Nurse Annet Kojo feeds a 4-day-old baby girl in the maternity ward of the St. Daniel Comboni Catholic Hospital in Wau, South Sudan, April 16, 2018. We are all born innocent, loving and loveable, so when and where do children learn to decide who is the enemy? (CNS / Paul Jeffrey)
I was born and raised in a Catholic family, and am still proud to be a Catholic. Among all the things I have learned, two words really stand out for me: “unconditional love.” Words easy to say, but very difficult to put into practice — especially during “stormy weather”! As a religious person, I must not only teach the words verbally but must teach them by my actions.
As I get older, I am just realizing that I experienced unconditional love from my birth: from God, from my parents and even from strangers.
In 2004, I was invited to visit the U.S. by an American lady who paid my roundtrip airfare from Canada. Arriving in Wisconsin, I learned that she had already made some appointments for health care tests. The doctor discovered that I was about to go blind, and arranged for me to have surgery. The doctors did everything free, but the hospital charged about $7,000. Later, an unknown person paid the hospital. Unconditional love!
Today, there is no peace in the world: Pope Francis said there is “war in bits and pieces.” As a religious person and Christian, my core mission is to work for peace, but where should this peace start?
If we could only remember that we are made in the likeness of God and saved by Jesus Christ — who saw God’s image even in the very human beings who had failed his Father. Then we would be able to see God’s image in our brothers and sisters regardless of color or state, and understand our obligation to love them without condition — like what happened to me in Wisconsin.
Years later, I was able to attend the 49th Eucharistic Congress in Canada — my airfare paid by youths I did not even know. How can I cease to proclaim God’s loving kindness toward me?
While reflecting on the words “unconditional love,” I remembered a sister in my community with whom I was finding it difficult to talk. She had hurt me and I found it hard to forgive her, unless she would come and ask for forgiveness.
But as I reflected on the many good things that have happened to me for no reason, I realized that it is wrong for me to say the Our Father and approach the holy Eucharist unless I am willing to forgive. Deciding then to forgive and talk to her, I have since felt internal joy and freedom.
There is “war in bits and pieces” because we do not look upon one another as brother or sister but look on them as “somebody or someone.” We see the other person as our brother or sister only if we are born of the same mother and father.
But if we could only remember who we are — made in the likeness of God! And we are called to represent God wherever we may be: in our family, in class and even in the streets.
When I was in Haiti, our gardener reported that a mentally challenged woman had given birth three days before, and the baby had not been washed or fed. I decided to take the child.
Being a sister and a missionary, I was worried about the child’s future. Luckily, a man from Dawson Creek, Canada, who had come to check their project in Haiti, saw the baby sleeping on the table. Hearing what happened, he decided to adopt the child. There was nothing more that could better prove God’s love to me.
If we could understand that we are made in the image of God, we would not have to make money by building weapons. We would not plot against other people’s lives. The good that we would like to be done to us, we would freely do for our brothers and sisters.
Yes, there is “war in bits and pieces”: no freedom to walk in some places, no freedom of speech in some areas. Why? We are not able to see the image of God in the person in front of us; our eyes do not have loving hearts, so we can’t see the goodness in the fellow in front. Greed for money, greed for power makes one blind.
We are all born innocent, loving and loveable, so when and where do children learn to decide who is the enemy? When they start being ill-treated or seeing adults fight. A terrible civil war: Who started it, and why? It grew in bits and pieces: Did anybody win?
When did I forget that I am an image of God, called to love and serve as God has loved me? It was the day that my world echoed with “me, myself and I.” And what does one benefit from that? Nothing — for without God, we are nothing.
Bad things happen when we do not remember that we are God’s image, and our wars in bits and pieces against God’s image are actually against ourselves.
When we lose track of the road we were born to walk, where does our way lead then? As long as we are alive, it is never late to ask forgiveness for having lost the road, and ask for help finding the way.
