The internet ripped Lakewood Church and its lead pastor, Joel Osteen, Monday for the church’s perceived lack of adequate response to Hurricane Harvey — but there’s much more to the story than what is being alleged by critics on social media.
Lakewood, Osteen, and a spokesperson for the church all responded Monday to the heavy criticism that accused the Houston megachurch — which can accommodate nearly 17,000 people — of not taking in Hurricane Harvey victims during a time of need.
Many on social media voiced disappointment at a Saturday tweet originating from Osteen’s Twitter account, which read, “Victoria & I are praying for everyone affected by Hurricane Harvey. Please join us as we pray for the safety of our Texas friends & family.”
Victoria & I are praying for everyone affected by Hurricane Harvey. Please join us as we pray for the safety of our Texas friends & family.
— Joel Osteen (@JoelOsteen) August 26, 2017
Those speaking out against the church and Osteen noted their displeasure that the church and the Osteens didn’t appear to be more proactive in assisting flood victims. Additionally, some critics blasted Osteen’s wealth and accused him of selfishness.
Despite the fact that photos of Lakewood Church flooding had been circulating on social media, Osteen was one of the top trending topics on Twitter as a result of the criticism he took over allegations that Lakewood Church would not help those in need.
— Lynne Gabriel (@heyitslynneg) August 28, 2017
Lakewood Church statements
Osteen clarified the church’s position Monday night in a statement provided to ABC News.
“We have never closed our doors. We will continue to be a distribution center for those in need,” Osteen said, adding, “Lakewood will be a value to the community in the aftermath of this storm in helping our fellow citizens rebuild their lives.”
Osteen also noted that Lakewood Church is “prepared to house people once shelters reach capacity.”
In a Monday night interview with Faithwire, Don Iloff, a spokesman for Lakewood Church, said that while the church is more than willing to accommodate displaced citizens, the church has no showers and no kitchen, which Faithwire reported makes the church “more of an emergency shelter than anything else.”
Further, Iloff added that as the church building has historically been prone to flooding, no evacuees could be placed on the ground floor of the facility.
“The fact is that we knew that we could not put anyone on the bottom floor,” Iloff said, adding that the ground floor is the most spacious area of the building. “We were very concerned about putting anyone on that bottom floor given the history.”
Iloff added that the church organization had been in touch with officials “in recent days” and had been planning outreach efforts.
He added that the church would best serve the community by acting as a distribution center for both food and resources to those in need.
Iloff said that if surrounding shelters reached capacity, Lakewood planned to host people as an overflow shelter, and noted that they had been working closely with officials to implement a plan to make that happen should shelters fill up.
“We were on the phone with the city,” Iloff said. “They said the shelters are fine at the moment. We basically said we can put [a few hundred] people on the second level [and the] city said, ‘We’ll get back with you.’ We are prepared to house those people.”
A statement on the church’s website read:
We want to let you know that our hearts are with each of you and your families during this difficult time. We are praying for you and we are praying for our city, and for all of those affected by the devastating flooding and rains caused by Hurricane Harvey. We love you and we love this city. And we want to help.
Over the last couple of days, as the enormity of this storm was being realized, we have been working to organize relief efforts for the Houston area with our friend Franklin Graham and the disaster relief organization that he oversees, Samaritan’s Purse. Samaritan’s Purse has been, since it’s inception, organized to respond to situations just like Hurricane Harvey, and we are grateful to be able to partner with them to provide assistance to the Houston area.
We know the need is great. That much is clear. We do not yet know all the ways we can help. However if you would like to register to volunteer with us, please do so by clicking the link below. Or, if you would like to donate to our relief efforts, please do so here in this page. We are working just as fast as we can on this and will update you with more information as it becomes available.
In the meantime, know that our prayers for strength and comfort for each of you will continue, as well as our prayers for God’s help as we navigate the upcoming days and months together.
We love you. And we are praying. Together, we will make it through this difficult time.
The church’s official Twitter account shared an update that said beginning on Tuesday, Lakewood would be taking up a collection of infant and adult diapers, as well as baby formula and food.
Beginning at 12 Noon tomorrow we are collecting infant and adult diapers, baby formula and baby food.
— Lakewood Church (@lakewoodch) August 29, 2017
Hurricane Harvey has displaced thousands of citizens and has caused billions of dollars of damage already. The storm is expected cause more damage and displacement as it slowly makes its way through Texas. Many residents were stranded in their homes, with some forced onto rooftops as the rains persisted and the water continued to rise.
The storm thus far has dumped anywhere between 20 and 40 inches of rain on the Houston area alone.
A National Weather Service report on Sunday said, “Over 1000 high water rescues have been performed and in some places emergency crews cannot reach the worst hit areas. 5 fatalities have been reported. Some people are using attics and the second floor to escape the rising flood waters.”
Local Texas officials stated that “tens of thousands” of people are expected to require shelter as a result of the flooding.
The storm currently has the state of Louisiana in its sights, where devastating flooding is expected to occur.
Despite criticism stating otherwise, Lakewood Church seemed, by all accounts, quite inaccessible.
The church’s official Facebook page shared an announcement on Sunday, the day before the criticism ramped up to a fevered pitch, saying that the church was “inaccessible due to severe flooding”:
The post went on to share vital information including contact information for National Guard rescue, as well as addresses of shelters in the area taking in hurricane victims.
It seems apparent that the church was nothing but upfront about their plans for the Houston community, as well as the surrounding areas impacted by the devastating flooding, both before and during the tragedy.
Update Aug. 29, 2017, 1 PM ET: Lakewood Church opens its doors to the public after criticism
Osteen, in an update on Twitter, revealed that Lakewood Church’s doors were open to the public as of Tuesday afternoon. The Lakewood pastor wrote, “Victoria and I care deeply about our fellow Houstonians. Lakewood’s doors are open and we are receiving anyone who needs shelter.”
Victoria and I care deeply about our fellow Houstonians. Lakewood’s doors are open and we are receiving anyone who needs shelter.
— Joel Osteen (@JoelOsteen) August 29, 2017
Minutes after sharing the news, Osteen tweeted, “God gives us grace for every challenge. Stay strong and know that God has you in the palm of His hand!”
God gives us grace for every challenge. Stay strong and know that God has you in the palm of His hand!
— Joel Osteen (@JoelOsteen) August 29, 2017
Lakewood Church’s Facebook page was also updated with the information, and stated that anyone “needing shelter” was welcome to come to the church.