A Nebraska church has helped raise over $500,000 to pay off the medical bills of local residents, with the proceeds going to help around 500 households in the surrounding community.
The First-Plymouth Congregational Church’s effort started at $8,000 with a desire to help a few neighbors in need, according to The Lincoln Journal Star. Thirteen months later, it had raised more than $520,000 in donations, freed 500 households from burdensome medical bills, and gained national attention.
“I had no idea it would go so viral,” Rev. Jim Keck, the church’s senior pastor told the outlet. “You wouldn’t think a pastor would do this; I underestimated people’s generosity.”
An estimated 10,000 people contributed to the First-Plymouth Congregational Church effort, The Lincoln Journal Star reports.
“Sometimes love has to be expressed in actions. We have had an initiative all year that is just love on the move,” Senior Pastor Rev. Jim Keck said in his Easter sermon on Sunday. “The church decided that there were too many homes right in our neighborhood that were saddled with medical debt. … The church decided that every dime that went into the collection plate … would go to forgive the medical debt of homes right here in central Lincoln.”
Keck told the audience the debt collector agreed to give the anonymized profiles to keep people’s privacy and would be homes located around the church with no street address.
“It would say like, ‘a single mother with two kids owes $1,000 is paying $50 a month and isn’t ever going to get on top of it,'” he continued.
“Each month, you put money in the plate, and we bought as many of those as possible. It now culminates this year. We have retired the debts of over 500 homes right here in the neighborhood. … As of this morning, we will hit somewhere around $550,000.”
The effort came about after the Rev. Juan Carlos Huertas took on outreach efforts at the Lincoln church, starting something called justNeighbors. The ministry centered around community connection, helping neighbors with laundry, filling their gas tanks and providing health care to those without insurance.
“This is like the Lord’s Prayer in action to forgive us our debts,” he said.
The church’s website explains that the campaign began in March 2022 to erase medical debt in the Near South Neighborhood and surrounding communities by “committing all of our loose offerings (not pledges) to this effort until Easter 2023.” The campaign was done in conjunction with the Debtor’s Defense Project, which works to provide “more transparency and protection for those going through the legal process of debt collection in Nebraska.”
Others who have benefited from the generosity are a single person living in a rental unit who owed $1,000, a single parent receiving little child support who owed $600, and a food service worker who owed $1,300
He and Keck then set their sights on medical bills. By acquiring debt profiles anonymously through collection agencies, Huertas had determined how to absolve Lincolnites’ medical debt without incurring a tax burden on those receiving the aid.
Keck said the initiative follows the words of Jesus, who called his followers to “love their neighbor.”
Keck said, “It was an act of pure inclusion, which is such a central ethic here.”
As of Sunday, the church’s “Just Neighbors” website reads in bold letters:
The money raised ultimately helped 500 households in the Near South neighborhood. Along with the fundraising, there also were panel discussions on the economics of health care.
Huertas and Keck have decided that their next venture will be confronting an ongoing mental health crisis.
“We want to be that person that shines a light on it,” Huertas said.