St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church launched a fundraiser to pay off medical debt for families overwhelmed by hospital bills on the first Sunday of Lent, just two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic paused worship gatherings by parishes in the Diocese of Atlanta.
“In some ways, it seems like our timing on this was not great, said St. Dunstan Rector Patricia Templeton. “I’m pretty sure no professional fundraiser would say a pandemic was a good time to raise money.”
But, in another sense, it was the perfect time, Templeton said.
“The amount of medical debt in our community is only going to grow because of the pandemic. The households we are helping are probably among those hit hardest economically by this crisis. I hope this will help ease some of their burden.”
Templeton said she got the idea for paying off medical debt after reading about an Alabama Episcopal church that paid off nearly $8 million in medical debt for families in their community.
The church, St. Luke’s Episcopal, had partnered with RIP Medical Debt.
“I became excited when I read that they were able to forgive that much debt by raising $78,000,” Templeton said. “My immediate reaction was that St. Dunstan’s should do that. I called our senior warden, Harriet Smith. It turns out she had also seen the story and had the same reaction.”
In January, Templeton presented the idea to the vestry, and suggested that the parish try to raise $25K during Lent, and use $25K from their outreach endowment as a matching grant. The vestry was interested, but also wanted to vet the organization, RIP Medical Debt, and get some questions answered before making a commitment. They did that vetting, and at the February meeting St. Dunstan’s vestry gave its approval.
St. Dunstan’s has about 175 members, counting babies and the church cat; so raising $25,000 during Lent was an ambitious goal, but Templeton thought it was doable.
“We officially kicked off the campaign on March 1, the first Sunday in Lent, People were very excited. We also posted an announcement on our Facebook page which was widely shared. Money started coming in, not just from St. Dunstan’s, but from all over the country,” she said.
“I think people were excited that even a small donation could have a major impact. For example, we received a $5 donation from someone who is not a member. You might think that was negligible, but $5 forgives $500 worth of debt. And with St. Dunstan’s matching grant that $5 gift paid off $1,000 of debt.”
“Where else can you have that kind of impact,” Templeton said. “It really is a modern-day loaves and fishes story.”
Just as the fundraiser was gathering steam, the pandemic hit. Money continued coming in, but at a much slower pace. Still, St. Dunstan had raised $20,000 of their $25,000 goal the week before Easter.
“I wrote the congregation an email and told them I considered that a win, that even if we were short of our final goal it was still an amazing accomplishment to raise that much money in the middle of a pandemic,” Templeton said. “I also posted that on Facebook. Within the next two days, we received almost $9,000. So, we met the goal by Easter and then some.”
Because money was still coming in, Templeton waited until May 1 to send St. Dunstan’s check to RIP. The total: $55,000 or $5.5 million in debt relief.
By late summer, families will be receiving letters saying that their debt has been forgiven by St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church. RIP takes care of identifying the families and sending the letters on St. Dunstan’s letterhead.
You can read the sermon that Rev. Templeton preached to announce the effort here.