I know we don’t like Joel Osteen. I know! We hate the way his face breaks into that peculiar goofy half smirk, like he’s always primed to play a game of peek-a-boo with his audience. We hate that curly shag he sports just above the nape of his neck. We hate that there is always a sheen and an aura that seems to surround him, no matter where he goes. We hate his made to order First Lady of the Congregation bride, the one with the wild eyes and gesticulates even more wildly when she speaks. We hate Joel Osteen for delivering – week after week – his prosperity gospel, and we especially, emphatically hate him for being prosperous.
I get it. I do. Which is why I hope that you will not read what I am about to say as an implicit defense of Joel Osteen and/or Lakewood Ministries, because it’s not.
Hurricane Harvey hit Houston HARD. (Alliteration!) Morgan Stanley says if media reports about the damage ranging between $30 billion and $40 billion are correct, Harvey would rank as fourth worst storm, when adjusted for inflation. The death toll as a result of the storm now sits at 31 and an estimated 30,000 people are taking refuge in shelters. In the midst of all this, one story has managed to nearly eclipse the headlines that we ought to be focusing on. That story is whether or not Joel Osteen’s ministry, Lakewood Church, would open up its doors to receive hurricane refugees. That question has managed to captivate the minds that reside on social media, throwing Osteen into a proverbial maelstrom of his own.
Criticism about Lakewood’s apparent eschewal of its Christian values came started about 3 days ago when a Twitter user wondered aloud if Lakewood would open up its doors for people needing shelter during the storm. A flurry of tweets soon followed, each espousing platitudes like “the church should be a refuge and a shelter for all” and “if you can’t find shelter in the house of God, where else can you go?”
Look. I’m a Christian, and I believe in the house of the Lord being a safe space…but I also believe in planning a preparation. I just lived through the Knysna Wildfires – a natural disaster that ravaged miles and miles of the Garden Route, so it is no longer in my nature to think in terms of whimsy and romanticism where disaster is concerned. Preparing to take in refugees goes a lot further than “open the doors of the church”. Deep inside – somewhere deep in the recesses of their minds – people expending time in their day to express their disgust with Osteen and his ministry know this too.
There is a LOT that goes into getting ready to function as a shelter – possibly a long term one – prior to the advent of any catastrophe. We learned this (or should have) from the devastation that Katrina caused. We know that not everyone is able to evacuate during a storm, yet people still insist on blaming the poor and disabled for not saving up the finds needed to cover their care/transportation in the event of a rainy day (or hurricane). Likewise, we know that when hurricanes like Harvey or Katrina make landfall, thousands of homes will be lost and it is prudent to ensure that there are enough beds, clothing, medical supplies, food and potable water provided for people who have lost everything in a moments’ notice… yet we insist on criticizing a megachurch for locking its facility when it has failed to do just that. I know! I understand! It’s fun to bash the pastor, and Joel makes a glitzy target; but can we shift our focus from wanting to knock his perfect veneers out to the people who actually need the help? Remember…the Houstonians who now have no homes?
Putting people in an environment that is only suitable in the sense that it is dry is thinking in shallow, binary terms. We saw this with the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina. It was a nightmare for the storm survivors who found “refuge” there. The sewage system untenable. Security was a joke. Dozens of children reported being molested or raped by people – strangers – who became part of a teeming mass of humanity stuffed inside the arena. The air was reportedly thick, humid and fetid. Someone rolled Barbara Bush in to survey the relief efforts, and she said that the evacuees were better of here because they were “underprivileged anyway”. Do we REALLY need a repeat of this suffering, just for the temporary satisfaction of shaming a pastor?
I posed the query on Twitter and was criticized for it. I was informed that megachurches have the staff that are “trained” and have the “resources” to handle crisis like this, that there was no reason that Lakewood couldn’t open its doors. As I have heard it, Lakewood did just that. They directed those in need to partner organizations like Samaritan’s Purse, who have dedicated staff trained for these specific sorts of crises. As someone who has worked in ministry, I can tell you to now assume that Lakewood has a stand-alone staff trained just for natural disasters is pie in the sky thinking. Yes, they may staff who knows where all the food is and where to get it, but that staff person pulls double (possibly triple) duties in other areas of the church. Oh, and they likely have a family of their own as well. Perhaps these trained staff chose to evacuate ahead of the storm. Who knows? And now we have a situation where after 48 hours of media onslaught and caving to pressure, Lakewood has opened its doors as a shelter. How vetted are the people in charge of looking after the welfare of these evacuees? As a mother, I would want to know. What safety measures to protect people within the confines of those walls? Have you been to the toilet after one football match at your local high school? Who’s going to be cleaning the toilets on regular rotation in the House of Lord? These are real questions that need real answers!
I jest, but I’m serious. I speak as someone who was only barely prepared to serve during a storm, and I consider myself as someone who has reasonable access to resources. During the Knysna fires, we hosted 16 people in our home. One of the families we were hosting asked if we could shelter a mother and her 4 kids. Of course we said yes. She in turn asked if we might open our home to a husband and wife – total strangers. It was an uncomfortable night for all. The power was off and every time the wind blew, the man jumped up and dashed for his electronics…as though we might steal them. Sometime just after midnight, I asked my husband if he thought the unknown couple might murder us in our beds. We slept fitfully the whole night. The next morning, it was my task to make sure that 16 people could be fed adequately. We made it through, but just barely. Our home was only a “refuge” because it was not on course to be affected by fire. The couple left the next morning, but the mom and her kids stayed for nearly 3 weeks, though only her yard was damaged by fire. How long are the evacuees supposed to stay a Lakewood? How long would satisfy the wrath of the masses? Why isn’t our fury directed at Hilton and other hoteliers? After all, they have only donated to the Red Cross. Why haven’t they opened their doors to house evacuees right now. Today. Immediately!
The criticism against Lakewood simply isn’t/wasn’t valid, and I hope that those who have accepted Osteen’s (coerced) hospitality will not find cause to regret it. In addition to traditional shelter locations, many mosques and churches in the Houston area are functioning as temporary sanctuaries. I’m sure that many individuals will open their homes to their neighbors as well. That is what the house of the Lord is – you and I. It’s people, not a megachurch that used to be an arena. And that is why it is my fervent hope is that all the people who drove off the Lakewood in the rain to get a picture of locked doors found a route to a group of strangers with the aim of hosting them in their personal abodes. You know…since the only suitable requirement to function as a sanctuary during a hurricane is that your property be dry.