There are times we cannot avoid fighting. Once when something very unjust was done to the poor, I tried to stop it, and paid the price. Life was very difficult for me in the community for some years, and I kept praying to bear the pain and not hate. I will not hurt others if I love them as I love myself. With God’s grace that time is now over. Unconditional love!
If there are still people sleeping in the street, seeking food in the dust bins, it means the world does not know that Jesus came 2,000 years ago to save it. If there are people who can raise weapons against each other, it means the world does not understand that he came to bring peace to the world. It does not understand what we mean when we say that he came to bring life to mankind.
In 1994, when soldiers were fighting among themselves in our country, some were threatening each other on our property. We couldn’t move freely, we couldn’t sleep, we were hungry, and some of our buildings were damaged. The memory is fresh in my mind. My nephew, who was 3 years old at time, was affected mentally.
Later, in 1998, at a time of political unrest, South African soldiers attacked our army. I can’t control my tears when I think about the people who lost family members and property. I hate this.
There is nothing more Jesus could have done to prove his love toward us. And there is nothing to proclaim if we are not proclaiming his love for us, and thanking him at all times. Hurray! We don’t have time for fighting with each other!
[Monica Moeketsi is a member of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Good Shepherd Sisters of Quebec. She belongs to the Mosotho ethnic group, and lives in her home country of Lesotho, where she is currently working as secretary for the Lesotho Major Superiors.]
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti was driving through the city early one Sunday morning when the sight of church vans picking up members to take them to services gave him an idea for combating absenteeism in the district.
The vans, he realized, were a way for church leaders to overcome barriers that prevent members from attending services.
“I thought we needed to do the same thing as a district,” Vitti said last week.
The district now plans to purchase six 10-passenger vans that will serve dual purposes: In addition to providing transportation for special education students who require door-to-door service, the vans will also be used — likely by attendance agents — to pick up chronically absent students and take them to school. The vans would be assigned to schools with particularly high rates of chronic absenteeism.
It’s an unusual tactic that could help the district address a staggering problem: Seventy percent of district students were labeled chronically absent during the last school year, meaning they missed 18 or more days of school. Improving attendance is key to turnaround efforts in the district.
“I’ve never heard of another district that’s tried this,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national organization that helps schools improve attendance.
She cited some research released in 2017 that looked at whether the ways students get to school influenced whether they attend. The findings: Children who took the school bus had fewer absent days and were less likely to be chronically absent.
“This is why I think it could be helpful,” she said of the vans.
But Chang noted that it’s important to use the vans as part of a “larger, comprehensive approach” that includes a lot of outreach and the work of attendance teams who address absenteeism issues and pore over data.
The vans will be part of a pilot and will add to efforts already underway to address absenteeism. This year, the district made a significant investment in combating chronic absenteeism, spending $9 million to put an attendance agent in nearly every school. The district has also tried to address issues that might impact attendance — such as improving school culture, improving customer service, and ensuring every school has art or music classes.
Meanwhile, community groups such as United Way for Southeastern Michigan and Skillman Foundation (which is a Chalkbeat funder) have brought resources to the district through an Every School Day Counts initiative. As part of that effort, staff at 27 of the district’s most struggling schools meet regularly to share ideas and best practices for combating chronic absenteeism.
It’s not the first time vans have been used in Detroit to address chronic absence. Chang cited an experiment launched by some church leaders that lasted for a little more than a semester back in 2012. One of those leaders, the Rev. Larry Simmons, who now heads up the Brightmoor Alliance, said that after that short experiment, the group decided the problem was larger and more complex than anyone realized and it needed a more systemic approach than their small effort could address. He said that systemic approach is now happening through the Every School Day Counts initiative.
There are signs the current work is having an impact. Vitti has cited lower chronic absenteeism rates across the district as well as improved daily attendance rates.
