BRAINERD — Thousands of Chicago families can breathe a sigh of relief now that several area churches have teamed up to purchase and cancel their outstanding medical debt, church leaders announced Sunday at Trinity United Church of Christ in Brainerd on the city’s Far South Side.
Churches on city’s South and West sides, including Covenant United Church of Christ, St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, Greater St. John Bible Church, and Trinity, worked with nonprofit RIP Medical Debt to raise $38,000 from parishioners in September to purchase more than $5.3 million in medical debt. The nonprofit works to buy debt from collection agencies for pennies on the dollar, then forgive it.
The group, joined by Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi, gathered at Trinity, 400 W. 95th St., to make the announcement.
RIP Medical Debt is the organization that worked with HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver in 2016 to purchase and clear $15 million in bills, helping 9,000 families across the country.
Here, local clergy focused on residents in three zip codes — stretching across Englewood, Auburn Gresham, Washington Heights, and Roseland — where one-third of families are currently trapped in underwater mortgages.
“It’s powerful,” said Rev. Marshall Hatch, who heads Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist in Garfield Park. “People understood that they were helping someone else. It was very selfless. People understand that we’re competing in the capitalist market on behalf of the kingdom of God.”
Hatch, who is a member of the Leadership Network, a group of local Baptist churches serving Black neighborhoods, said he and his parishioners jumped at the chance to help.
According to a 2016 Kaiser Family Foundation study, medical debt can cause families to cut back on necessities, like food or clothing. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed used most or all of their savings to pay off their debt. In March 2019, CNBC reported that two-thirds of people filing for bankruptcy cited medical issues as the primary reason.
“Wealth in the Black community is rooted in home ownership,” said Rev. Otis Moss III, Trinity’s senior pastor. “Medical debt is the number one driver of people losing their homes. You lose your home, you lose not only your wealth, but any wealth to be passed to your children.”
Debt could be passed down instead, added Moss.
“It becomes a cycle of debt, and this predatory debt collection, where they’re collecting debt for pennies on the dollar, is essentially making money off of people’s misery,” Moss said.
While Sunday’s announcement is a cause of celebration, said Rev. Traci Blackmon, people should question why the move is necessary at all.
“We got here because of greed. This isn’t a problem we had to have, it was a problem we created to keep a wealth margin between the haves and the have-nots,” said Blackmon, an associate general minister of UCC in Cleveland, Ohio.
“The church must not only be about charity, the church must be about justice. Charity helps in the present situation; justice dismantles oppressive systems, and that’s what we need to keep in mind.”
The clergy members plan to keep the movement going, and are exploring ways to tackle student loan debt as well, though it’s a bit more challenging because certain collection agencies are reluctant to release the debt, according to Moss.
“The great thing about RIP Medical Debt is that they had an infrastructure in place that we could work with. So we want to find someone who has a student debt infrastructure,” Moss said.
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