Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church is now open for business. Towers of diaper boxes were stacked so high it looked like someone was trying to build a scale model of Manhattan. Pillows were piled up against a wall, a supermarket aisle’s worth of toiletries were on offer, and a medical team waited for the wounded and the sick at a triage desk. Outside, people lined up by the dozen to enter.
But what took so long? For his church’s slow reaction to tropical storm Harvey, Joel Osteen, the celebrity pastor of America’s biggest megachurch, has found himself the target of a barrage of criticism.
As of Tuesday, Lakewood Church is opening its doors to flood victims in Houston, but only after a spate of public shaming on social media created a big PR problem. Welcome to the compassionate Christianity of this mega-rich megachurch and its prosperity gospel.
Osteen is one of America’s richest pastors. When congregations for multiple services are combined, 35,000 to 50,000 people attend services at Lakewood church weekly, and Osteen’s sermons are seen by more than 7 million people on TV and online. His 2004 book Your Best Life Now was on the New York Times bestseller list for over 200 weeks.
His wife, Victoria, is co-pastor. The Osteens are thought to be worth millions of dollars and live in a part of Houston that makes Beverly Hills look understated. Their net worth was calculated at over $55m in 2012, and although the church draws revenues of over $70m a year, Osteen says his only salary comes from book sales. His Night of Hope worship tour has appeared at venues such as New York’s Yankee Stadium.
The controversy raged around the Osteens over the weekend as shelters sprouted up elsewhere, from mosques to mattress shops, but Lakewood church did not begin operating as a large-scale shelter and supplies distribution hub until Tuesday.
“A church like this with this mode of preaching, it’s supposed to be one of the first to open,” said Andy Osawe, as he stood by the church’s entrance on Wednesday. His home flooded, so he is staying with a friend but hoped to collect some basics: “Shoes, toiletries, little things.”
The 56-year-old had seen coverage of the criticism. He wondered if the church had been reluctant to house bedraggled masses in its immaculately maintained building and was now acting decisively because of the negative publicity.
“This is just a last resort. They’ve got to,” he said. “Normally they’re supposed to know what to do. This is what I’m saying about humanity – you don’t need to be pressurized to do something.”
The Osteens preach a distinctively American form of Christianity: the “prosperity gospel”, which holds that God rewards the deserving with material success. Immense wealth, they might argue, is not only compatible with their beliefs but a validation of them. The logical reverse side of such gospels is that poverty is in essence a matter of individual responsibility.
“I preach that anybody can improve their lives,” Osteen, a youthful-looking 54, has said. “I think God wants us to send our kids to college.”
It clearly chimes for many residents in Houston, a city that touts a can-do, dynamic capitalist ethos inflected by the get-rich-quick spirit of Texas’s periodic oil booms.
With a huge choir, expert musicians, slick preachers, giant screens and audio-visual flair that rivals anything you might find on Broadway, the church’s emphasis is firmly on scale and spectacle. That Lakewood’s services feel like the intersection of religion and entertainment is thanks in no small part to the venue itself, the one-time home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets.
Lakewood moved here in 2003 and has spent $95m on renovations. The main auditorium seats about 17,000 people. The auditorium is not being used as a shelter because its sports-arena configuration of steep banks tightly packed with seats is unsuitable for placing mattresses and storing supplies; relief services are being offered in adjacent rooms and hallways.
The Osteens were not available for comment because they had temporarily left after spending the morning at the church, but Joel told CNN it was a “false narrative” to suggest that Lakewood’s doors had been shut. “There was a safety issue the first day or two,” he said. “We would never put people in here until we know that it’s safe, and it was not safe those days, let me tell you.”
Iloff said the church was open throughout the storm and three or four people arrived, but it was not formally designated as a shelter because of flooding and accessibility concerns, and since the main downtown refuge is a only a few miles away.
“We’re not selling hamburgers, man. You ain’t gonna buy from us instead of McDonald’s. Go to the place you should go to, which is the Red Cross centre … we weren’t the best shelter to go to,” he said, adding that during tropical storm Allison, in 2001 (when Lakewood was in a different building), it acted as a large shelter.
“You have the haters,” Iloff added. “There are people who don’t like our ministry, don’t like Joel, don’t like Lakewood church specifically. And then there is a significant portion of the population that hates faith and religion.”
Melissa Moreno felt grateful, regardless of the timing: her family of seven had to leave their home after it was inundated by five feet of water on Saturday. They were rescued by boat and stayed in another church; she was at Lakewood to pick up clothes, shoes and diapers.
“Since we couldn’t even come through here [before] because the flooding was still going on, I’m guessing it’s a good day for them to open. It’s a big help for us,” she said.