Institutions News

Joel Osteen’s church defends itself after social media storm

Volunteers Brenda Tcoc, right, and Hugo Wilson help sort bags of donated clothes for victims of the flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey after a shelter opened at the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, on Aug. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Evacuee Will Sutton, left, holds his 11-month son Jayden at the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, on Aug. 29, 2017. Joel Osteen and his congregation have set up their church as a shelter for evacuees from the flooding by Tropical Storm Harvey. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

(RNS) — Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston is helping Texans cope in the wake of Hurricane Harvey — and trying to counter a flood of comments on social media accusing the church of turning its back on storm victims.

The church has taken in about 400 people from the overflow at the city’s George R. Brown Convention Center, a Red Cross shelter, church spokesman Don Iloff  told RNS Wednesday (Aug. 30).

But to many, it seemed as if televangelist Osteen could have done more, sooner, to make the 16,000-seat congregation a haven for those hit by the massive storm, which made landfall Friday.

Emily Brandwin was one of many on Twitter who took Osteen to task, tweeting: “When You Know Better, Do Better. Joel Osteen You Knew Better. The city shouldn’t have to ask you to open your Church doors, you knew better.”

Osteen took to the airwaves to defend himself and his church this week, explaining on national television that contrary to his critics’ claim that the church had remained dry, parts of Lakewood had flooded, and that city officials had initially designated the church as a distribution center, not a shelter.

Iloff too disputed the charge that Lakewood had locked out a needy public: “I can’t repeat it enough: We never closed our doors. We’re a church, for goodness’ sake.

“In fact, late, late Sunday [evening] or early Monday, we took in three different people who needed shelter,” he continued. “We had staff on site through the storm, and some of those staff were there to take people in if they came.”

Now serving as a shelter, Lakewood has become a receiving station for what Iloff said “must be at least a ton” of infant supplies and other goods.

Volunteers Brenda Tcoc, right, and Hugo Wilson help sort bags of donated clothes for victims of the flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey after a shelter opened at the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, on Aug. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

He said about 200 people — “most of whom were probably our members” — were on hand to receive donations from lines of vehicles that stretched around the church complex. From Lakewood, volunteers are sending the supplies to the two main Red Cross shelters in Houston.

Iloff said the church property is drying out from waters that nearly breached levees and floodgates around the complex. In 2001, when the church building was the city’s Compaq Center, a basketball arena, it flooded during Tropical Storm Allison.

Lakewood will be responding to Harvey “for years to come,” Iloff added. “We have ministries that go out into the community on an ongoing basis — and have before the storm — but now everything we do is going to be related to this storm. That’s where the need is going to be.”

And while Iloff admitted it was “surreal” to see Lakewood trending on Twitter thanks to the intense criticism, he said the controversy hasn’t fazed the ministry’s leadership.

“If Twitter can derail your mission, you’ve got the wrong mission,” Iloff said. “It’s not going to destroy us.”

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Mark A. Kellner

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