Mount Zion helps pay off $2.4M in medical debt

By Jessica Brodie

CENTRAL—One church’s Lenten project helped abolish $2.4 million in medical debt.

Inspired by the forgiveness of sins we all experience through Christ, Mount Zion United Methodist Church launched “Forgiven to Forgive,” which encouraged members to donate funds so people in Pickens, Oconee and Greenville counties could be liberated from debt.

As detailed in the February Advocate, Mount Zion partnered with RIP Medical Debt for the project, which takes donated funds and purchases medical debt in bulk, ultimately freeing people from the financial and emotional hardships that accompany massive, unpaid health bills.

The Rev. Jonathan Harris said the church
exceeded its goal of $21,000, raising $24,268.35. With that amount, RIP Medical Debt is able to purchase and forgive roughly $2.4 million of medical bills in those three counties.

“It is exciting to know that a smaller church was able to have such a significant impact on so many people,” Harris said.

Harris got the idea from one of Mount Zion’s members, Benji Cumbie, who sent him a story about a church in North Carolina that had helped forgive millions of dollars in medical debts in its community through a partnership with RIP Medical Debt. A nonprofit organization, it purchases medical debts in bulk from hospitals and other medical providers at a deeply discounted price, which stretches the donated funds a lot farther, costing just pennies on the dollar, Harris explained.

The church’s Missions and Evangelism Committee, headed by David and Beth McWilliams, loved the idea and developed a churchwide campaign.

The McWilliamses said they were blown away by the amount donated, noting that when they first heard about the idea, they thought the church should strive to raise just $10,000. But they said Cumbie encouraged them to try for the entire goal of $21,000 in debt.

Raising more than $24,000 signified not only the generosity of the community but God’s extravagant love, they said.

“As a family who has experienced the hardship of medical debt, we could only imagine what a godsend this would have been for us. We know this debt relief will make monumental changes in many families’ lives.”

In addition to donations from members, restaurants in their community gave portions of their profits to the campaign for the six weeks of Lent. This provided the opportunity to meet each week for a meal and Bible study focused on forgiveness as well, they said.

“We can only imagine the joy, relief and gratitude that recipients will experience as they receive the notification that they no longer have to worry about how they will pay these debts. We also hope that they will know the generosity that was given in love was driven by the love that Christ has for us.” 

Each person whose debts are forgiven will receive a letter from RIP Medical Debt telling them Mount Zion UMC raised the money used to purchase their debt. The letter will include information about the church, providing an opportunity for further connection.

Harris said he wondered at times whether Mount Zion would be able to accomplish the goal. Then an unexpected generosity would occur, from the local restaurant contributions to checks received in the mail from strangers.

“At times, we would go a week or two without receiving anything toward the campaign. But then, each time, there would be a sign of hope, reminding me to keep faith that God would provide. For instance, after one news story, a complete stranger sent the church a check for $1,000—enough to purchase $100,000 in medical debt,” Harris said. “Each of these moments was like a wink from God, letting us know that we were doing what God wanted us to do.”

Harris said the campaign also reminded him of the value of the United Methodist connection. Several retired UMC pastors made very generous contributions, and two small UMCs, Bethel and Central, collected a special offering big enough to forgive more than $50,000 in medical bills. The district’s Board of Congregational Development also contributed a $2,000 grant toward the cause.

As Harris said, “At a time when so many churches have raised significant sums of money in order to leave this denomination, it has been so powerful to see disciples from Mount Zion and other United Methodist groups raising money for a different purpose: to not only meet a need, but to witness to the forgiveness we have received in Christ.”

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