If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. -- James 1: 26-27 (ESV)
There are some public relations scrambling going on in Houston today. As Hurricane Harvey continues to devastate the area, Joel Osteen's brand has taken a large hit as the doors to Lakewood Church remained closed during the height of the storm. Keep in mind that we are not talking about some storefront church as Lakewood used to be the home of the Houston Rockets from the NBA and has capacity for tens of thousands of people. It is typically the type of venue that is sought out during crises such as this. I know because when I went to volunteer In Shreveport Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, we were stationed in an event center that had thousands of beds set up for the people who had been displaced by the storm.
Let us deal with the facts beloved because in this age of social media, many are quickly condemned before the truth is fully understood. I saw the criticisms emerge over the weekend and waited because in fairness to Osteen, the only thing that matters is the truth. It seems that enough reporting is in now to make sensible judgments about what has transpired in Houston. When the dots are fully connected, it certainly appears as if Joel Osteen had zero intention of allowing his church to be used as a shelter for displaced citizens. In this age where the president routinely decides news is fake if it remotely critical of him, unfortunately the lines of truth have blurred into shades of grey. So we see Osteen's Public Relations team working overtime to try and recreate history. Let's deal with the facts.
In a statement released this morning, Osteen denied reports that the church had closed its doors and said they will continue to be a distribution center for those in need. Osteen added that they will be prepared to house people once shelters reach capacity. Let us deal with these claims one at a time:
1. Never closed its doors. This is furious spin because in the very same denial is the admission that it had indeed closed its doors. No one was complaining that Lakewood wasn't being used as a distribution center. The complaint was that they were not taking people in. We know this is true because Osteen admits here they will not take people until the shelters reach capacity. The Lakewood Church Twitter account tweeted that the church would be closed during the weekend due to the storm. On Sunday they tweeted a list of shelters, which included churches, but not Lakewood. So to say that Lakewood never closed its door appears to be a lie.
2. They will continue to be a distribution center. This is what is known as sleight of hand. It was only on Monday that Osteen announced that Lakewood would start soliciting donations and collect vital goods such as diapers, formula, and baby food to help distribute to the community. So if they mean they will continue from 24 hours earlier fine, but the impression they are trying to give is that they have been doing this all along when they most certainly were not. Let us not lose sight of the fact that their clear preference is to be a distribution center and not a shelter. To claim that they will continue to be a distribution center is to play a deceitful shell game.
3. They will be prepared to house people once shelters are at capacity. After being shamed on social media all weekend, Osteen could not simply deny allowing people to stay at Lakewood but he has placed constraints upon when or if it will happen. As noted earlier, smaller churches have already designated themselves as shelters while Lakewood remained closed. In fact, Associate John Gray stated they were closed due to extreme flooding, which appears to be untrue as well. Osteen also claimed the highway in front of Lakewood was flooded, a claim that also seems to be untrue. So to claim that they will be prepared to take people in once shelters are at capacity we must assume is true but it still leaves questions as to why they attached that caveat to begin with.
The answer is simple beloved. Joel Osteen does not run a church. He runs a business. He is not a pastor but a hireling. That does not mean that he does not care on some humanistic and secular level but he has a brand and a bottom line to watch out for. Being a distribution center is easy. It requires the logistics of coordinating volunteers but it will add very little to the bottom line. The donations all come from the community and the volunteers all come from the church. As Osteen said they will distribute them to the community. The church becomes a hub is all. What happens however if they have to take people in? They become a residence for thousands of people who have nowhere to go. When I visited Shreveport, there were still thousands of people in that center despite it being several weeks after the actual storm. That is what probably scares Osteen more than anything else.