Ready and willing: Pandemic doesn’t stop local church from helping people with taxes

By Denise Morgan

PELZER—People come to church for many reasons. Many value the simple act of praise and worship amongst friends and believers. Some come in times of sorrow for support and fellowship. Some come in happier times to share and multiply their joy at a wedding or baptism.

At Augusta Road United Methodist Church, some come to pay their federal and state taxes and/or get their refunds. Since February 2017, a corps of volunteers at Augusta Road UMC has been assisting residents to complete their returns and file them online.

Longtime church member Ron Young serves as the local coordinator of the AARP Tax Aide service at the church. He is part of a team that starts in the fall to recruit and train volunteers and to distribute equipment amongst the five sites in Pelzer’s district, District 18. This year the other sites were Zoar UMC in Greer, two senior centers and the Sears Center

Then, in March, COVID-19 hit. Service halted abruptly, and there were about 500 people who had signed up for assistance but had not yet been seen or filed their returns. State and national representatives of AARP set to work monitoring possible ways to resume service amidst the shifting facts and discoveries regarding this new disease and its transmission. Local representatives contacted volunteers to see who could return to finish out the season.

There was a plan, there were willing hands – and now came the hard part. Several volunteers contacted those who had appointments but hadn’t been served. Some had already paid the typical $200-300 fee for a private tax preparer, but some were willing to make the trip to Augusta Road UMC for AARP service, which is free to all whose returns are within their scope of training.

As it turned out, the Augusta Road UMC site reopened on June 15 and was the only one approved to reopen in South Carolina. Some people traveled about an hour each way to get there. The procedures were not typical—during the pandemic, the counselors stayed inside with the air conditioning and the taxpayers stayed outside with their cellphones. Counselors gathered facts as necessary with phone calls. Hardworking client facilitators, wearing masks and gloves, ran documents between clients and counselors. In the period between June 15 and July 1, the site prepared some 150 returns. In comparison, during the first part of the season (February to the closing in mid-March) ARUMC completed 158 returns, with help from counselors and facilitators from the other sites.

In a normal tax season, Augusta Road UMC sees 200-plus taxpayers as part of a network of five sites ending in mid-April. There was nothing typical this year except the professionalism of the volunteers. The counselors are Internal Revenue Service-certified volunteers trained by AARP. Each taxpayer has a unique story, and the counselors are diligent about providing accurate returns and useful information.

In a typical year, the taxpayers come to Augusta Road UMC and wait in the narthex for their turn. Many wander to admire the sanctuary with its stained-glass windows; last year they commiserated over the vandalism to some of those windows. New residents, newly widowed returnees and recent college graduates with their first jobs are among those who seek help.

You might say this is a ministry in which the church is helping South Carolina residents “render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s” (Luke 20:25) while visiting in a church that serves God.

Give it some thought; you might want to “go thou and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

Young also serves as the church’s delegate to Annual Conference. He can be reached at [email protected].

Morgan is a member of Augusta Road UMC, Pelzer.

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