Pastor Joel Osteen and his Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas — the largest megachurch in the nation — received nearly $4.5 million in taxpayer money as part of the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. That money was used to pay for the salaries of 368 people, though not Osteen or his wife since they don’t take an official salary from the church.
What makes this especially damning news is that, back in July, when preliminary information about the PPP loans came out, Lakewood Church wasn’t on the list of recipients. According to the Houston Chronicle,
Lakewood officials said earlier this year that they had not applied for a loan through the PPP, and the church was not included on the list of recipients released by the Small Business Administration early in the summer.
That must have changed quickly, because data from the Washington Post, using more detailed and updated information released this week, shows that Lakewood received $4,436,224 which they applied for in late July.
In a statement to the Houston Business Journal, a spokesperson for the church explained the change of heart:
… Lakewood did not initially apply for PPP assistance during the first half of the program. However, as the shutdown persisted month after month, given the economic uncertainty, Lakewood finally applied for the PPP loan and has been able to provide full salaries and benefits including health insurance coverage to all of its employees and their families.
In other words, the same evangelical Christians who typically oppose universal health care and government handouts used a government handout so they could keep their health insurance coverage.
This is a church that rakes in millions of dollars every week, yet given the chance to take free money courtesy of taxpayers — meant to help companies that might have suffered from the pandemic otherwise — they jumped on it. Just because their in-person services were temporarily halted before reopening for a smaller audience doesn’t mean they were struggling in the way small businesses were. They didn’t need the money. They got greedy.
I don’t remember multi-million dollar taxpayer-funded loans being part of the prosperity gospel.
All this comes a few years after Osteen’s church was under fire for not using his massive arena to house people trying to escape Hurricane Harvey. After that backlash, the church still passed around the collection plate and received a random $250,000 gift from filmmaker Tyler Perry.
Once again, Lakewood could’ve sent a strong message by saying: Sure, we’re struggling right now, but we’ll be okay, because we have our members and God on our side. Other people need this financial help more than we do, and it would be unfair for us to grab $4.5 million from a pot really meant for small businesses.
Instead, they put themselves before the needs of others. As usual.