Amid the chaos and tragedy in Houston this week, there were few villains more tempting to cast than Joel Osteen, the millionaire televangelist whose uplifting sermons are said to reach more than 7 million people worldwide each week. Lakewood Church meets in a former basketball arena that the church spent $75 million to renovate, and now holds up to 16,000 worshippers. To some, the former Compaq Center looked like an ideal emergency shelter as the floodwaters rose. But Lakewood announced on Sunday that it was “inaccessible due to severe flooding”; the church had previously decided to cancel its live services for the weekend.
From the outside, it looked like a wealthy church was closing its doors to the needy in the midst of an emergency. Random kayak owners were pitching in, but Joel Osteen was cosseted away in his $10.5 million mansion? Photos said to depict barely damp streets outside the church were soon wielded as evidence that Lakewood was lying about its ability to serve as a shelter. On Twitter, the response to the largest church in America’s apparent failure of largesse was swift and brutal:
On Monday afternoon, I spoke with Don Iloff, a spokesman for Lakewood (and Osteen’s brother-in-law). Contrary to rumors online, Iloff said, Lakewood was not “closed”—it simply had not opened as a formal shelter, in large part because the city had not asked them to do so as part of its extensive preparation for the hurricane. Six or eight staff members had remained on site during the flood, and they had been instructed to open the doors to anyone who needed help. “We are open,” Iloff said. “Anyone who comes there, we’ll let in.”
Of course, if reporters have to call a spokesman to find out whether a church’s doors are open, it isn’t exactly extending hospitality to strangers. But despite Lakewood’s size, there are several factors that would have made it an imperfect venue to serve as a major overnight shelter during the hurricane’s worst days: It has no showers and no kitchen, its parking garage is underground, and it is located right off Interstate 69, which suffered major flooding. Significantly, the building is known to be prone to flooding. Then home to the Houston Rockets, the Compaq Center experienced major flooding during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, for example. At the time, Lakewood Church occupied a large building in northeast Houston, which it opened up as a shelter for 5,000 people.
In some cases this week, the city of Houston reached out to specific churches and asked them to register as temporary shelters, but Iloff said Lakewood was not asked to do so. (He said the church focused on other efforts, including mobilizing its large volunteer force.) Some other churches who decided to throw open their doors as unofficial impromptu shelters quickly found themselves overwhelmed. When First Baptist Church North Houston opened as a makeshift shelter, they quickly ran out of food and water for the 300 people assembled on their gym floor, and the toilets backed up. Obviously Lakewood is much bigger than First Baptist, but it’s still not as easy as it sounds for a church to simply declare itself a safe, functional shelter. Iloff said Lakewood installed floodgates after it took over the Compaq Center 2003, but was still nervous about the building’s propensity to flood, which would be disastrous if it were filled with people. As of Monday, the water was about a foot away from the floodgates, and much more rain was expected throughout the week.
Even if Lakewood’s decision to focus on less visible flood-relief efforts made sense in the moment, its messaging was disastrous. The church’s claim that it was “inaccessible” looked to skeptical readers like a bald-faced lie, easily refuted by a few snapshots. Osteen’s relentlessly chipper Twitter feed, a stream of inspirational quotes, mentioned Harvey only once over the weekend. Osteen tweeted that he would pray for victims, but did not mention making financial or logistical plans to help his suffering city.
Osteen is a “scapegoat” both within Houston and among mainstream evangelical Christians, said Kate Shellnutt, an associate editor at Christianity Today who has been reporting on local churches’ responses to Harvey. (She previously lived in Houston for several years as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle.) “Any criticism you want to lob at Christianity, people see an angle with Joel Osteen,” she said. He’s rich, he’s slick, and he’s a suspiciously adept fundraiser. He preaches a message of glorified self-help (annoying theologically conservative Christians) that implicitly blames the poor for their troubles (annoying theological progressives). In other words, no one likes Joel Osteen—except the millions of people who do. On Tuesday, the church had changed gears. “Lakewood’s doors are open,” Osteen tweeted. The Houston Chronicle reported that about 50 people had been admitted to register for shelter by Tuesday afternoon, and the church was also accepting formula and diaper donations on behalf of the city. But this felt like too little, too late: the fact remained that while the community had been actively suffering, Lakewood and its wealthy pastor looked indifferent and remote.