A Houston, Texas megachurch pastor is under fire for allegedly being slow to respond to Hurricane Harvey, with some critics arguing his congregation’s sluggish efforts contrast sharply with other houses of worship that have thrown open their doors to help victims.
The controversy began on Monday, when Twitter users pointed out that Lakewood Church, headed up by prosperity gospel preacher Joel Osteen, had not yet formally opened its doors to those impacted by the flood. They noted the church’s sprawling sanctuary—the former home of the Houston Rockets that regularly seats crowds of more than 16,000 people—could likely house thousands of storm victims, and the wealthy pastor could help foot the bill.
Lakewood Church did create a website redirecting donations to relief efforts. But Osteen’s Twitter account also began blocking users who criticized him or inquired about whether the church would open to those in need.
Early reports suggested the church may have been unable to offer shelter because it was struggling with flooding internally, and was also inaccessible. But writer Charles Clymer began receiving messages from some of his Twitter followers in the Houston area who, upon investigating the claims, said the church was reachable.
By late Monday evening, Clymer said he received word the church had begun prepping to host people impacted by the hurricane. Osteen confirmed as much in a tweet on Tuesday, with a spokesman telling CNN the church would also offer baby food and formula. Since then, buses of victims have reportedly arrived at Lakewood, and a spokesman told BuzzFeed the delay in offering the sanctuary as a shelter was because the city didn’t ask them to.
Many celebrated news of Lakewood’s opening, but the church’s uneven response—unintentional or otherwise—is notably different from other faith communities that rushed to offer aid.
Several mosques in and around Houston — where Muslim houses of worship have fallen victim to suspicious fires and protests from anti-Islam activists — announced they would open their doors to victims of the flood. Christianity Today reports that churches across the city canceled their services because of the storm; several fought off water damage and severe flooding to their buildings, while some worked to help others. One preacher was spotted checking submerged cars for trapped survivors, and at least 9 congregations served as temporary shelters for those affected until they could be moved to other areas.
ThinkProgress reached out to representatives from Lakewood Church and the Islamic Society of Greater Houston for more information about their relief efforts, but did not receive a reply by press time.
Several churches outside the immediate Houston area have also offered up their buildings for shelter. The United Methodist Church alone has opened at least 11 churches to victims, with one in Liberty, Texas reportedly sheltering 55 people on Monday evening.
Other people of faith have worked to help facilitate volunteer efforts, and national-level faith groups have swept in to help. Organizations from across the theological spectrum—such as Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Islamic Relief USA, United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, and Samaritan’s Purse (run by controversial pastor Franklin Graham)—are working to supply volunteers and equipment for relief efforts.
Some religious leaders have met the storm with dogged defiance. Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, for instance, is surrounded by four feet of water, but the rabbi has refused to evacuate or abandon his congregation, vowing to offer the space as a shelter once the water recedes. Another rabbi threw on a life jacket and helped coordinate rescue efforts.
And while the city may not have requested Lakewood open its doors, at least one house of worship became a refuge without ever being asked — or even the oversight of faith leaders. When Houston resident Sue Deigaard’s suburban home was threatened by flooding this week, she worked with friends to acquire a key to St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church nearby. She and others set up camp in the empty church—which happened to be above the flood line—and worked to float a pregnant woman and her family to safety using a canoe.
Word spread quickly; within hours, Deigaard says roughly 40 residents waded over to escape the downpour.
“Some of the people, when their feet hit the dry ground, would just cry,” Deigaard, who spent the night in the church before moving to another center nearby, told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “It was an Ark. We had animals and people from everywhere…It was community and refuge—it was exactly what church should be.”
Although frantic, she says the work felt holy.
“It wasn’t organized or anything official—but it was church,” she said.