Vitti raised the idea of using the vans to address chronic absenteeism during school board committee meetings last month. His original plan had been to purchase nearly a dozen of the vans, but board members who heard the plan suggested starting smaller and expanding if it’s successful. The pilot will cost about $200,000.
The district will work with attendance agents so they can get a chauffeur’s license, which Vitti said is required to use the vans to transport students. In cases where the agent doesn’t receive a license, the district would hire someone specifically to drive the vans.
“This recommendation is related to our strategy to try to go deeper into the neighborhoods to try to reach out to parents,” Vitti said.
Board member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry asked during the April 29 meeting whether transportation is the reason students aren’t coming to school.
Vitti replied that attendance agents already are using their own cars to visit the homes of students who are chronically absent, and often bringing students to school.
“Sometimes parents are just overwhelmed and not sending their children to school,” Vitti said. “So, when the attendance agent visits the home and talks about attending school, often they’re taking that child to school in their own car.”
“We know that in Detroit, transportation is huge,” Chang said. It’s huge, she said, because students often have to deal with unsafe routes to school. She noted that one California school district found that the students with the most chronic absence were those who lived closest to the high school who were afraid to walk to school.
In Detroit, the district already provides school bus transportation to K-8 general education students who live more than three-quarters of a mile away from their neighborhood school, and for high school students who live more than a mile and a half from their neighborhood school. Transportation for students with special education needs is determined on a case-by-case basis.
Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate at Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, said transportation is also a problem for a particularly vulnerable group of students.
“Transportation is a huge issue for many families in Detroit, but particularly for families experiencing housing instability,” said Erb-Downward, who has done research on chronic absenteeism in Michigan. “That’s because they’re moving from place to place.”
She said her gut reaction is that the vans could benefit students struggling to get to school.
“You need a transportation system that’s flexible in some way,” she said.
Earlier this month, Manhattan pastor Kaji Douša filed a federal lawsuit accusing U.S. officials of violating her religious liberty by detaining and surveilling her over her ministry to migrants at the border.
Now, more than 850 ordained clergy from around North America have formed an interfaith coalition in support of Dousa, senior pastor of Park Avenue Christian Church.
“All of us feel as though this is an infringement on our right to preach and teach and lead,” said Rabbi Joshua Stanton of Manhattan’s East End Temple, who works with undocumented immigrants through the New Sanctuary Coalition movement that Dousa heads. “The idea that I could somehow be limited in who I could reach out to simply because of their country of origin or simply because of where they wanted the ceremony held is unfathomable. I couldn’t be a rabbi if that were the case.”
Stanton joined hundreds of leaders who signed an open letter in support of Dousa. Other signatories include faith leaders from the United Church of Christ, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Yale Divinity School, Muslim Community Network, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and hundreds of other houses of worship and organizations.
The coalition hopes to bring Dousa’s case to the limelight by advocating on her behalf to elected officials, said Corey Dukes from Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit that is co-counsel in Dousa’s lawsuit and helped organize support for her.
On July 8, Dousa filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection after discovering that the agencies had listed her in a secret government database collecting information on the Central American migrant caravan traveling toward the U.S. border last fall.
DHS also detained and interrogated Dousa, as well as revoking her Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection, or SENTRI, pass to expedite border crossings.
Those actions, her supporters argue, have interfered with Dousa’s ministry and endanger all U.S. faith leaders.
“Migrants face a desperate situation at the Southern Border,” a statement from the coalition reads. “And the work that we do as clergy is crucial to them. We believe there to be a right for us to offer our pastoral services. … In this country, the government cannot decide to whom we may preach or with whom we may pray.”
Faith leaders from more than 40 states have added their names – and at one point, Dousa said, more than 50 clergy members were signing the letter every hour.
“I have been really strongly supported by the clergy community and the faith community in general,” Dousa said. “People very easily connect my story with what could happen to their pastor or their rabbi or themselves, and they’re mobilizing.”
