in conjunction with the Debtor's Defense Project, which works to provide "more transparency and protection for those going through the legal process of debt collection in Nebraska."
Others who have benefited from the generosity are a single person living in a rental unit who owed $1,000, a single parent receiving little child support who owed $600, and a food service worker who owed $1,300
In an interview with The Lincoln Journal-Star, Keck said he had no idea the campaign "would go so viral."
"You wouldn't think a pastor would do this; I underestimated people's generosity," he said.
Most of the donations to the campaign have been between $25 and $50, with the donated money being tax-exempt, reported The Journal-Star.
"There was no screening of people, whether gay, straight, transgender, what race, what religion," Keck continued. "It was an act of pure inclusion, which is such a central ethic here."
In recent years, many churches have worked to raise funds to help their neighbors eliminate extensive medical debts, often raising large sums of money.
For example, in 2021, the New Jersey-based megachurch Liquid Church teamed up with the nonprofit RIP Medical Debt to pay off $13.7 million in medical debt for approximately 3,800 people.
Tim Lucas, lead pastor and founder of Liquid Church, said in a statement in 2021 that while "investigating the crisis of medical debt, we learned how it's destroying the financial stability of families in our communities."
"Medical debt is tied to two-thirds of bankruptcies in America, and it ruins credit for families, impacting their ability to secure housing, car loans, job opportunities, and more," continued Lucas.
"In response to the pandemic, our church had a heart to give some fresh hope to our neighbors in need. We want them to have a clean slate to start 2021, and to remind them that they're loved and God has not forgotten them."
In 2019, a Missouri church raised over $430,000 to pay off over $43 million in medical debt.
According to a report by The Washington Post earlier this year, around 100 million Americans have medical debt, with most owing specifically to hospitals.
"We see that individuals with disabilities, and Black and Latino adults are disproportionately represented among adults carrying past-due medical debt," said Gina R. Hijjawi, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
"Consumers need standards in place that protect them from undue medical debt and help them obtain affordable care."