This Lent, Mount Zion UMC takes on medical debt payoff campaign to help neighbors
By Jessica Brodie
CENTRAL—A United Methodist church in South Carolina’s Upstate is doing its part this Lent to abolish $1 million in medical debt in Pickens, Oconee and Greenville counties.
Mount Zion United Methodist Church is partnering with RIP Medical Debt for “Forgiven to Forgive,” a campaign that takes donated funds and purchases medical debt in bulk, freeing people from the financial and emotional hardships that accompany massive, unpaid health bills.
“Lent is a season when we are remembering and then celebrating how we are forgiven, not just our medical bills but our sins, and I think about this being a living parable,” said Mount Zion pastor the Rev. Jonathan Harris. “If you want people to understand the forgiveness of God, then what better way than this?”
The idea for Forgiven to Forgive started this past summer, when Mount Zion member Benji Cumbie texted Harris a news story podcast about a church in North Carolina that had helped forgive millions of dollars in medical debts in its community.
“My initial thought was, ‘I bet that’s a huge church that has lots of money!’ But it wasn’t,” Harris said. “In fact, the church was about the size of Mount Zion.”
Mount Zion, while very active in missions and ministry in its community, is a relatively small church in South Carolina’s Upstate, averaging 60-65 people on Sundays.
The North Carolina church in the news story was able to accomplish this debt payoff through a partnership with RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit organization that purchases medical debts in bulk from hospitals and other medical providers at a deeply discounted price, primarily targeting people at poverty level. This bulk discount stretches the donated funds a lot farther, costing just pennies on the dollar, Harris explained.
Fascinated, Harris texted Cumbie to see if he thought Mount Zion could do something similar. “The momentum just built from there,” he said.
With the church’s Missions and Evangelism Committee, headed by David and Beth McWilliams, they developed a campaign called Forgiven to Forgive, with the idea that the church would do all it could during the season of Lent to donate to this fund and help pay off medical debt for people in the tri-county area.
Harris said it’s obviously a Christlike thing to do, but theologically it also honors the essence of Jubilee found in Scripture (Leviticus 25:1-13, Numbers 36:4) that every so often there is a reset when debts are forgiven.
After all, medical debt is a huge problem for many people. Statistics from Urban Institute indicate South Carolina ranks second-worst in the nation for highest medical debt.
The McWilliamses said the program is an opportunity for Mount Zion to reach out in Christian love to others in need, which is at the very heart of the church’s mission.
“Our belief is that the church does not exist only inside the church walls but is and should be an integral part of the needs of the people within the community,” they told the Advocate. “As stated in Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 22:39, we are told to love our neighbors as ourselves. This means we should treat others with kindness, respect and compassion. Being able to assist those in need is a way to show love in our community.”
Cumbie said the church’s motto is “Making disciples who share the love of Christ,” and helping neighbors with medical debt is a great way to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
“If we want to make a difference in this world and in our community, then we need to do the work of Jesus,” Cumbie said. “If you have ever had debt hanging over you, then you know what a burden it is. I can’t think of many better ways to show the love of Christ than by helping forgive our neighbors of their debt.”
Harris shared how when he was in seminary, his oldest child was born, and they experienced a time of deep humility.
“The only reason we could afford the cost of his delivery was that we were so poor that we qualified for Medicaid,” Harris said.
Harris personally knows others who faced similar hardships.
“I know of at least one cancer survivor in the church who faced huge medical bills while trying to raise a family, send kids to college and undergo treatments for that terrible disease,” Harris said. “To be able to forgive debts in the name of Christ for people like that sounds a lot like God’s kingdom coming and God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.”
While the campaign officially begins on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 14, people can already start donating toward the church’s goal of $1 million. They hope all people in their church and community, as well as others across the state, will consider helping the effort. Not only can individuals donate, but they are organizing group efforts too, such as a fundraiser night at a local restaurant.
“This is really something we don’t want to take on ourselves but include as many people as possible, ultimately helping all our neighbors,” Harris said. “As the pastor of this church, I keep coming back to the idea of making disciples who share the love of Christ. It’s one thing to say you love someone. It’s another thing to show them you love them by wiping away their debts and saying, ‘I care about you so much that I am going to sacrifice something significant so that you can experience forgiveness.’ Is that not what Jesus says to each of us?”
Cumbie agreed. “Christ has forgiven us, so we know God has called us to forgive others, he said. “During the Lent and Easter seasons, we feel like it is important to help our friends and neighbors experience forgiveness.”
All are welcome to contribute to Mount Zion’s Forgiven to Forgive campaign through RIP Medical Debt. Scan the QR code on this page or go to https://www.ripmedicaldebt.org/campaign/forgiven-to-forgive.
Harris also encourages other United Methodist churches to prayerfully consider whether they are being led to partner with a group like RIP Medical Debt to help people in debt in their communities. Learn more about starting a campaign at https://ripmedicaldebt.org/campaigns.