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In this time of COVID-19 crisis, find strength in our neighbors

By Matt Gaventa
Special to the American-Statesman
The Rev. Matt Gaventa is the senior pastor at University Presbyterian Church. Doing Good Together is compiled by Interfaith Texas of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.

In one of the classic parables of the Christian tradition, a lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” and the story of the Good Samaritan unfolds.

Maybe you’ve heard it before: A man traveling to Jericho falls prey to robbers, who leave him beaten and half-dead. A priest and a Levite ignore him, until finally a Samaritan — someone from across an unfriendly border — sees him, tends to him, and ensures his recovery.

As Jesus closes the story, he tells the lawyer to “Go and do likewise.” And so, at least in the churches I have known, when we tell this story, we imagine ourselves as Good Samaritans — or perhaps as a priest who has learned a lesson — and we try to be a church attentive to those left by the side of the road. 

At University Presbyterian Church here in Austin, one of our long-standing ministries of loving our neighbor is called UPLift. For years, on Tuesday mornings, UPLift opened the doors of the church to anyone who needed a warm meal or a moment of fellowship, gathering a crowd of dozens or hundreds.

Volunteers provided economic assistance, help with job applications, utility payments — whatever we could find and whatever we could source. It was a frantic, chaotic and beautiful expression of our humble attempt to not pass by anybody on the side of the road — and a sort of faith community unto its own. 

As with so many other things, however, COVID-19 has undone our Tuesday morning gathering. Once the pandemic hit, we realized that we could not safely gather either our volunteers or our clients into a crowded indoor space: The risk of contagion was much higher than the benefit of any potential service we could offer. 

On Tuesday, March 17, we stood outside the church handing out supplies to anyone who passed — and also announcing that UPLift as we knew it had been suspended indefinitely. Strangely enough, we were now the ones on the side of the road, bruised and battered by COVID-19, unable like so many others to keep going in the way we had imagined.   

The amazing story of this pandemic, however, is that UPLift has been transformed. As soon as Tuesday morning gatherings ended, our incredible volunteers started brainstorming other ways to help those same neighbors — and what we found was friendship with organizations all around the city.

We couldn’t put rental assistance directly into the hands of clients, so instead we started working with St. Austin Catholic Parish to supplement their assistance ministry. We couldn’t meet in person with some of our most vulnerable neighbors, so we partnered instead with Integral Care Foundation.

That list goes on and on and on. We couldn’t pretend to do any of it by ourselves anymore; but, with help, we could be part of something much bigger — something like a neighborhood.   

The lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” but, as usual, the answer comes a little sideways. Are we meant to be on the lookout for those left by the side of the road? Of course, but “Who is my neighbor?” also means “Who will stop and help me when I can’t go on anymore?”

At UPC, we’ve been discovering the other side of that story. We got stuck, but now we’re growing. We’re learning not just about loving our neighbors but about being a neighbor. We’ve been trying to be the Good Samaritan for a long time, but it turns out that sometimes we need not just to help — but to be helped — in order to remember what being a neighbor really means.  

The Rev. Matt Gaventa is the senior pastor at University Presbyterian Church. Doing Good Together is compiled by Interfaith Texas of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.