January’s “From the Pastor”: Fresh Starts Are Real

Dear friends in Christ,

The beginning of a new year is a time for fresh starts, which is why many folks decide to make New Year’s resolutions and set goals for the year to come. It seems like often these goals center around the following topics:

  • Health (losing weight, eating healthy, quitting smoking, etc.)
  • Getting organized
  • Financial matters (saving more, paying off debt, etc.)

I read recently about a network of churches in Chicago, led by the United Church of Christ, that helped people have a “fresh start” by wiping out 5.3 million dollars of medical debt for nearly six thousand families. And the kicker is, they did it by only raising $38,000! Yes, that’s still a lot of money, but for every one dollar that was raised, they wiped out $142 of medical debt. Take a minute and let that sink in!

They did it by working with a non-profit called RIP Medical Debt to purchase debt the same way that debt collectors do. When health care companies are not able to collect on medical debt, they sell it at a steep discount to debt buyers, who then attempt to collect as much as they can to make a profit. Using donations, RIP Medical Debt does the same thing, but instead of trying to collect on the debt and make money, they forgive it.

How does that actually work? Plenty of families are one health crisis away from serious financial hardship. Hospitals don’t give you a price list when you walk in—you don’t know the cost of the treatment you will need until after you receive it, when you get the bill. And most of the time, you don’t plan ahead to have a medical emergency. As a result, two-thirds of bankruptcies in the United States result from medical debt. RIP Medical Debt does their homework to help determine which families will benefit most by having a debt forgiven,
including household size and income, whether a family’s debt exceeds their assets, and whether a family’s debt is more than 5% of their annual income.

The effects are impressive: increased credit scores, expanding people’s housing options, giving them more job possibilities, and rejuvenating local economies. Studies are being done to find out more about the mental, emotional, and spiritual effects of forgiving medical debt. It really can be that “fresh start” that we all long for, leveling the playing field, a springboard from which deep, long-lasting change can occur. And this is true no matter where you live, no matter your race, gender, sexuality or political party. Medical debt can happen to anyone, but more importantly, we all need real-life experiences of God’s grace. We all need a clean slate, a fresh start.

That “fresh start” even includes the founders of RIP Medical Debt, two guys who had worked in debt buying and collections for years. They’d been working the other side of the equation…calling up people and hounding them to pay their debts. It’s a business that can easily cross the line to harassment. Five years ago, they had a change of heart, closed their collection agencies and started RIP Medical Debt. One even went to his pastor and his church friends and asked if starting this non-profit would be doing the right thing. “Now I think I did the right thing,” he says.

So what’s their New Year’s resolution? To reach their goal of forgiving a billion dollars of medical debt. They’re almost there—as of early December, they had wiped out over $964 million. This New Year will bring a lot of fresh starts, a lot of clean slates, to a lot of people.

As you consider what your New Year’s resolutions might be, I hope you find a fresh start and a way to help others also experience that fresh start, that expression of God’s grace in our lives. It doesn’t have to be forgiving millions of dollars of debt. It can be as simple (and as deep) as forgiving your friend, your family member, your neighbor, even forgiving yourself. We need to hear words of grace from each other, no matter what time of year it is.

Together in Christ,
Pastor Katie Yahns

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