BOSTON – The Greek Orthodox parish of Constantine and Helen in Webster, MA, through the efforts of its presiding priest Fr. Luke Veronis, was able to pay the medical expenses for 2,200 families, a total of $3.5 million dollars. The endeavor is unique in the history of parishes of the ecclesiastical life of the Archdiocese of America and the life of the Greek-American Community. Fr. Luke Veronis in an exclusive interview to The National Herald explained exactly how he did it.
TNH: Fr. Luke, how did you and your parish cope with the COVID pandemic these past seventeen months?
Fr. Luke: COVID has been a challenge for everyone and of course the church has faced its own difficulties. Some people haven’t come to church because they have to wear masks while others don’t come to church because they are afraid of the virus. We have to love everyone and minister to them all. Thank God, though, a number of people have been coming back to church especially during the Lenten and Paschal seasons. We now have to challenge regarding the people who have been less engaged to bring their faith and the Church to the center of their lives once again.
COVID forced us to extend our church’s 100th year anniversary celebration, which began in November 2019 and now will end in November 2021. Especially during this time of the pandemic, we wanted to reach out to families with the love of God in a concrete manner. We began our anniversary with the ‘Good and Faithful Steward Challenge,’ where our Church gave every steward of the Church a cash gift totaling $30,000. We asked them to use this gift to bless others in need. We had an incredible experience with this where our parishioners discovered the joy of giving. They came back with so many inspiring stories of how they blessed others. We now wanted to conclude our Anniversary in another memorable way. This is what led us to pay off $3.5 million in medical debt for 2,200 families. Imagine what it’s like for these families to unexpectedly get a letter that says “Saints Constantine and Helen Church in Webster, MA has paid off the medical debt you have been struggling with for the past number of years. No strings attached.”
TNH: What is the RIP Medical Debt Organization? Where is it located? How did you discover it?
Fr. Luke: Over the past two years I have read or heard different stories in the NY Times, USA Today, and NPR about churches who have wiped out millions of dollars of medical debt for families struggling with this burden. These stories inspired me and made me want to guide our Church to do something similar.
RIP Medical Debt was founded in 2014 by two former debt collection executives. Their nonprofit organization, based in Rye, NY, uses donations to buy large portfolios of medical debt at a fraction of its value, then forgive significant amounts of the debt. In 2020, the organization abolished $1.7 billion in debt for over 830,000 people.
Our Church gave a specific donation that was leveraged to pay off $3.5 million in debt. I want to highlight that our effort came about because some anonymous person was inspired by what we did through the Good and Faithful Steward Challenge. In response to our initial challenge, he made a significant donation to our Church and asked if we could do something beautiful that would bless others. This person felt blessed and wanted to share his blessings with others. He trusted our Church would do that for him. That’s the spirit of giving and generosity that we want to cultivate among people!
TNH: Are there Greek-Orthodox families among those who benefited from this initiative?
Fr. Luke: We could not select the specific families who benefited from this, but we could choose the region of the country from where the families came. Thus, most of the people who received help were from the New England states. And we received a list of which county each family came from, and how much debt was eliminated for each family.
TNH: How do you feel not only as a priest but also as a human being for ‘liberating’ so many people from the medical debt burden?
Fr. Luke: We are blessed by God in countless ways and our call in life is to generously share these blessings with others! This is one of the ways I summarize our Orthodox Christian Faith. We are blessed so we can bless others! Yet we shouldn’t just share our blessings as individuals; we also have a responsibility as a community of faith to reach out to the larger world.
Back in 2005, this Church was in crisis with fears that over the next 15 years the doors might be closed because of the decline in membership. Over the past 15 years we have seen a beautiful revival of not only old members coming back to Church and new people joining our Church, but we’ve seen a new understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Our Church broke away from being a parochial, inward-turned church to becoming an outward-turned Church that reaches out to the community. We wanted to be known for more than just our annual Greek Festival. Now our Church is known for our monthly Living Bread Luncheon which serves 80-100 people in the larger Webster community; as the Church that has sent 100 volunteers over nine years to build homes in Tijuana through Project Mexico. We are the Church that has AA, NA, and Alanon meetings, and is always open to hosting the Girl Scouts or any other civic organization that needs space. We understand that we exist as a Church to be a light to others, and we consciously try to bless the community in which we live here in central Massachusetts and throughout the world.
My hope from this effort is three-fold. I hope the families that receive a letter saying “Saints Constantine and Helen Church has wiped out your medical debt” will realize that God is blessing them through His Church. I hope they realize that there are people of faith who care about them and want to share God’s love in a concrete manner by wiping out their debt and giving them a new start in their lives.
I also hope that we will inspire other churches, as well as other individuals, by what we did and I pray that others will imitate us. After we did the Good and Faithful Steward Challenge, I know of two other churches that did something similar – they gave cash to their parishioners and asked them to bless those in need with that money. I’ve already had several individuals and churches contact me about how they can wipe out the medical debt for families in need.
A third hope is that everyone in our own Church Family will better understand the privilege we have individually and as a community of faith to share our blessings. I want each of us to keep discovering new ways to experience the joy of generously sharing His blessing by concretely giving to others.
TNH: Would you share some comments from people whose debt has been forgiven?
Fr. Luke: Here are some: “I am a single parent raising my son with special needs. Life has hit us with some hard blows mentally, spiritually, financially,” confessed S.P. “Opening your letter to find that my medical debt has been paid in full, I will never forget. You have truly blessed our lives with your generosity, compassion, and love.”
C.T., another recipient of debt relief, expressed gratitude in this manner: “I had to write and say THANK YOU!!! At the time that I received your awesome letter I was feeling down and defeated. Then your letter came. All I can do is say WOW WOW WOW. This blessing has touched me in so many different ways. I have a totally different perspective on life. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
“I would like to express my gratitude. I was going through the worst year of my life when this letter showed up. I found a little hope in the midst of darkness. This act of kindness has given me strength and raised me up. Thank you. I cannot express my gratitude. God bless you.” A.S.
“I came home this week and found this letter on my door step saying that a medical debt I had was paid off. I had a surgery in 2011 which led me to a lot of medical complications for the next four years of my life. I had health insurance the whole time, but the co-payments were high and I couldn’t keep up. I’m a registered nurse now and I’m working to help my patients through this terrible virus. It was incredibly nice to see that someone paid off one of my medical debts without me asking and without apply for it. You are doing God’s work, for sure.” V. M.
“I got emotional when I got the letter. It’s frustrating as a man, my job is to support my family. You all helped relieve a burden. Every little bit helps. You help remove a burden in people’s lives. It means so much. I’m grateful.” T. D.