Joel Osteen, Prayers Are Not Enough for the Victims of Hurricane Harvey

The pastor for the Houston megachurch could offer shelter for nearly half of the displaced Texans, but instead he’s choosing to just pray for them.

Joel Osteen
Taylor Hill/Getty Images

The tweets of Joel Osteen, pastor of the Lakewood megachurch in Houston, Texas and all-around botoxed John Cusack wax figure, did not change much before and after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in his home state on Friday. “God is still on the throne. He brought you through in the past; He’ll bring you through again,” he wrote on August 19. Then, on August 27, as the storm brought down record-breaking torrential rain that catastrophically flooded coastal Texas and has caused nine confirmed deaths so far, he wrote, “There’s a simple phrase you have to get down in your spirit, ‘God’s got this.’

This attitude likely comes as little comfort to the estimated 30,000 individuals who will be displaced across Texas and Louisiana by the time the storm clears—especially considering Osteen’s Lakewood Church, an arena that used to be the home court of the Houston Rockets, seats 16,800. God has not got this—nor, apparently, does Osteen.

According to CNN, the church tweeted over the weekend that it was “inaccessible due to severe flooding”; services were canceled and the venue was closed. (The message, it seems, has been deleted, as has an Instagram comment by associate pastor John Gray to the same effect.) Given the substantial sanctuary the church could offer in the midst of the record-breaking floods washing through the city (the church had installed a flood wall after a previous storm), there was an immediate and vehement backlash on Twitter. Osteen tweeted out platitudes about prayer—echoing, in many ways, the “thoughts and prayers” banalities offered by politicians and celebrities alike in the wake of disaster—while real people in his home city were imperiled by the storm.

Osteen also tweeted a web page soliciting donations to his own church to aid Harvey victims—the church reportedly receives $30 million in mailed donations each year, according to a 2015 report by the San Francisco Chronicle cited in Salon, and boasts a budget of $70 million—and linking to the volunteer portal for Samaritan’s Purse, an organization to which many have encouraged donations, but which has come under fire for proselytizing to the populations it aids. (It is forbidden for government funds to “be used to overtly finance religious activities,” the New York Times reported in 2001.)

Lakewood boasts more than three times the capacity of the next-biggest shelter location, the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston with a capacity of 5,000. The other shelters currently employed, according to the New York Times, “are schools and churches that can handle anywhere from a dozen people to several hundred.” (In the same tweet in which Lakewood announced its closure, it also proposed alternative shelters and the National Guard hotline.)

Some intrepid investigators even examined photo evidence about the church’s claims of flooding—images taken from the parking lot show what is, at worst, a big puddle, and at best, barely damp, seeming to contradict Lakewood’s claims of “severe flooding.” A video on TMZ showed a slightly soggy church, clearly accessible via steps that look as though they saw a sudden spring shower, in stark contrast with the deep flooding of the surrounding area.

As further contrast, Osteen told ABC News the church had “never” closed its doors. In the wake of the backlash—during which he blocked several commenters and reporters who questioned his decision to close to the church—Osteen also announced he would reopen the church at midday Tuesday. (It’s curious, though, how one can reopen a church that was “never” closed in the first place.)

But when the church opens in the afternoon, it will not be as a shelter—rather, it will be as a donation center for supplies and, of course, cold, hard, not-at-all damp with storm runoff, cash.

It should come as little surprise that America’s foremost preacher of the prosperity gospel would demonstrate more concern for his own material possessions than the safety of his congregation; after all, Osteen, who is consistently ranked among the top-earning preachers in the country, didn’t acquire a $10.5 million home out of generosity and god’s goodwill. (Though he previously earned a salary of $200,000 per year, he stopped accepting it only once he started garnering criticism for profiting off the church—a reversal that now sounds pretty familiar.)

“We are prepared to shelter people once the cities and county shelters reach capacity,” Osteen’s father-in-law Donald Ilof, the Lakewood spokesman, told CNN. “Lakewood will be a value to the community in the aftermath of this storm in helping our fellow citizens rebuild their lives.” But the city shelters have, by all reports, “reached capacity”: The aforementioned convention center, for example, contains approximately 8,000 Houston residents seeking refuge from the storm, nearly double its capacity.

It’s not our unwillingness, it’s just practicality. It’s been a safety issue for us,” Ilof told the Houston Chronicle. He also praised the facilities at the nearby convention center: “It has everything inside there—medicine, doctors, places to sleep,” he told the New York Post. “It’s amazing what they’re doing there to make people comfortable.”

Meanwhile, Lakewood is accepting donations and possibly also inflating some air mattresses.

At the same time as Osteen and his Lakewood peers address their public relations crisis, many other organizations working in Houston and the greater Texas and Louisiana areas affected by Hurricane Harvey—which is now gathering momentum to take a second pass at the region—are accepting volunteers and donations of both money and supplies. While president Donald Trump, noted climate-change denier, took the opportunity to hawk his own baseball caps at a press conference addressing the storm, former president Barack Obama simply linked to the Red Cross on his Twitter.

Others have encouraged donations to nonprofits and grassroots organizations working specifically in the greater Houston area, citing the Red Cross’s alleged failings in the wake of the tsunami that struck Haiti in 2010. Food banks in Houston, Galveston, Corpus Christi, and elsewhere have encouraged monetary donations, rather than donations of nonperishables, in order for the organization to be able to more efficiently direct funds where supplies are needed; the Texas Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is evacuating and re-housing pets; and, at the time of publishing, the Texas Diaper Bank’s website had temporarily crashed due to the volume of traffic.

Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, set up the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund through the nonprofit the Greater Houston Community Foundation. Because many blood drives in the area had been canceled due to flooding, blood banks like the Red Cross and AABB are requesting out-of-state blood donations, particularly from O-positive donors.

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