Her lawsuit notes that U.S. officials had “collected detailed information about her and her pastoral work” and argues that placing her on the watchlist, part of a project dubbed Operation Secure Line, violated her First Amendment rights and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The DHS did not offer comment on the pending litigation.
Dousa said she fears that other clergy could face the same treatment from the government that she has received.
“I believe that placing me as the only clergy person on Operation Secure Line was a way to test out the boundaries of what kind of surveillance they can do,” Dousa said.
In late 2018, Dousa helped lead the Sanctuary Caravan, a 40-day volunteer mobile clinic of faith leaders who provided pastoral services to migrants seeking U.S. asylum in the United States.
When she reentered the U.S. in early January, federal immigration officials detained her for a secondary screening and interrogated her about her years of ministry near the border and in New York City.
“Rev. Dousa is one of the most respected religious leaders in New York and, I would argue, the United States,” Stanton said. “If the government is targeting her, I can’t help but think I’m in jeopardy and other religious leaders who look up to her are as well.”
Dousa, who is a member of the United Church of Christ, previously led a California church 20 miles from the Southern border.
Though she told Religion News Service that the possibility of continued surveillance has compromised her ability to minister to migrants with complicated immigration statuses, she has continued her advocacy work.
Earlier this month, Dousa helped lead the coordinated Lights for Liberty protests, in which thousands of demonstrators gathered in hundreds of cities to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
“To reject a migrant is to cast away God’s angels, which I am unwilling to do,” Dousa said. “For this, my country has decided to punish me. But I will not look away. I will continue to look closely — to listen, to imagine and to call us into a better way. Free me and my colleagues to do our work with migrants and we will find that better way.”
New York Theological Seminary President LaKeesha Walrond on June 25, 2019. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
Sitting in her office on Manhattan’s far west side, the new president of New York Theological Seminary, the Rev. LaKeesha Walrond, recalled how she once was reprimanded as a youth for crossing the pulpit area of her church during a choir rehearsal.
Back then, she was taught, and believed, that women could not be preachers. After a career as an educator, executive pastor of a Harlem megachurch and, since June 3, the first African American woman president of the 119-year-old seminary, Walrond sees her trajectory as a sign that “God had this plan.”
After serving at First Corinthian Baptist Church, where her husband, the Rev. Michael A. Walrond Jr., is senior pastor, she views her leadership of a 300-student multidenominational seminary focused on urban ministry as a reason for hope for other women.
Walrond, 47, spoke with Religion News Service about her diverse student body, her concerns about child sexual abuse and her support of open-mindedness among her students.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does it mean to you that you’ve been chosen as the first African American woman president of New York Theological Seminary?
It is such a blessing. It’s such an honor. When I started my career, I was planning on presidency being part of it, but presidency at Spelman College. As I received my call into ministry and began working full time, I thought that would just be one of those dreams that never really came to fruition. So, for me, this feels like a coming together, a fulfillment of possibility and opportunity to work both in ministry and education in a way that transforms humanity.
What were your connections to Spelman?
I did my undergraduate education (there) and my president at the time was Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, and she changed my life forever. She was the first person I ever heard talk about heroes and “sheroes.” And not just history, but “her-story.” She made me believe that I could do absolutely anything. And not only that I could do it, but I had a responsibility to do it.
New York Theological Seminary President LaKeesha Walrond on June 25, 2019. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
So you did pursue academia in some ways?
Absolutely. I did my master’s in school administration and my Ph.D. in special education and literacy. But I got this call into ministry. We relocated from North Carolina to New York, and I said, “God, you got jokes, right?” (Laughs) ‘Cause now I got to go back to school to get the Master of Divinity so that I can be prepared to preach and teach in our church.
But this kind of merging of the two, it just seems like God had this plan. We talk about how God knows the plans that God has for us, plans to prosper us and not harm us, plans to give us a hope and a future. And so this is that moment for me, where I understand that sometimes in order to receive the dreams or plans that God has for us, we have to be willing to release the dreams and plans we have for ourselves.
