On Monday, a very swift and strange backlash came for Joel Osteen, famed pastor of Houston’s Lakewood Church and possessor of a blindingly magnificent smile. There are a lot of conflicting reports about exactly what happened and not much has been confirmed, but here’s what we do know.
On Monday, as Houston continued to take a thrashing from the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey (now downgraded to a tropical storm), Lakewood Church took to social media to say that its immense, 16,000-seat venue would be inaccessible for flood victims due to flooding. The message contained a phone number for the National Guard and a list of nearby buildings offering shelter.
However, other social media accounts disputed Lakewood’s account, saying that the church did not appear to have been damaged by the flood.
— Charlotte Clymer🏳️🌈 (@cmclymer) August 28, 2017
Social media backlash quickly ensued, in which Osteen was heavily criticized for not opening his church’s doors to the public. In a statement to ABC News, Osteen denied having ever closed Lakewood off, saying that he and church were “prepared to house people once shelters reach capacity.” Lakewood also set up a partnership with Samaritan’s Purse (Franklin Graham’s organization) and a donation page on their website.
“We have never closed our doors,” the statement said. “We will continue to be a distribution center for those in need.”
That statement seems to stand in contrast to earlier remarks about the “inaccessibility” of Lakewood. But Lakewood also provided photos to ABC that do appear to show flooding in certain parts of the church, although several reports say the church’s second story remains accessible.
According to ABC News, Houston’s largest building currently accepting refugees is the George R. Brown Convention Center, which can safely hold 5,000 but is currently over capacity by at least a thousand. Tens of thousands more are expected to need shelter in the coming days, according to officials. Lakewood’s building, if available, would certainly be a help to the city and to the many thousands of people who need a place to stay. According to the AP, at least three people came to Lakewood looking for shelter, but ended up getting taken to the convention center instead.
So did Lakewood originally plan on remaining closed, and only buckle under the pressure of social media? Was the church really inaccessible and then later found to be safe? Or was there just some understandable confusion between various faculty members during all the chaos of the storm?
We just don’t know. It’s also not clear what the logistics of housing displaced families in a building the size of Lakewood up would entail, particularly if certain parts of it were flooded. It’s possible that Lakewood originally had valid concerns about opening its doors to the public, and waited to announce that it was accessible until staff had addressed those concerns.
In any case, whatever Lakewood is doing, should be doing, or should not have done in the immediate throes of a response to a massive tragedy, one thing remains true: the rest of us can still get involved.
UPDATE: Local news says that there’s no one at Lakewood this morning to take in displaced people who’ve shown up looking for shelter. A security guard is telling them to call city officials. Lakewood’s own Twitter account says they’re currently receiving people and accepting supplies.
UPDATE 2: Reports say Lakewood is currently accepting displaced people.