Americans shoulder a lot of debt. When it comes to past-due medical bills, the country collectively owes at least $81 billion, according to a 2018 Health Affairs study. One in six has a credit report tarnished by debt owed to someone who probably wears a white coat to work (or to that someone’s boss).

But there’s a new trend among American churches that’s taking aim at the mess. Over the past two years, more than a dozen congregations have partnered with a debt forgiveness organization to cancel millions in medical debt for people in their communities.

Pathway Church in Wichita, Kansas, spent a $22,000 chunk of its budget partly meant for publicizing its Easter services to eliminate $2.2 million in medical debt for local residents. Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church in Champaign, Illinois, used a $15,000 surplus from a building renovation project to eliminate $4 million of debt for more than 3,000 families.

Revolution Annapolis, a small Maryland church that doesn’t even have its own building, collected $15,000 last December. That donation wiped out $1.9 million for nearly a thousand families in a dozen surrounding counties. City Church in Evansville, Indiana, raised $15,000 to cover $4 million in debt.

Each of these campaigns was done through a nonprofit called RIP Medical Debt, which buys huge bundles of medical debt for cheap and then invites charitable donors—such as churches—to settle the bill. Once the donations are in, RIP sends letters to the debtors, alerting them that their bill was paid in full.

“Taking up debts, helping to relieve each other’s burdens . . . that’s a fundamental image of Christian discipleship,” said theologian Jordan J. Ballor, senior research ...

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