There are at least four other African American women leading theological schools and divinity schools. Does that say something about the state of theological education or the growing role of women, including black women, and its future?
One, I think it identifies the importance of diversity within leadership and in our institutions. And, two, we now have more African American women going to divinity schools or theological schools than we’ve ever had before. For them to be able to see a face in leadership that looks like them also opens up the different kinds of possibilities. It speaks to possibility for my daughter, for the daughters coming behind her, that there are still these glass ceilings that need to be broken, and it’s possible to do it in our lifetime.
Your seminary includes students from a wide range of religious and life backgrounds, including some who are incarcerated.
Our Sing Sing (Correctional Facility) program was started by (then-NYTS president) Bill Webber back in 1982. Last year, we graduated our 500th student. The gentleman who represented his class and spoke has a life sentence, but still found our Master of Professional Studies degree to be valuable for his life inside the facility. So not only does that program prepare those men for what’s waiting for them when they re-enter society, it helps them to live and to love and to serve and to mentor and to learn and to grow while they’re there.
You wrote a 2017 book for children called “My Body Is Special.” How will you help your seminarians prepare for work in denominations that are grappling with how to address abuse?
That book is really a testament to my surviving molestation by my stepfather, in my mother’s home. I’m grateful that as soon as she found out about it, she left so that I could grow up in a safe environment. There are so many children out there who have experienced this, particularly within the context of faith, whether at a church or by a minister or a deacon or a trustee or a lay leader. We need to have conversations that prevent this from continuing to happen over and over and over again.
So this book is an act of prevention on my part. It helps children to understand what to say, what to do, where to go and who to tell if they are ever approached in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. It’s my way of saying hands off our children. Hands off.
How can you help your students develop as leaders who are open to those in circumstances like the ones you faced?
The goal, really, at any educational institution ought be to expand the minds of those who are entering so they can make an informed decision. We’re able also to engage people of other faiths and other traditions so that we can have a better understanding of the belief systems of others as well.
I grew up in a church that did not believe God called women into ministry. When I went to Spelman College I took a class with Dr. Flora Wilson Bridges — “Women and the Bible.” She began to talk about women preachers. And so I’ve come to understand that my pastor back then was doing the best he could with what he had been given. And we have a lot of pastors who are out here doing the best that they can with what they’ve been given.
At NYTS, we hope to give them more so that they can grow from what they already think they know, to understand that God cannot be put in a box. And if we can stop focusing on what we think we know absolutely and be open to the spirit and the movement of God, we’d be surprised of the types of things we can discover.
SHILOH, Ill. — After a health insurance change forced Bernard Macon to cut ties with his black doctor, he struggled to find another African American physician online. Then, he realized two health advocates were hiding in plain sight.
At a nearby drugstore here in the suburbs outside of St. Louis, a pair of pharmacists became the unexpected allies of Macon and his wife, Brandy. Much like the Macons, the pharmacists were energetic young parents who were married — and unapologetically black.
Vincent and Lekeisha Williams, owners of LV Health and Wellness Pharmacy, didn’t hesitate to help when Brandy had a hard time getting the medicine she needed before and after sinus surgery last year. The Williamses made calls when Brandy, a physician assistant who has worked in the medical field for 15 years, didn’t feel heard by her doctor’s office.
“They completely went above and beyond,” said Bernard Macon, 36, a computer programmer and father of two. “They turned what could have been a bad experience into a good experience.”
Now more than ever, the Macons are betting on black medical professionals to give their family better care. The Macon children see a black pediatrician. A black dentist takes care of their teeth. Brandy Macon relies on a black gynecologist. And now the two black pharmacists fill the gap for Bernard Macon while he searches for a primary care doctor in his network, giving him trusted confidants that chain pharmacies likely wouldn’t.
