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.
SBC President J.D. Greear speaks on a panel discussion about racial reconciliation during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the BJCC, June 11, 2019 in Birmingham, Ala. RNS photo by Butch Dill.
At their annual meeting, Southern Baptists re-elected their president, adopted statements on their views about major cultural issues, and discussed how to deal with sexual abuse and racial discrimination in the church.
They also brought to center stage questions about church leadership roles that are appropriate for women in the church.
North Carolina pastor J.D. Greear, who was elected Tuesday (June 11) to a second one-year term as president, had emphasized a “Gospel Above All” theme for the meeting. He said that message was linked to multicultural worship music throughout the meeting and the inclusive approach Baptists took in appointing leaders to the convention’s various committees.
“We’re not where we need to be on those things, but I believe a signal has been sent that we believe that’s where we need to go,” he said at a news conference at the conclusion of the meeting on Wednesday.
“Now it’s on us to take the right steps at the right time and to move in a way that shows that it’s not words or virtue signaling but it’s something that we mean because we believe the Bible teaches it.”
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. said that in the past, issues of diversity were usually discussed mostly in hallways among small groups of church delegates, known as messengers. At this meeting, the conversations were held on the main stage of the gathering, which drew more than 8,000 messengers.
A Wednesday panel discussion on the value of women talked about whether a woman could be pastor (no, since the SBC’s doctrine limits that role to men) and whether a woman could one day become a president of the Southern Baptist Convention (maybe, since nothing in the SBC’s governing documents precludes women from that role).
A messenger speaks to a motion during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the BJCC, June 12, 2019 in Birmingham, Ala. (RNS Photo/Butch Dill)
Panelists in a Tuesday discussion on racial reconciliation addressed how the issue affects both local congregations and the larger church. A pastor on the panel mentioned how a church member left his congregation when the congregant disagreed with the minister’s support of Baptists’ vote several years ago to repudiate the Confederate flag. Another mentioned how people of color are not likely to get to executive meeting rooms until they are in the same dining rooms with influential white leaders.
“It was definitely a different convention,” said Mohler. “There were more women’s voices and, by intentionality, more voices from African Americans and others who we very much want to be a part of the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
“It was clearly a move in that direction, stronger than I’ve ever seen, and I welcomed it and celebrate it,” he said.
Still, McKissic was concerned about a lack of diversity in the leadership of major Southern Baptist entities. He noted that the trustee chairman of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary told messengers the search committee had considered several minority candidates when hiring a new president. But McKissic was disappointed that the board chair of the Executive Committee declined to be as forthcoming about details of its recent hiring process for a new president.
Abuse victim advocates noted the many actions Southern Baptists took on the abuse issue — including the introduction of “Caring Well” handbooks and video resources. But they still urged the convention to set up a database to help track abusers and keep them from moving from church to church.
Messengers hold up an SBC abuse handbook while taking a challenge to stop sexual abuse during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the BJCC, June 12, 2019, in Birmingham, Ala. RNS photo by Butch Dill
“A clergy database must be established, documenting confessed, convicted or credibly accused abusers,” said advocate Cheryl Summers at a rally she organized outside the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex on Tuesday. “We have seen some progress, but there is a lot more work to be done.”
On Wednesday, Baptists also passed resolutions, nonbinding statements that give a sense of the views of those gathered for the annual meeting. They included:
Urging the Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion and celebrating “recent bipartisan gains in state legislatures that restrict abortion.”
Calling the U.S. government to make religious liberty “a top priority of American foreign policy in its engagement with North Korea and China.”
Recognizing critical race theory and intersectionality as “analytical tools” but repudiating their misuse.
Urging the president and Congress to not include women in the Selective Service military registration, “which would be to act against the plain testimony of Scripture and nature.”
Affirming their “commitment to Christ comes before commitment to any political party.”
I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of graduating seniors and their families last weekend during a Community Baccalaureate Service. I shared from 1 Timothy about the importance of living godly, persevering, and being people of character.
I have just completed an intensive spring of travels and speaking, which had me thinking about the importance of preserving in every area of our lives. Specifically, I have recommitted myself to physical training and the strength conditioning of my body.
