Tom Hughes, Pastor, in front of the Christian Assembly in Eagle Rock.

Eagle Rock Church Expands Effort to Pay Off Medical Debt for Poor Families

2020 Editions July

By Emily Jo Wharry

The Christian Assembly church in Eagle Rock made headlines last year when it partnered with a nonprofit organization to pay off the medical debts of thousands of poor families in Los Angeles County.

But the story did not end there.

In recent months, Christian Assembly has expanded its charitable endeavor, reaching thousands of more families with millions of more dollars in debt forgiveness.

Here’s how they’ve done it:

The initial debt-relief effort in 2019 was a partnership between Christian Assembly and RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit that buys portfolios of medical debt from collection agencies for pennies on the dollar – and then wipes out the debtors’ obligations. Christian Assembly donated $50,000 from its congregation’s offering to RIP – enough to buy up and retire $5.3 million in medical debt owed by 5,555 families.

This year, Christian Assembly partnered with 11 other churches and Life Pacific University, a Christian college in San Dimas, to donate $226,000 to RIP Medical Debt – enough to buy up and retire $23.7 million in medical debt owed by 15,468 families. Christian Assembly contributed $100,000 of the total by matching most of the amounts raised by the partners. 

After a debt is paid off, RIP Medical Debt sends a letter to the debtor notifying them of the forgiven loan and the sponsoring organizations. The nonprofit also works with credit agencies to help restore the debtor’s credit, repairing any damage that resulted from the unpaid debt.

Tom Hughes, co-lead senior pastor at Christian Assembly, says that the idea to tackle debt relief first came up last year, after the church completed a  $1.2 million project to construct a hospice in Kenya in East Africa. “We had some people say, ‘Hey, it’s so great that we’re doing that on the other side of the planet,” he says. “What would it look like for us to do something for our neighbors here in L.A?’”

The success of the initial debt-relief effort in 2019 led to an increase in donations from congregation members, says Hughes. That prompted him to suggest to church elders that Christian Assembly amplify its impact by partnering with other churches and offering to match their donations dollar-for-dollar.

“All the money for anything we ever do comes from our people that give it because they want to be generous and want to be part of God’s work in the world around them,” says Hughes. “We don’t get any government grants, we don’t have an endowment—none of that stuff.”

Generosity, it turns out, benefits the giver as well as the recipient. Angie Richey, president of Life Pacific University, said the project allowed her students, staff and faculty to serve their community and boosted morale during the stresses of the coronavirus. “When we give, there’s something that happens in our heart,” she says. “We feel we have purpose, it encourages and motivates people to appreciate what they already have and it gets our focus on the people who we are truly called to serve in the world.”

Hughes echoes those views: “People keep asking me over and over, ‘Why are you guys doing this? It’s like everybody’s suspicious of some ulterior motive.” he says, laughing. “We were just thinking about people we know. I pastor a church, so I know people who have medical bills, cancer, all sorts of stuff. I was just thinking, ‘How can we love people well in a time of need?’”

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