Jubilee Starting Over: R.I.P Medical Debt in South Alabama Presbytery

by Rev. Eugenia Anne Gamble

It was an ordinary weekday morning in the beautiful coastal Alabama town of Fairhope when The Rev. Matt McCollum, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, welcomed parishioner Gaye Lindsey into his office. In her hand she clutched a carefully cut out newspaper article. This was not an unusual circumstance. Like a professional research assistant, Ms. Lindsey keeps her pastor abreast of items of interest in both local and national newspapers. “We have to do something,” she said as Matt took the article from her hand. That is how the journey began.

The article talked about the staggering burden of medical debt for many people in our nation. In a report published by PerryUndem in 2023, researchers found that 7 in 10 U.S. adults say they receive medical bills they cannot pay. Many are forced to delay paying, put charges on credit cards with high interest, or go through the lengthy process of challenging bills. Six in ten report delaying treatment, self-treating, or changing the food they eat or eating less to try to save money to pay their bills. Nearly 50% feel trapped and do not believe they will ever be able to pay their medical debts. Thirty percent report increased anxiety and depression due to their debt.

Medical debt is a problem not only for patients but also for hospitals and physicians. Most of this debt is sold to private collection agencies for pennies on the dollar. The private agencies then aggressively pursue the debt, making large profits. They often resort to harassing phone calls and even garnishment of wages.

The article that captured Ms. Lindsey was about an organization called RIP Medical Debt. The idea is to purchase the debt like any collection agency would and then forgive it, no strings attached. Pastor McCollum immediately thought of the Biblical concept of Jubilee and the idea of The Presbytery of South Alabama Jubilee Campaign was born. The campaign website explains, “In Leviticus,… the Year of Jubilee provides that people were forgiven for debts and obligations that they could not repay. This was an expression of mutual responsibility and care for the vulnerable. In other words, people could not be indefinitely enslaved or encumbered. The message is: in God’s kingdom, nobody is left out. In God’s kingdom, nobody is overlooked. In God’s kingdom, nobody gets passed over. In God’s kingdom, everybody matters!”

Matt began to talk and pray with elders and members, then partnered with churches and individuals to raise funds to purchase and forgive medical debt through RIP. “We started by wondering if we could raise enough money to forgive the medical debt in Baldwin and Mobile counties,” Matt said. “This has really captured people’s imaginations. We began with a goal of $40,00. Today the Campaign has raised $70,025. Several additional churches plan campaigns for the season of Lent.”

The money has so far purchased $11.8 million in existing debt in 35 Alabama counties. The medical debts of 17,600 people have been forgiven to date. That is more than 75% of all the medical debt in the State of Alabama. “If the other churches participating reach their goals, South Alabama Presbytery will have purchased and forgiven 100% of the debilitating medical debt in our state,” McCollum shared. What a Jubilee!

If you would like to contribute, or learn more about how your congregation or presbytery might construct a similar project, check out the South Alabama link for more information. https://ripmedicaldebt.org/campaign/south-alabama