For days, Pastor Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church in Houston have been blasted for not opening their megachurch/former-basketball-arena doors to people trying to get away from Hurricane Harvey.
I wrote earlier today that Lakewood has sheltered people in the past, but it’s entirely reasonable to think there were reasons they weren’t doing it this weekend. Maybe the conditions around the church were bad and local officials didn’t want people driving there. Maybe the underground parking lot was flooded to the point where parking would’ve been dangerous. Maybe they didn’t want to make the problem worse (a la the Superdome fiasco after Hurricane Katrina).
Some reports confirmed that the church was in no position to house people:
— Lynne Gabriel (@heyitslynneg) August 28, 2017
Whatever the reason, it seemed like critics were jumping at the church to blast an easy target — a rich and famous megachurch pastor — without all the facts. I stand by that. I have yet to see evidence that the church refused to help despite having the capabilities. And I don’t buy the argument that they didn’t want to spend money for this cause or get their precious arena too dirty. (The positive publicity they would’ve gotten from sheltering people would’ve led to plenty of donations.)
In any case, it looks like that may be changing.
Activist Charles Clymer, who’s been very critical of the church in the past 48 hours (and posting images of nearby roads that don’t look flooded), posted an image of air mattresses being placed in a hallway of the church, as if they’re preparing to take in shelter victims.
— Charles Clymer (@cmclymer) August 29, 2017
Again, it’s unclear if they ran out to get those mattresses in response to all the public shaming, or if this was the plan all along and it just took a while for the mattresses to get there. But at least they’re there. It’s a good sign.
We’ve only heard one official statement from Osteen himself. He told a reporter earlier tonight that Lakewood never closed their doors — they were always functioning as a distribution center for resources — but it was cryptic in another way:
— Anastasia (@AnastasiaElyseW) August 29, 2017
We have never closed our doors. We will continue to be a distribution center for those in need. We are prepared to house people once shelters reach capacity. Lakewood will be a value to the community in the aftermath of this storm in helping our fellow citizens rebuild their lives.
I honestly don’t get why they were prepared to house people only after “shelters reach capacity.” Why weren’t they first in line to house people, given their ample resources? Was there a good explanation for that or are we left to speculate?
And the last line about being a “value to the community in the aftermath of this storm” sounds like Christianese for “We’ll have church services for anyone who wants to attend.” Not helpful. It was a weak statement to put out after more than a day of backlash.
Lakewood also posted on the church website that they would be working with Franklin Graham and his disaster relief ministry Samaritan’s Purse to help people in Houston. That’s all well and good, though it should be noted that the organization is known for evangelizing as much as anything else. That’s perfectly legal, but people should be aware of that before making a donation.
At the end of the day, I’m glad people in Houston will have the arena available as a shelter if they need it — assuming that’s what’s happening here — but when the chaos dies down, I hope a local reporter can get to the bottom of what Lakewood’s emergency planning was like, why it took so long for them to take people in, and what they plan to do in the future. I’ve heard a lot of anecdotes and assumptions, but very little first-hand reporting.
***Update***: The Houston Chronicle has a few more details on this story, though even they can’t answer the obvious questions of why the doors weren’t open sooner. There was flooding in the church, they say, but they’ve been helping people who came by the building ever since Friday.
“It’s not our unwillingness, it’s just practicality. It’s been a safety issue for us,” [church spokesperson Don] Iloff said, adding that Harvey’s heavy rainfall almost spilled over Lakewood’s floodgate this past weekend. “Lakewood Church has a heart for this city.”
(Thanks to everyone for the link)