I was once a fit and competitive athlete. While serving in the military I always obtained top scores on my physical fitness tests. After transitioning to a different career, however, it was more difficult to be consistent in my workouts. I fell out of love with running. I didn’t have a goal or fitness test to prepare for, and I had lost the support of a like-minded community. I was suffering from a case of PAM:
PRIORITY – When my schedule got busy (which it often was), my workouts would be the first thing to drop from my daily routine. There always seemed like something else was more important to do. I have been really inconsistent over the past couple of years. I would wake up, attempt to get dressed and discover that I could barely fit into my jeans. I would work out consistently for a few weeks, drop the pounds, and repeat the cycle.
ACCOUNTABILITY – In addition to not prioritizing my workouts, few of my local friends prioritized their physical fitness. There were a couple of friends who I occasionally worked out with, but I didn’t consistently have a partner or workout buddy. No one called to make me get up early or challenged me to make the time in my schedule.
MOTIVATION – I can’t honestly say that I always wanted to work out. I have fairly good genes. Most of the women in my family are at or below the average American weight. I’m taller than the average woman and have always been fairly small. My motivation was never a weight issue. I also eat fairly healthy, and my vitals are always great when I go to the doctor, so I’m not all that concerned with my health. My biggest concern and the conclusion I have drawn is: This is an area in my life where I have become lazy. It is that simple and I don’t like it!
In 1 Timothy, Paul wrote:
Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come (1 Tim 4:7-8 NIV).
Paul also wrote in 1 Cor. 9:24-27:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
In these passages and other scriptures, the Apostle Paul makes the analogy between physical and spiritual discipline. His audience lived in a very athletic and militarized society, so he spoke in a language that they would have understood. He acknowledges the importance of training and disciplining our bodies. He connects the perseverance of this discipline to motivate his hearers concerning their spiritual life. He is basically asking them to consider:
If we are not disciplined in the simple things of this world, like the stewardship of our own bodies (which belong to the Lord), how can we persevere in the more important spiritual matters?
When we make daily decisions about the priority, accountability, and motivation concerning our physical training, we are disciplining ourselves and learning to persevere in the simple things of this life. This is good steward of the gifts of a healthy body and able limbs that God has given us.
I have decided to defeat PAM. I made some changes this year, particularly over the past two months:
PRIORITY – I thank God that I have been able to join a gym that offers classes. When I am not traveling, I schedule gym classes into my day like I would a meeting or a phone conference. Once the workout is on my calendar, I don’t miss it unless I have another option in the day that will work better.
ACCOUNTABILITY – The gym classes offer a great deal of accountability because I know when I am supposed to show up. We can call this self-leadership. When I get there, an instructor has prepared and motivates me to push myself along the way. I see the instructor as my accountability partner, he or she will not allow me to rest too long between sets or quit on myself.
My husband also bought me a Fitbit for Christmas. This helpful tool gives users the ability to track daily steps, sleep, food and calorie intake, heart rate, etc. I primarily use it to track my steps. So much of my work requires that I sit in a chair. My progress (or lack thereof) on the Fitbit lets me know when I have sat too long or when I need to get up and get moving around. It is recommended that we walk 10,000 steps a day to maintain weight on the average American diet. That is my daily step goal. Entering step competitions (which can include walking or running) with friends also keeps me accountable to this challenge.
MOTIVATION – I wish I could tell you that the Word of God convicted me and motivated me to change my slothfulness in this area of my life. The truth is female soloist at American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland, was my inspiration. I follow @mistyonpointe on Instagram and am constantly motivated by her strength and physical stamina. I will never have Misty’s body, but she has motivated me to work hard for my best physical self.
My five favorite exercises right now are:
The instructors always put push-ups at the end of the workout when I am weak, but I am working my way back up to proficiency in this area that used to be a strength.
Arlene Mckenzie, left, handles the cooking at a barbecue hosted by her church, Christ’s Southern Mission Baptist, on May 18, 2019, in North St. Louis. RNS photo by Eric Berger
James Clark has a perfect recipe for getting to know your neighbors.
