HOUSTON — Joel Osteen, Houston’s celebrity televangelist, pushed back against accusations that he closed off his 606,000-square-foot megachurch amid a flooding crisis that has displaced thousands of residents.
“The idea that we wouldn’t receive people — we’ve been here in this community for 60 years,” Osteen told Chris Cuomo Wednesday on CNN’s “New Day,” adding that: “We’ve always been open … How this notion got started, that we’re not a shelter and we’re not taking people in is a false narrative.”
Lakewood Church spokesman Don Iloff said the building itself had been flooded during the weekend, with water getting close to spilling over the facility’s floodgate. Taking in a crowd of storm evacuees over would’ve been unsafe, although Iloff maintained that the church’s doors were never closed.
“This is crazy. People are saying we’ve locked the church,” he told The Washington Post. “The church has been open from the beginning, but it’s not designated as a shelter.”
Water had receded by Monday, and the building was designated as a shelter Tuesday, Iloff said. Media footage showed evacuees with bags in tow arriving at the church as several vehicles lined up outside.
By Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of volunteers waited in line to check into Lakewood Church to help organize blankets, clothes, diapers and other supplies to be shipped off to nearby George R. Brown Convention Center, where displaced residents have flocked over the past few days.
The church had 100 air mattresses set up in an upstairs room, according to Iloff’s wife, Jackelyn, who said she didn’t know how many people the church had taken in. There was a medical area with volunteer nurses and doctors ready to help with everything from small cuts to insulin needs.
Storm evacuees will be housed on the second floor, Iloff said, because placing people on the first floor would still be too risky.
“We would be hesitant to put anybody on the first floor as long as there’s rain coming. … We got two more days of rain,” he said.
Darrell Clingman and his 11-year old twins, Tyler and Haley, came to Lakewood Church after an Army vehicle evacuated them from his neighbor’s home in Riverstone, about 25 miles southwest of downtown Houston. Clingman, whose wife was at an out-of-town wedding, arrived with his wallet and a couple wet book bags of clothes.
In the midst of evacuating, Clingman hadn’t heard the uproar about Houston’s largest church.
Osteen was criticized Monday on social media, where people accused him of keeping his church closed during a time of need.
“Joel Osteen, as a Pastor you have a huge obligation to show the love of Christ at this very moment. OPEN THE DOORS,” a fellow pastor, Greg Locke of the Global Vision Bible Church in Tennessee, tweeted Monday.
Pictures showing the church’s entrance and parking lot without any sign of flooding also surfaced Monday afternoon. Those were taken after water had receded, Iloff said, adding that photos taken from inside and outside the church the day before show significant flooding.
In a statement posted on Facebook, Osteen and his wife, Victoria, said: “We are working diligently with the city of Houston to mobilize our many volunteers at shelters around the city as well as various other points of need in and around the Houston area. In addition, we are working with Samaritan’s Purse on major relief efforts.”
Iloff pushed back at critics who say the church should’ve let people in sooner.
“The problem with that building is it’s prone to horrific flooding. … If that building starts to flood, it floods in an instant,” he said. “If we had people on the first floor, you’d be writing a whole different story. I’m telling you, it’ll be horrific.”
Over the weekend, Iloff said a handful of maintenance staff manning the building were instructed to help people looking for shelter. He said only three people made it to the church over the course of the storm. Church officials announced Monday that the facility will be a collection site for distributing supplies such as diapers, baby formula and baby food to Houston-area shelters.
City officials also have expressed interest in turning the church into a command center, though Iloff said he still does not know what that would entail.
Osteen echoed Iloff, saying in an earlier statement that the church is “prepared to shelter people once the cities and county shelters reach capacity.” The 1.9-million-square-foot George R. Brown Convention Center swelled beyond its capacity Monday night, ABC affiliate KTRK reported.
Texas officials have confirmed that at least 22 people, including Sgt. Steve Perez, a veteran police officer, have died in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which has battered the state since Friday night. Between 25 and 30 percent of Harris County — home to 4.5 million people in Houston and its near suburbs — was flooded by Tuesday afternoon, The Post reported. Thousands have been rescued from high waters, and officials warn that more will be forced out of their homes.
The megachurch facility, formerly the 16,000-seat Compaq Center that was home to the Houston Rockets, was sold to Lakewood Church for $7.5 million in 2010, according to the Houston Chronicle.
When Tropical Storm Allison hit in 2001, Lakewood Church, then still in its former building in northeast Houston, took in thousands of displaced residents, the Associated Press reported.
“We’ve always been willing to do this,” Iloff said. “It’s just we’re in a different building now, and it has different challenges.”
Local congregations have played a crucial role during times of disaster, said Jamie Aten, founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois. One example was Bethany Church, which used its facility as a distribution center during a flooding crisis last September in Baton Rouge.
“Many times, they’re the very first on the ground providing care to those affected,” Aten said, adding later: “The buildings that churches have are just one resource. The real resource are the people and their ability to serve. The hope they offer is the real resource, even more so than buildings.”
Phillips reported from Washington. This story, which was first published on Aug. 29, has been updated.