Hurricane Harvey has left thousands of victims in its wake, destroying homes and claiming lives across southeast Texas. In Houston, the flooding has left many people trapped in their houses, waiting for emergency responders or volunteers to transport them to temporary shelters. The George R. Brown Convention Center—which initially set its capacity for evacuees at five thousans—is housing more than nine thousand people as of Tuesday morning. And though the convention center hasn’t begun to turn people away, dozens of Houston churches and schools have opened their doors to displaced Houstonians.
Until Tuesday, Lakewood Church, a 16,800-capacity arena located in the former home of the Houston Rockets, wasn’t one of them.
On Monday, a debate arose over whether millionaire televangelist Joel Osteen’s megachurch had been affected by the storm, or had uncharitably closed its doors to those in need. The church canceled services and closed its doors by Sunday afternoon, announcing in a Facebook post that the church was “inaccessible due to severe flooding” and directing parishioners to other nearby shelters and rescue organizations. In a now deleted Instagram post, associate pastor John Gray added that flooded highways had made the church unreachable.
But many were quick to call the church’s bluff. By Monday morning, locals were tweeting photos and videos of a comparatively dry Lakewood.
— Charles Clymer (@cmclymer) August 28, 2017
— Dusty (@DustinGiebel) August 28, 2017
Neither Lakewood nor Osteen’s official accounts responded to these initial queries, which only fueled suspicion as to why the normally vociferous evangelical was so tight-lipped. Photos emerged of a flooded Lakewood, but they didn’t come from any official accounts, and dubious tweeters were quick to point out that the photos were taken in only one part of Lakewood’s parking garage. (Fact-checking site Snopes.com later determined the photos came from near the church, but not at it.) Both Lakewood and Osteen’s Twitter accounts further jeopardized their credibility by apparently blocking users who questioned why the megachurch wouldn’t open its doors to aid the tens of thousands of people displaced by Harvey.
— Aged Cheddar (@HadToJoin4This) August 28, 2017
The debate gained national press attention before Osteen or other Lakewood leadership provided an official statement about the church’s involvement in hurricane relief. Late Monday night, photos emerged of a Lakewood hallway lined with air mattresses, and the church soon announced that it would open as a donation distribution center Tuesday at noon. Osteen himself provided a statement to ABC News that Lakewood “will continue to be a distribution center for those in need” and is “prepared to house people once shelters reach capacity.”
Less than an hour before Lakewood was set to open as a distribution center, Osteen finally broke his Twitter silence. After a social media storm, Lakewood is now open as 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
Lakewood spokesman (and Osteen’s father-in-law) Don Iloff told the Houston Chronicle that the church was never officially closed during Harvey. “It’s not our unwillingness, it’s just practicality. It’s been a safety issue for us.” That may be true: the church never officially said it was closed, only that it was “inaccessible due to severe flooding.” But the lack of an official response, coupled with Osteen shutting out those who pressed him on Twitter, didn’t assuage the concerns of those questioning his sincerity. Still, at least the church is now providing aid to those displaced by Harvey. Opening more doors to those in need is a good thing—even if it takes a Twitter scandal to do it.