Black Americans continue to face persistent health care disparities. Compared with their white counterparts, black men and women are more likely to die of heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza, pneumonia, diabetes and AIDS, according to the Office of Minority Health.
But medical providers who give patients culturally competent care — the act of acknowledging a patient’s heritage, beliefs and values during treatment — often see improved patient outcomes, according to multiple studies. Part of it is trust and understanding, and part of it can be more nuanced knowledge of the medical conditions that may be more prevalent in those populations.
For patients, finding a way to identify with their pharmacist can pay off big time. Cutting pills in half, skipping doses or not taking medication altogether can be damaging to one’s health — even deadly. And many patients see their pharmacists monthly, far more often than annual visits to their medical doctors, creating more opportunities for supportive care.
That’s why some black pharmacists are finding ways to connect with customers in and outside of their stores. Inspirational music, counseling, accessibility and transparency have turned some minority-owned pharmacies into hubs for culturally competent care.
“We understand the community because we are a part of the community,” Lekeisha Williams said. “We are visible in our area doing outreach, attending events and promoting health and wellness.”
To be sure, such care is not just relevant to African Americans. But mistrust of the medical profession is especially a hurdle to overcome when treating black Americans.
Many are still shaken by the history of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were used in research worldwide without her family’s knowledge; the Tuskegee Project, which failed to treat black men with syphilis; and other projects that used African Americans unethically for research.
“They completely went above and beyond,” says Macon (center) of Vincent and Lekeisha Williams, owners of LV Health and Wellness Pharmacy.
Filling More Than Prescriptions
At black-owned Premier Pharmacy and Wellness Center near Grier Heights, a historically black neighborhood in Charlotte, N.C., the playlist is almost as important as the acute care clinic attached to the drugstore. Owner Martez Prince watches his customers shimmy down the aisles as they make their way through the store listening to Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Kirk Franklin, Whitney Houston and other black artists.
Prince said the music helps him in his goal of making health care more accessible and providing medical advice patients can trust.
In rural Georgia, Teresa Mitchell, a black woman with 25 years of pharmacy experience, connects her customers with home health aides, shows them how to access insurance services online and even makes house calls. Her Total Care Pharmacy is the only health care provider in Baconton, where roughly half the town’s 900 residents are black.
“We do more than just dispense,” Mitchell said.
Iradean Bradley, 72, became a customer soon after Total Care Pharmacy opened in 2016. She struggled to pick up prescriptions before Mitchell came to town.
“It was so hectic because I didn’t have transportation of my own,” Bradley said. “It’s so convenient for us older people, who have to pay someone to go out of town and get our medicine.”
Lakesha M. Butler, president of the National Pharmaceutical Association, advocates for such culturally competent care through the professional organization representing minorities in the pharmacy industry and studies it in her academic work at the Edwardsville campus of Southern Illinois University. She also feels its impact directly, she said, when she sees patients at clinics two days a week in St. Charles, Mo., and East St. Louis, Ill.
“It’s just amazing to me when I’m practicing in a clinic setting and an African American patient sees me,” Butler said. “It’s a pure joy that comes over their face, a sigh of relief. It’s like ‘OK, I’m glad that you’re here because I can be honest with you and I know you will be honest with me.’”
She often finds herself educating her black patients about diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other common conditions.
“Unfortunately, there’s still a lack of knowledge in those areas,” Butler said. “That’s why those conditions can be so prevalent.”
Independent black-owned pharmacies fill a void for African American patients looking for care that’s sensitive to their heritage, beliefs and values. For Macon, LV Health and Wellness Pharmacy provides some of that vital support.
Avoiding Medical Microaggressions
For Macon, his experiences with medical professionals of backgrounds different from his own left him repeatedly disappointed and hesitant to open up.
After his wife had a miscarriage, Macon said, the couple didn’t receive the compassion they longed for while grieving the loss. A few years later, a bad experience with their children’s pediatrician when their oldest child had a painful ear infection sparked a move to a different provider.
