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Celebrating a $2 million Easter gift

Rev. Rick Blunt in front of Okemos Community Church.

The Okemos Community Church recently surprised 3,660 Michigan families when each received a letter informing them that their medical debt had been covered by the church. In total, the congregation abolished $2,217,191.15 in long-term medical debt.

GLENN M. WAGNER
Michigan Conference Communications

July 19, 2022 | OKEMOS, Mich. – Twenty-three million Americans know what it is like to live with the burden of unpaid medical debt.

Thanks to the recent generosity of the people of Okemos Community Church, 3,660 Michigan families, including 118 households in the greater Lansing area, received written notification from RIP Medical Debt that their long-term medical debts totaling $2,217,191.15 had been paid in full.

Can you feel the good news being celebrated in those households?

Okemos Community Church has a history of generosity, and serving others is in their DNA. Rev. Rick Blunt, United Methodist pastor of Okemos Community Church, recalls the 2021 church campaign to help area businesses weather the COVID-19 pandemic. The church directed their annual Lenten/Easter offering toward struggling businesses in the greater Lansing area.

Church members were also invited to increase their support for local businesses adversely affected by the pandemic. They were urged to pray for local businesses, buy their products, offer personal praise to employees, go out of their way to recommend local merchants on their own social media accounts, and report on their efforts back to the church.

The combined 2021 Lenten/Easter effort resulted in a generous surge of support for local businesses in a season of increased financial need.

The experience of generosity by church members in 2021 inspired Okemos Community Church leaders to think about what they could do in 2022. How could they continue to make a positive witness for Christ in their area with congregational Lenten/Easter offerings?

A member of the church shared an idea heard on a television late-night talk show where pundits praised the efforts of a nonprofit organization in New York called Rest In Peace (RIP) Medical Debt. This charity partners with individuals and organizations like churches to purchase delinquent debt from medical facilities, debt collectors, and other financial institutions for as little as one dollar cost for every $100 owed, for the sole purpose of forgiving the debt and allowing many underprivileged and overburdened persons to get a fresh financial start.

Pastor Blunt researched RIP Medical Debt and learned of their perfect rating of 100 from Charity Navigator. A conversation with RIP Medical Debt led to an agreement to work with them to provide priority medical debt relief to qualifying persons in mid-Michigan and around the state.

RIP Medical Debt helped the church target its relief efforts in helping Michigan households making less than twice the poverty level or whose medical debt is greater than 5% of the household income.

The church then raised funds to buy medical debt which would then be forgiven. RIP Medical Debt took the church’s contribution and implemented the debt relief project.

This idea of collecting an offering to help alleviate medical debt received enthusiastic support from the congregation, including those who were medical and insurance professionals. The idea that every dollar donated could eliminate $100 of medical debt for a struggling family inspired greater generosity.

In a typical year, the Okemos Community Church would raise $3,000 to $4,000 during the Lenten season for worthy projects. This year’s offering exceeded $15,000.

Pastor Blunt says the recipients of the debt relief from this year’s offering were anonymous to the church.

“They didn’t ask for it. Help came unexpectedly. We know they have been helped, but unless they tell us we don’t know who they are. But we do know that this gift was a great relief.”

Blunt also noted that since news outlets in their area shared this story, the church has been approached by some who also want to be part of a faith community living with this kind of life-changing generosity.

“We saw a connection between this year’s Easter celebration and God’s unexpected forgiveness of personal debt. In our faith, at Easter we celebrate receiving the unexpected and unearned forgiveness of God and a chance to begin again. We hope these 3,660 Michigan families likewise experienced some unexpected joy and relief, along with a chance to have a new start. Whenever we are blessed by God, we believe we are likewise called to extend blessings to others. In these times when sometimes it seems all we can do is offer ‘prayers and blessings,’ we wanted to do more. In addition to prayers and blessings, we desired to do something concrete and tangible which would really make a difference.”

Imagine the dread of opening another overdue notification from a medical creditor in the mail, expecting to see the rapidly accumulating interest highlighted again in red ink with warnings about penalties for late payments on unpaid balances. Only this time you see instead this unexpected news: “Your bill has been paid in full.”

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The Michigan Conference