As Houston struggles to rescue people trapped in unprecedented flood waters, a popular social media narrative has arisen: Joel Osteen, the multimillionaire televangelist, has refused to open the doors of his 16,800-seat megachurch to flood victims.
Osteen, this narrative goes, is the very definition of a hypocrite--preaching love and compassion for the needy yet cruelly turning his back on them in their hour of greatest need.
The only problem? It's not even close to being true.
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Though this story has spread like wildfire in both social and mainstream media over the past few days, it has become obvious that Osteen's Lakewood Church was in fact too flood-damaged to initially take in flood victims.
Photos provided to The Houston Chronicle prove this:
Lynne Gabriel, a Lakewood member, posted additional pictures inside the church that show the extent of the flooding:
Obviously, no structure with that amount of floodwater inside could possibly take in and provide shelter for thousands of victims, but there is even more to the story: Lakewood was never even asked to host flood victims.
The City of Houston and Harris County Emergency Management have instead been instructing those in need of a place to stay to head to any number of designated shelters. Likely wary of the violence, rape, and other issues at the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina, Houston officials have avoided using massive complexes like Lakewood to house victims. Simply put, as the Superdome demonstrated, it is simply too difficult to manage that many people in one place.
Instead, emergency workers have been pooling supplies at the designated relief areas, which are smaller and easier to manage. Moreover, having multiple relief areas spread around the city makes far more logistical sense than one or two massive sites like a megachurch (which used to be a basketball arena) or a football stadium.
"We were on the phone with the city … they said the shelters are fine at the moment," Lakewood spokesman Don Iloff told FaithWire.com. "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."
In addition, Osteen issued a statement indicating that Lakewood has not turned a single person away who came to the church seeking shelter. However, instead of housing them in the church--which the City of Houston did not request and presumably did not want since Lakewood did not have adequate supplies--church staffers and/or volunteers transported the victims to one of the designated shelters; including one just a few miles away.
"We have never closed our doors," Osteen said. "We will continue to be a distribution center to those in need. We are prepared to house people once shelters reach capacity. Lakewood will be a value to the community in the aftermath of this storm."
Indeed, Lakewood began gathering supplies Tuesday and will begin taking in flood victims if needed. As of this writing, though, it had not been asked since the designated shelters had not yet filled up.
These facts haven't seemed to matter much, as Osteen and Lakewood have been roundly criticized for their alleged heartlessness. Yet the tweet that started the controversy also appears to be misleading at best and completely dishonest at worst:
Charles Clymer, a liberal activist who fancies himself a journalist, is based in Washington, D.C. Since he is several thousand miles from Houston, he obviously cannot provide a firsthand account of the situation on the ground at (and more importantly inside) Lakewood Church. Instead, he tweeted text messages purported to be from a member of the Houston chapter of the liberal anti-Trump group Indivisible.
Since Clymer posted the tweet at 2:41 pm on Monday and said the pictures were taken "about an hour ago," the pictures were taken at about 1:41 Monday afternoon.
This means that the floodwaters may well have receded from Lakewood by then...but how exactly could the church be expected to launch a massive shelter effort in just a matter of hours? The controversy began as soon as Clymer posted his tweet, but would it really be reasonable to expect that a church that had been flooded and inaccessible on Sunday to immediately open its doors to flood victims the second the waters receded?
More significantly, the pictures Clymer posted did not show the interior of the church itself. It is, of course, possible for the water surrounding Lakewood to have receded (which still doesn't mean it is accessible by road and ready for a mass influx of people) but the inside to still be too flooded to take in victims.
Merely showing the area around the church and not inside the church itself is highly misleading and has been used rather dishonestly to unfairly slam Lakewood, Osteen, and, by extension, Christians in general:
Naturally, nothing could be further from the truth. Osteen has offered to open the church if asked, but hasn't yet been asked. Even after Lakewood suffered obvious flood damage, he is still offering to help any way he and his church can.
Unfortunately for him, the lie that he has thus far refused has already spread across the world before the truth ever had a chance to be told.