“My daughter needed attention right away, but we couldn’t get through to anybody,” Macon recalled. “That’s when my wife said, ‘We aren’t doing this anymore!’”
Today, Macon’s idea of good health care isn’t colorblind. If a doctor can’t provide empathetic and expert treatment, he’s ready to move, even if a replacement is hard to find.
Kimberly Wilson, 31, will soon launch an app for consumers like Macon who are seeking culturally competent care. Therapists, doulas, dentists, specialists and even pharmacists of color will be invited to list their services on HUED. Beta testing is expected to start this summer in New York City and Washington, D.C., and the app will be free for consumers.
“Black Americans are more conscious of their health from a lot of different perspectives,” Wilson said. “We’ve begun to put ourselves forward.”
But even after the introduction of HUED, such health care could be hard to find. While about 13% of the U.S. population is black, only about 6% of the country’s doctors and surgeons are black, according to Data USA. Black pharmacists make up about 7% of the professionals in their field, and, though the demand is high, black students accounted for about 9% of all students enrolled in pharmacy school in 2018.
For Macon, though, the Williamses’ LV Health and Wellness Pharmacy in Shiloh provides some of the support he has been seeking.
“I still remember the very first day I went there. It was almost like a barbershop feel,” Macon said, likening it to the community hubs where customers can chitchat about sports, family and faith while getting their hair cut. “I could relate to who was behind the counter.”
The leaders of Pathway Church on the outskirts of Wichita, Kan., had no clue that the $22,000 they already had on hand for Easter would have such impact.
The nondenominational suburban congregation of about 3,800 had set out only to help people nearby pay off some medical debt, recalled Larry Wren, Pathway’s executive pastor. After all, the core membership at Pathway’s three sites consists of middle-income families with school-age kids, not high-dollar philanthropists.
But then they learned that, like a modern-day loaves-and-fishes story, that smaller amount could wipe out $2.2 million in debt not only for the Wichita area but all available debt for every Kansan facing imminent insolvency because of medical expenses they couldn’t afford to pay — 1,600 people in all.
As Wren thought about the message of Easter, things clicked. “Being able to do this provides an opportunity to illustrate what it means to have a debt paid that they could never pay themselves,” he said. “It just was a great fit.”
Churches in Maryland, Illinois, Virginia, Texas and elsewhere have been reaching the same conclusion. RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit organization based in Rye, N.Y., that arranges such debt payoffs, reports a recent surge in participation from primarily Christian places of worship. Eighteen have worked with RIP in the past year and a half, said Scott Patton, the nonprofit’s director of development. More churches are joining in as word spreads.
The mountain of bills they are trying to clear is high. Medical debt contributes to two-thirds of bankruptcies, according to the American Journal of Public Health. And a 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times poll showed that of the 26% of people who reported problems paying medical bills, 59% reported a major life impact, such as taking an extra job, cutting other household spending or using up savings. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)
The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau proposed a rule last month to curb debt collectors’ ability to bug those with outstanding bills, and some states have tried various measures, such as limiting the interest rates collectors may charge. But until a comprehensive solution emerges, churches and others are trying to ease some of the load by jumping into the debt market.
A big part of RIP’s appeal comes from the impact even a small donation can have, say participating church leaders. When a person can’t pay a bill, that debt is often packaged with other people’s debt and sold to bill collectors for some fraction of the total amount of the bill. Those debts usually come from low-income people and are more difficult to collect.
RIP Medical Debt buys debt portfolios on this secondary market for pennies on the dollar with money from its donors. But instead of collecting the debt, RIP forgives it.
To be eligible for repayment from RIP, the debtor must be earning less than twice the federal poverty level (about $25,000 a year for an individual), have debts that are 5% or more of their annual income and have more debt than assets.