Set up a grill.
Light some charcoal.
And put on some hot dogs.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Clark, vice president of community outreach at the nonprofit Better Family Life, was offering hot dogs to passers-by at Christ’s Southern Mission Baptist Church in North St. Louis.
Even the mailman dropped by to see what was going on. He joked that he planned to stop by for hot dogs at five other churches having similar cookouts for neighbors that day.
“That’s what I am talking about,” Clark responded and laughed.
The cookouts are part of “Grill to Glory” — a partnership between local churches and Better Family Life to build community in North St. Louis, an area plagued by violent crime.
In 2016, almost 70% of the homicides in St. Louis occurred in North St. Louis, according to an analysis of St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department data done by the news organization The Trace and the Missouri School of Journalism.
That chaos creates a sense of hopelessness among people who live in that area, Clark said. And he thinks churches are the institutions best positioned to host barbecues and in doing so, change the psyche of residents who might otherwise be drawn to crime.
“It becomes a neighborhood magnet and conversations begin. Members of the church are there, and they are not aggressively trying to push the Bible. They are just saying, ‘We are the church. We’re here. Come fellowship with us. And if you are free tomorrow morning, why don’t you come to service?’” Clark explained.
Grill to Glory aims to bond North St. Louis through community outreach and fellowship. Photo by StockSnap/Creative Commons
So far, Cook has helped organize events at more than 60 churches around North St. Louis.
Grill to Glory is an offshoot of Better Family Life’s “neighborhood opioid triage,” in which the group tries to help addicts in open-air drug markets by handing out toiletries and Narcan (used to revive someone who is overdosing from opioids), offering to take them to treatment centers and grilling hot dogs.
At one such drug market near a liquor store on North Grand Boulevard, police were called “104 times in a 12-month period for assaults, shootings, drug use, fights and unruly behavior,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in March 2018. Crime analysts and community leaders have linked the growth of such drug markets to increased gun violence in recent years.
In January 2018, Leonard Missionary Baptist Church, located near a drug market, started to hold barbecues on Saturdays.
Some 60 guests would come each week, Clark said.
After seeing the growth, he thought, “what would happen to the neighborhood if we could get the collective church body to buy into this model? And it’s low-hanging fruit. The ask of the church is relatively small.”
So on May 4, Better Family Life, which is not a religious organization, launched the program.
The group has received a few $1,000 donations and has spent about $3,500 so far on grills, lighter fluid, charcoal and food items, said Clark. It’s also asked the churches to contribute supplies such as tables and tents.
Grill to Glory organizer James Clark, right, is greeted while visiting different church barbecue sites on May 18, 2019, in North St. Louis. RNS photo by Eric Berger
Clark, who has worked for Better Family Life since 1997, received the 2018 Nonprofit Executive of the Year Award from the St. Louis American Foundation, which runs the newspaper that covers the local African-American community. President Trump met Clark at a national conference and thanked him for his efforts to reduce violence.
Around 11 a.m. on May 18, Clark and BJ the DJ, the assistant program director for iHeartRadio’s local hip-hop, R&B and gospel radio stations, left the Better Family Life headquarters in North St. Louis with the goal of stopping at as many barbecues as possible.
BJ had been promoting the effort on his morning show on Hallelujah (1600 AM).
“James and I talked about it, and we saw that the churches were not connected to the community,” said BJ, who has invited clergy to talk about the program on air.
“A lot of times you go past the church and you don’t see any activities,” he said. “It’s like they are there but they are not there.”
At the first stop, Christ’s Southern Mission Baptist Church, Arlene Mckenzie stood over the grill; she’s the church’s culinary specialist.
She’s 63 years old and started attending the church as a young child. She now lives three houses down.
“My heart is for feeding the people. I pass out food up and down the neighborhood, and it’s just a vision of mine. I believe it’s really coming true,” she added.
Another longtime church member, Deborah Mason, said she thinks this is one of the church’s first such efforts since it moved into the neighborhood in 1960.
“People want to know that you care, especially the church. If we are supposed to be models of Christ — that’s what he did. He got up with the people. He was a party animal,” said Mason.
