Every three or four months, one of my friends gets sick. Well. Many of my friends get sick, but one of my sick friends gets swamped with astronomical, life-defining medical bills. I usually hear about it through Facebook, which is a shitty way to hear that your friend is sick, but it’s even shittier when the news comes with a link to a crowdfunded webpage. Every few months, I have a friend whose medical bills are so unaffordably high that he or she has to ask for help, and the only place they can turn is to the Internet.
Medical bills are the biggest cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. There are a billion and a half reasons why medical expenses are so high–unnecessary testing, bloated administration, overpriced prescription drugs, overtaxed system, bad insurance balances, capitalism itself. Whatever.
Recently, my friend Brian had a heart attack. Brian is a youngish guy; maybe a couple years older than me. When I heard the news, my heart went out to him. My first impulse was: “I’m a pastor. Go pastor.” I wanted to visit Brian in the hospital, to sit and chat, to catch up, to bring flowers and cards. But Brian lives in Salt Lake City and unlike Creflo Dollar, I don’t have a charter jet for pastoral visits.
But there was something else Brian needed: money. I don’t know how much, I don’t know all his medical history, but when your friend has a heart attack and needs help, the details aren’t terribly relevant. I’m a firm believer that if your heart goes out to someone, and that someone needs money, you had best check your pockets.
Brian isn’t unresourced. He’s got resources, he’s got a governmental safety net, he’s got a social safety net. He’s a spoken word poet, and it’s the poetry community of Salt Lake City who has done much of the fundraising on his behalf. The poetry community in this country is tight. We stay tight and we stay getting each others’ backs. That’s why I get so many crowdfunded medical requests. Because the community is tight–and also broke. I have many dear poet friends, rooted in strong communities, with people who cover their holes and patch up their working class friends, who still come up short. My friends can’t afford to be sick.
As a pastor, I participate in a lot of conversations to authorize money for medical expenses of church members. I believe one of the functions of the church is to make sure we are taking care of our own. The church is not supposed to turn people away for preexisting conditions, not for mental disabilities, not for depression, not for cynicism. We take care of our own. That’s why our Pastoral Care team has an Agape fund, a special discretionary fund.
Every year around budget time, we all look at the next year’s numbers and notice, again, how a huge percent of our Missions budget is devoted to the Corinthian Plan. It’s the Mennonite healthcare initiative put in place before the Affordable Care Act, to ensure that part-time pastors who otherwise don’t have access to medical care could get help. It’s not a very glamorous system. It’s mostly straight up wealth redistribution that skims off wealthy white churches to ensure that our (mostly PoC, unpaid, full-time) pastors don’t have to crowdfund medical expenses. It still helps pastors get better plans than they might otherwise get through the ACA. The function of community is to take care of our own. We’ve got a system to protect pastors in Mennonite Church USA. And it’s a good system.
But as Jesus said, “even the pharisees and the tax collectors do that.” The function of church isn’t just to take care of our own–it’s to take care of whoever needs it.
Here’s a thought experiment: if your congregation is looking for a new Missions project, something that reveals the miraculous power of Jesus to heal across borders, why not designate a couple thousand for blanket medical expenses for those who don’t attend your congregation? If you believe Jesus has the power to heal, that Jesus came to accompany the lonely and the disenfranchised, and that the church is the hands and feet of Christ… isn’t the natural conclusion that we, we Church, are going to do what it takes to connect people with healing in a physically, socially, and spiritually?
It won’t fix everything. Structural injustice exists. It is deeply Christian to advocate for an overhaul to the unjust system of medical care in this country. And there is some evidence that Obamacare is helping, that overall medical bills are decreasing as the ACA is phased in. But we’re people of systemic and individual transformation. In the meantime, while our denominational advocates work on systemic change, what if the 250,000 congregations (and declining) in this country spontaneously donated to the crowdfunded medical bills of non-Christians? What if all the little donation columns on the right-hand side read “Get well soon! -Gary United Church of Christ” or “We’re praying and advocating for you. -First Mennonite Church”?
We’d be coming through in a serious way, putting ourselves and our resources into a justice gap in this country. We’d be reaching out to non-Christians and disillusioned Christians, reminding them that we still read our Bibles. We’re still trying to get this Jesus business right.
It gets exhausting. Sometimes I feel like I’m perpetually inundated with requests to fund new wheelchairs or prenatal care or ongoing immune-deficiencies that doctors can’t diagnose. I can’t heal everyone. But I can put my energy and my resources toward systems that heal.
Brian’s friends have chosen not to set up a crowdfund platform for him–a twisted testament to our capitalist culture, that crowdfunded platforms would suck up more money, skimming off as much as 8% of overall donations. Instead, if you want to send a couple dollars to Brian, you can PayPal his friend–and my friend–RJ at email@example.com. It’s a shady system, but when capitalism manipulates everything, sometimes the shady systems are most effective. Sometimes Jesus tossed the whole system out the window and just fucking healed people on days when he was supposed to be resting.
In Luke 9, Jesus “called the twelve [disciples] together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure disease, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.” The call is still out there, it’s just that in this time, in this world, maybe curing disease looks a little different. Maybe Jesus isn’t calling us to be the healers–just to make sure all the pieces are in place, in a system that leeches the financial security from the working class, to make sure that healing happens.