Because hospitals and doctors are eager to get those hard-to-collect debts off their books, they sell them cheap. That’s how, Patton said, those 18 churches have been able to abolish $34.4 million of debt since the start of 2018.
Working this way puts a high-dollar project within reach of even small churches. Revolution Annapolis, a nondenominational Maryland church with Sunday attendance of around 200 and without a permanent building, wiped out $1.9 million in debt for 900 families in March. Total amount raised: $15,000.
After hearing about another church that paid off millions last year, Revolution leaders decided to try it. At most, they hoped to have an impact in their area, Camacho said. But the money went much further, eventually covering 14 counties in eastern and central Maryland.
Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church, a congregation of about 175 families in Champaign, Ill., had a similar experience. The original idea was to try to have an impact just in Champaign County, said the Rev. Christine Hopkins. But their $15,000 abolished $4 million of debt for the entire diocese, which stretches across the southern half of the state.
“We were bowled over, actually,” Hopkins said. “It was to the point of tears.”
In many cases, churches have not had to do a fundraising campaign because their contribution came from money already on hand. Emmanuel Episcopal, for instance, had leftovers from a campaign set up a year ago to celebrate the centennial of its church building.
The Fincastle Baptist Church, with 1,600 members in the Roanoke, Va., area used money it had budgeted for an annual “Freedom Fest” event to honor first responders, and then partnered with local television station WSLS in a telethon to raise more. That effort abolished over $2.7 million in medical debt targeted at veterans.
The RIP nonprofit allows donors to choose geographic areas they want to reach and can pinpoint veterans as recipients. But beyond that, no restrictions are allowed, Patton said. A church can’t specify which types of medical procedures could be paid for or anything about the background of the recipients.
That didn’t bother church leaders contacted for this story. But it is a subject that’s been broached by donors of all types in the past, Patton said.
For instance, some potential donors have asked to exclude people from different faiths or certain political parties, he said. “It’s just absurd. This is not a revenge tactic,” Patton said. “People who are requesting those things really don’t understand philanthropy.”
Churches don’t necessarily experience a direct return in the way of new members. All the processing goes through RIP Medical Debt, which sends letters notifying the beneficiaries their debts have been forgiven. Donors can have their names listed on those letters, but not everyone opts to do so.
New membership wasn’t the point for Pathway Church in Kansas, Wren said. “Sometimes the more powerful spiritual message is when you’re able to do something for somebody that you’ll never meet.”
The Revolution Church decided against putting its name on the notification letters, Camacho said, because it didn’t want beneficiaries to feel obligated. “When a person has their debt forgiven, we want them to experience that as a kind of no-strings-attached gift,” he said. “We don’t want there to be any sense that because we did this now they should visit our church or something.”
Besides, he said, the gift covered an area large enough that some beneficiaries live a couple of hours away. “I would much rather them think more positively about the church down the street from where they live.”
Donors sometimes hear back from the people whose debts they’ve paid, but not often. Many don’t expect it. “I guess that’s a biblical story, too. Jesus forgave 10, and only one said thank you,” Hopkins said.
Churches have a lot of choices when it comes to charity, but medical debt and affordability issues often resonate with parishioners. Some churches are worried enough about medical costs for their members that they subscribe to cost-sharing nonprofits, in which members pay each other’s medical bills.
Medical mission work has long been an important form of outreach for Fincastle Baptist Church in Virginia, said associate pastor Warren King. The church runs a free clinic, and mission trips to other countries usually include a medical component.
Paying off medical debt is an extension of that line of thinking. “We need to do not just this thing but many things that practically show the love of God,” King said. “It’s hard to tell somebody God loves you if they’re starving and you don’t try to deal with the problem.”
Hopkins said the debt outreach was a satisfying project for her Illinois congregation because it could resolve a problem for the beneficiaries. “We do a lot of outreach that’s food-related and housing-related. This was something different,” Hopkins said. “You help feed somebody, and you’re feeding them again the next day. This was something that could make an impact.”