It is said that some 30,000 people in and around Houston, Texas, are in need of temporary shelter in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Some of these people cannot return to their homes yet because of rising flood waters, while for others, there is no home to return to. So many have lost so much, and according to the National Weather Service, it isn’t over yet. Now, when tragedy such as this strikes, who do we think would logically be among the first to reach out, to offer whatever assistance and aid they could? Why yes, the churches, of course. Well, let me tell you a little story about one megachurch in Houston.
You have all heard, no doubt, of Mr. Joel Osteen, pastor of Houston’s Lakewood Church, a 16,800-seat indoor arena complete with plush carpeting and fountains. Seems like a perfect place to shelter at least several hundred of those displaced by the storm, doesn’t it? But while dozens of Houston-area churches, schools and community centers opened their doors to offer temporary shelter to survivors, while other local houses of worship organized volunteer teams to help with relief efforts, Lakewood Church’s doors remain closed. Why? The church’s Facebook page claims that it would take too many volunteers to use the facility as a temporary shelter. The official reason is that it was “inaccessible due to severe flooding.” The church itself appears undamaged by flood waters, mind you, but they fear people cannot get to the church. Another answer, perhaps the real reason, can be found in the comments section on one Facebook post:
Pattie Hibbs Wilson: Don’t open the church! The ingrates will destroy it like they did the Superdome.
Interestingly, considering that the church is supposedly “inaccessible”, they plan to serve as a “distribution center” today …
“Coordinating with the city, Lakewood is a collection site for distributing supplies to the Houston area shelters.
Beginning at 12 Noon tomorrow we are collecting infant and adult diapers, baby formula and baby food.
Help us help others. Please bring these items to Lakewood Church, Circle Drive off Timmons St.”
Note that they are asking people to donate these items, but that there is no mention of the church contributing in any way other than providing the venue for people to bring their donations. The Facebook page has a multitude of comments on this post, ranging from disgust that the church is doing nothing more, to those defending the church. I left a few choice comments of my own … I couldn’t resist.
Now, as for Mr. Osteen himself, he did what I’m sure he felt was helpful, he tweeted.
I’m sure this all goes a long way toward helping those who need food, clothing and shelter feel ever so much better. NOT. And this is all he has to offer. The man whose net worth is estimated at $40 million, the man who lives in a home valued at $10.5 million, with six bedrooms, six bathrooms, three elevators, a pool house and a guest house, cannot be troubled to open his church, to donate a bit of his own money toward relief efforts.
In a 2012 interview with Oprah Winfrey, when asked if he ever “makes any apologies” for his wealth, Osteen replied, “I really don’t, Oprah. We just feel like this is God’s blessings. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a nice place to live and being blessed.”
I will not editorialize much, for the above facts speak for themselves. However, I would like to add that I think there are elements of both snobbery and racism involved in the decision not to open the church as a temporary shelter. The demographics of Houston, as of the last census, were 37% Hispanic or Latino, 25% African-American. In addition, Houston has a substantial number of Middle-Eastern refugees. Though hurricanes are indiscriminate, the reality is that homes belonging to wealthier people are better-built, usually on higher ground, and therefore better able to withstand the damaging winds and torrential rains. So the likelihood is that many of those who are displaced are non-white, and in lower income levels. Looking at how many of the comments referenced the problems in the Superdome in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, I cannot help but think there is some snobbery and racism driving the decision not to open the church.
I close with a hope that others in the Houston area will be more generous than Mr. Osteen and his group, and send my heartfelt thoughts and best wishes to the victims of this disaster.
Note to readers: I just received a notification from Facebook that I have been blocked by Joel Osteen! Frankly, I am honoured. I guess they cannot handle anyone who disagrees!