In a stunning Christmas gift, an Eagle Rock church clears $5.3 million in medical debt for thousands of low-income Los Angeles-area residents.
Using more than $50,000 in donations from parishioners, Christian Assembly Church is working with a nonprofit debt forgiveness organization to help clear the bills of 5,555 households who earn less than double the federal poverty level.
Twenty-eight cities in Los Angeles County were selected for the debt relief program based on the neighborhoods where church members live. Areas represented by 15 or more households within the church community were chosen, including the city of Los Angeles, Azusa, Hollywood, San Gabriel, Sylmar, and Glendale.
“We are able to provide a Christmas present to the people of Los Angeles, with no strings attached,” the pastor said. Tom Hughes announced to cheers and a standing ovation at the church’s Christmas services last weekend.
RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit created in 2014 by two former debt collectors, uses donations to buy large batches of medical debt for pennies on the dollar. Collection agencies typically sell debts for a fraction of the cost to debt collectors, who then pursue the original amount. It takes about $100 to clear $10,000 of debt. The church’s $50,000 donation can forgive more than $5 million to those who owe.
Sherman Oaks church member Jean Kellett said learning about the debt relief plans during Sunday service brought her to tears.
“Everyone was really touched. The tears started to flow,” said Kellett, who has attended Christian Assembly Church since 2003. “There was no better expression of Christmas than what they did.
Hughes said as a church leader he has seen how much debt can weigh on people. Medical bills can pile up for those without — or even with — health insurance and are often a contributing factor to personal bankruptcy and homelessness.
When a Baltimore pastor told Hughes, 45, about RIP medical debt, he contacted the group and created a plan that would allow church donations to help a multitude of LA County residents. In 2016, the debt forgiveness organization worked with “Last Week With John Oliver” to erase $15 million in medical debt for 9,000 people.
“Basically every person I’ve met has probably known someone with a health condition that came out of nowhere,” Hughes said.
Although the donation has a broader impact, it is not the largest donation the Christian Assembly Church has made. In February, the church – which was founded in 1907 and has been at the Eagle Rock address since the 1970s – donated $1.2 million in cash to open a hospice in Kenya.
But the gift of medical debt has perhaps garnered the most attention in church history, as pastors from Seattle to San Diego have reached out to find out how their churches can do something similar. . Hughes, who has served at the church since 2002 and as co-senior pastor since 2007, thinks the interest may be because the gift resonates with so many people.
Jill Rhodes, a community pastor at the church, said staff members heard about the plan a few months ago and worked hard to keep it secret until the official announcement was made. .
“I love that our church does that. I’m especially excited for everyone who will receive letters,” she said. “I can’t imagine what it will be like to receive this news in the mail.”
Recipients began receiving notifications last week, Hughes said. The names of those receiving the debt forgiveness gift will remain confidential under federal medical confidentiality laws. Hughes said the letters would include an email address if any of the recipients wanted to share their story with RIP Medical Debt and the church.
“Even if we get a few people to write, it would be great to tell their stories and hopefully inspire other churches to have compassion for the poor,” the pastor said.
As news of the charitable contribution spread, many took to social media to applaud the activism.
“That’s what a church’s money is for – not buildings and sound systems, but actually helping those in need directly,” one person wrote on Facebook.
One man said he shared the story with friends in Korea, and one person from Nashville said the inspiration to emulate the charitable act would be widely felt.
In addition to the debt cancellation program, the church plans to work with credit agencies to repair people’s credit scores. Hughes said he hopes the cancellation of people’s medical debts will also put an end to phone calls from debt collectors and bring comfort to those in need.
“Giving someone a tangible feeling that I’m not alone, someone cares, someone sees me – that’s a win,” he said.