Cheryl Collins, right, chats with fellow attendees at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church’s Grill to Glory event on May 18, 2019, in North St. Louis. RNS photo by Eric Berger
At the next stop on Clark’s hop, Cheryl Collins, a member of Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church, offered a hot dog to a young man walking by. He declined.
“How about a prayer?” Collins said.
He stopped and came over.
Church members were all smiles as they embraced Clark and BJ the DJ. Clark hopes to enlist 112 churches around North St. Louis.
“I’m having a ball, man,” said one church member. “This is where it’s at.”
Ike Ghee, a homeless 70-year-old man, said he was unable to bring anything to the barbecue — the church already had the necessary supplies — but wanted to participate.
“I had a divorce and things kinda turned but I’m still God’s child,” he said. “He’s showing me that he’s still here.”
The role played by the wives of heads of state in Africa has been largely ignored. In a bid to contribute to this under-researched area we analyzed the political role, influence, and activities of First Ladies in a number of countries on the continent.
We put together the African First Ladies Database to analyze the functions, roles, strategies, and agency of some of Africa’s most influential First Ladies. Our focus was mostly on southern Africa. But our research also covered East and Central Africa. We included first ladies in our database based on their proximity to the executive and other decision-makers.
Three emerged as particularly influential. These were Janet Museveni, wife of Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni; Grace Mugabe, the wife of Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe; and Denise Nkurunziza, wife of Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza. All have been politically ambitious and actively supported their husbands’ rule.
Our paper addressed their political agendas, roles, influence, and accountability. We found that they were influential political actors who were active domestically, regionally and internationally. This enabled them to influence relationships and to extract political support, as well as financial gain through tenders and government funding.
Our findings raise questions about the accountability of first ladies and the transparency of their public duties and private interests. But Africa’s first ladies aren’t on their own. Similar accusations have been made against others elsewhere. For example, during the presidential tenure of her husband, Hillary Clinton was often described as interfering with White House politics and Capitol Hill decisions. Similar accusations were made against, among others, Imelda Marcos of The Philippines.
First Ladies as political activists
We found that the first ladies acted as power brokers and members of an inner circle. They actively mobilized support for their spouses. They used strategies such as their personal narratives, their country’s liberation history, religion and culture. They supported their husbands’ campaigns and downplayed, denied or simply remained silent on the failures of their husbands’ governments.
Grace Mugabe: Her political career spanned a mere three years (2014-2017) when she was elected as the President of the ZANU-PF Women’s League. This role meant that she automatically became a member of the party’s Politburo. She was successful in gaining support for her husband’s tenure as well as her own political ambitions from religious leaders, youth and the Women’s League, traditional leaders, and minority apostolic churches.
She made some noteworthy claims of support for her husband. For example, she publicly stated that even if he were to be incapacitated, Zimbabweans would vote for him because he was God-ordained.
Besides addressing religious rallies, she used nationwide “Meet the People” tours to brand herself and the President.
Grace Mugabe often welcomed and hosted foreign Heads of State and Government at her Harare home, and at State House. Her close proximity to the President gave her access to influential political networks that she exploited to buy properties and run businesses.
Denise Nkurunziza: She led the Burundi ruling party’s Women’s League (the Abakenyererarugamba). Like other African First Ladies, she used religion to endorse and support her husband’s rule. She is also an ordained Reverend.
Christians are a significant audience for the Nkurunzizas. They often hold prayer groups and wash the feet of members of the congregation. In 2017, the ruling party promoted President Pierre Nkurunziza as the “Supreme Everlasting Guide” (“Visionary”), adding to the personality cult that had been emerging around him. In 2018, Pierre Nkurunziza established Thursdays as a national Burundian Day of Prayer devoted to Christ and to fasting with prayers “without exception” for the ruling party.
Another key constituency for Denise Nkurunziza was influential women who held senior positions across the political and military spectrum.
The office of the First Lady was also used to bolster diplomatic relations between Burundi and the international community.
Janet Museveni: She was appointed as Minister of State for Karamoja by her husband in 2009. The Karamojong saw the move as a sign of the President’s affection for them.
