The phone interrupted John Jackman’s to-do list one balmy morning last week.
Jackman — Pastor John as he’s known to his flock at Trinity Moravian — wasn’t terribly surprised that it rang; it’s an occupational hazard for men (and women) of the cloth.
“I’m in the yard. We had a tree come down on our duck pen,” he said, explaining both background noise and the task in front of him.
But as soon as he heard the reason for the call — the good people at little Trinity Moravian had managed to buy nearly $1.2 million in outstanding medical debt in Forsyth County that had been turned over to the secondary market collection agencies — Jackman sat his tools down.
“I can take a break,” he said. “We’re really pumped about it.”
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Set aside for a moment the notion that “pumped” isn’t typically a verb associated with men of the cloth.
The story of Trinity Moravian’s newest ministry is worth hearing, retelling and, where possible, recreating as more than 1,300 local people will soon open letters informing them their medical debt has been forgiven.
As we were all just beginning to feel somewhat normal following the COVID pandemic, Pastor John and board members at Trinity Moravian started thinking about new and creative ways to serve the working poor.
That process led to considering medical debt and the soul-crushing burden that one illness or injury can place on families living paycheck to paycheck.
“Even a tiny thing, it’s a couple hundred dollars before you know it,” said Mary Bergstone, Trinity Moravian’s board secretary. “And if you don’t have much, that’s a lot. … We all know someone who’s struggled with this.”
The search led to something the church calls the “Debt Jubilee Project,” a biblical tip of the cap to an ancient practice referenced in the Book of Leviticus in which all debts were canceled and enslaved people freed.
Trinity Moravian wound up partnering with a New York-based nonprofit called RIP Medical Debt, an organization founded by a pair of former debt collection executives who decided to use their institutional knowledge for a greater good.
The way it works is simple: RIP steps in to purchase medical debt that’s offered for sale to third party collection agencies for pennies on the dollar.
(If that practice seems predatory, that’s because it is. But it’s also allowed by law; legal and moral, as we all know, can be very different things.)
RIP — and by extension groups such as the Debt Jubilee Project it works with — have established some basic income-based guidelines for who qualifies for debt forgiveness.
“We’re working with middle class and poor people,” Jackman said. “Not wealthy people who’ve reneged on their bills.”
Mission in hand, Trinity Moravian set out to accomplish an audacious goal — buying every bit of available medical debt in Forsyth County.
They raised money by word of mouth and passing the hat.
In small increments of $10, $20 or $50, a kitty of $5,275 accumulated in less than six weeks. That parlayed into $1.65 million worth of medical debt.
That’s outstanding for a church with maybe 40 in-person worshippers on a typical Sunday. “We’re small, but we’re mighty,” Bergstone said.
The bigger deal, though, is what RIP Medical Debt was able to accomplish for Trinity Moravian: Every nickel of qualifying debt from Forsyth County available on the secondary market was purchased.
“We were blown away,” Jackman said. “If you had said when we started that we could buy a half-million, we would have taken it. But $1.2 million? We were able to buy all of the debt in Forsyth County and move on to Davidson County, too.”
Pay it forward
To celebrate the accomplishment, congregants watched with a great deal of well-deserved satisfaction as Jackman burned collection notices during a recent Sunday service.
“We had more smoke in here than we get at Christmas with all the candles,” said June Edwards, the president of Trinity Moravian’s board.
The Debt Jubilee Project put a sizable dent in the $4 million or so in debt for sale in Davidson County. The plan, Jackman said, is to keep going — perhaps by partnering with churches in Davidson County — and then moving on to a succession of other Triad counties.
“Davie, we’re looking at you next,” he said. “By the time we get to Guilford County, we’ll start all over again with Forsyth. Unfortunately, there’s no end to it.”
It’s important to note that the Debt Jubilee Project is not in a position to help individuals with debt that health-care providers are still trying to collect. As much as they’d like to help, supporters say that’s financially impossible.
“Unfortunately that’s dollar for dollar,” Jackman said. “We can only do it via the wholesale method.”
Because the Debt Jubilee Project has only recently received notice from RIP that the purchases have been made, the 1,356 people in Forsyth and Davidson counties who will benefit will find out this week via the U.S. Postal Service that the collection calls will cease.
“We’re hoping that some folks will see it as a chance to help others and pay it forward,” Jackman said.
Because the project has been such a resounding success, Trinity Moravian is in line to receive a $2,500 matching grant from the Moravian Ministries Foundation.
“This has turned into something like the little boy who packed his lunch, gave it to Jesus and wound up feeding 5,000 people,” Edwards said. “Miracles happen, but they don’t always happen to you and me. God has multiplied this beyond our expectations.”