Beyond her career in politics, she is revered by some as the “Mother of the Nation” thanks to her social outreach on maternal health.
In 2014, the Global Decency Index (GDI), invented by Decent Africa, an African fashion brand, announced that she was “the most decent African First Lady”.
Her pious, nurturing image contributes to her husband’s credibility locally and internationally.
Like her counterparts in Zimbabwe and Burundi, Janet Museveni believes that Museveni was ordained by God – as does he.
Patriarchy still rules
Despite their own political experience, ambitions and influence, we found that the three women we studied remained subordinate to the patriarchy in their societies. A few gender biases were evident.
One was in expectations of the role of the First Lady. They were expected to be spouse, mother, caregiver, and nurturer of the sick, young and elderly. Another was that the Offices of the First Lady were fully directed from within the President’s office. This meant that the flow of information about them was skewed to project as ideal woman, trophies and a trailblazer for issues stereotyped and associated with women.
In addition, none of the constitutions of the countries we examined referred to the position.
This, in our view, reflects an impression that the role isn’t important – because it is, by and large, held by women. It also undermines democratic accountability.
We believe there should be constitutional clarity and accountability – which would herald accountability – on the formal role, powers, and functions of First Ladies.
Arina Muresan was a co-author of this piece. She is a member of our team.
Sheri Lewis, 59, of Seattle, needed a hip transplant. Bradley Fuller, 63, of nearby Kirkland, needed chemotherapy and radiation when the pain in his jaw turned out to be throat cancer. And Kim Bruzas, 55, of Waitsburg, hundreds of miles away, needed emergency care to stop sudden —and severe — rectal bleeding.
Each of these Washington state residents required medical treatment during the past few years, and each thought they had purchased health insurance through an online site.
But when it was time to pay the bills, they learned that the products they bought through Aliera Healthcare Inc. weren’t insurance at all — and that the cost of their care wasn’t covered.
Lewis and the others had enrolled in what Aliera officials claimed was a health care sharing ministry (HCSM) — faith-based co-ops in which members agree to pay one another’s medical bills.
But Washington insurance officials this week said the firm doesn’t meet the definition of a sharing ministry and described Aliera’s products as a “sham” aimed at misleading consumers. Other states, including Texas and New Hampshire, are poised to take similar action.
Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler on Monday ordered Aliera, which operates Trinity Healthshare Inc., both of Delaware, to halt operations in Washington, alleging the firm was selling health insurance illegally and engaging in deceptive business practices.
Aliera falsely represented itself as a sharing ministry, which would be exempt from insurance regulations, an investigation found. Though he wouldn’t name them, Kreidler said he’s investigating two additional firms over similar concerns.
“They don’t have the direct affiliation with a particular religious group, a church, a pastor,” Kreidler said. “These appear to be ones that come in with an opportunity here to make money.”
In a statement, Aliera officials disputed Kreidler’s conclusions. The company has 90 days to request a hearing.
“Aliera has never misled consumer and sales agents about its health plans,” the statement said. “For example, our website, marketing materials and other communications clearly state that Trinity’s health sharing products are not insurance. Most importantly, they have never been represented as insurance.”
The Washington order followed complaints from nearly two dozen people, including Lewis, a dance teacher who was told her planned hip surgery wouldn’t be covered.
Across the U.S., several state insurance regulators report similar concerns.
Texas insurance officials have scheduled a hearing to consider a similar order against Aliera, which has 100,000 members nationwide and reported revenue of $180 million in 2018, documents showed.
New Hampshire insurance officials on Tuesday warned consumers about Aliera, saying they were concerned about “potential fraudulent or criminal activity.” Officials in at least five other states told Kaiser Health News they are reviewing firms operating as “illegitimate” health care sharing ministries.
Aliera is operated by Shelley Steele of Marietta, Ga., and her husband, Timothy Moses, who was convicted in 2006 of federal securities fraud and perjury. He was sentenced to 6½ years in prison and ordered to repay more than $1 million to victims.
Nationwide, nearly 1 million people are enrolled in more than 100 sharing ministries in at least 29 states, according to the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries. But that’s just an estimate, said James Lansberry, executive vice president of Samaritan Ministries International of Peoria, Ill. No comprehensive data is available.
“We try to track what’s going on out there,” Lansberry said. “Anyone claiming to be a health care sharing ministry could spill over onto our reputation.”
Samaritan is among what have been the three top players in the sharing ministries field. The oldest, founded in 1993, is the Medi-Share program of Melbourne, Fla., operated by Christian Care Ministry. The third is Christian Healthcare Ministries of Barberton, Ohio. All are explicitly religious and emphasize faith as the basis for members to share medical burdens.
Those groups originally were certified by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and required to meet specific criteria. Consumers who enrolled were shielded from the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate that required they show proof of insurance or pay a fine.
“HCSMs must operate with integrity, transparency, full compliance with the law, and enforcement of the law,” officials with Medi-Share, which has 415,000 members nationwide, said in a statement. “Anything outside of that violates the true spirit of the HCSM community.”
Washington investigators found that Aliera’s marketing materials rarely mention religious or ethical motivations, and they don’t meet government requirements.
Many of these entities mimic the marketing, structure and language of ACA-compliant health insurance plans — but offer none of the protections, said JoAnn Volk and Justin Giovannelli, researchers at the Georgetown University Center on Health Insurance Reforms, who wrote about the issue last summer.
“The way they advertise and the services they are providing, it sounds a heck of a lot like health insurance,” Giovannelli said. “They’re letting folks believe they have a product that has a promise to pay.”
That’s exactly what Lewis thought.
“It looked like Aliera was health insurance to me,” she said.
When Aliera denied her surgery, she had to resort to a GoFundMe site organized by friends to raise nearly $13,000 and then travel to Tijuana, Mexico, to get a hip transplant she could afford.
Fuller, who was diagnosed with throat cancer, said he was stuck with $81,000 in bills for his first month of treatment.
“They started checking my insurance and it didn’t cover nothing,” said the retired commercial electrician.
Fuller, his voice still raspy after radiation, said he had insurance through his union for years, but when the premiums spiked, he went online to find something else.
The person he talked to from Aliera said he could get insurance, no problem, Fuller said. The premium would be $350 a month, rather than the $1,300 fee for a gold plan on the state insurance exchange. “And that was with dental, too,” he added.
Low premiums also attracted Bruzas, who left her well-paid government job in Tacoma, and the insurance it provided, after her husband died in 2015. She moved to a small town in southeastern Washington to care for her parents and went online to find health insurance.
“I just sat down and Googled ‘Obamacare,’” she said. “I got a call back from a lady who said she could help me find coverage.” Bruzas was charged $219 for the first month.
Four days later, she was in the local emergency room with massive rectal bleeding. As she was discharged, hospital officials said they had “never heard of Aliera Healthcare,” she said.
The $10,000 bill was not covered. Bruzas, who works part time at a hardware store, filed for charity care and the debt was reduced to $6,500. She is paying it off slowly, $50 each month.
The Washington patients recalled mentions of “sharing” and vague references to spirituality. But none realized they were signing up for a religious cost-sharing ministry, they said.
“I would have hung up the phone if she would have said, ‘We’re a group, and we’ll review your records and pray for you,’” Bruzas said.
Aliera officials said they make the nature of their products clear.
“Aliera disagrees that Trinity’s inclusive and specific statement of beliefs misleads consumers or violates the applicable regulations governing healthcare sharing ministries,” the statement said.
It’s not clear how states can curb the new sharing ministries. If Aliera ignores his order, Kreidler said, he’ll seek a court injunction to force the groups to cease operations. But several states contacted by KHN said that because the ministries are not health insurance, state insurance officials don’t review or regulate them.
Some users of sharing ministries say the lower-priced products should be available for consumers who understand and accept the risks involved.
But consumers need to pay close attention to details when they sign up for any health plans, said Colorado Insurance Commissioner Michael Conway, who is investigating sharing ministries operating in his state.
“Ask if it’s actually insurance,” he advised. “Ask if there’s a guarantee of coverage. Get into the policy documents. Read the contract they’re agreeing to.”