Joel Osteen Defends Delay in Opening Megachurch to Hurricane Harvey Victims: 'They Didn't Need Us as a Shelter'
Joel Osteen said he would have opened Lakewood Church for Hurricane Harvey victims had city officials asked him sooner
During an appearance on Today, Wednesday, the celebrity televangelist explained why Lakewood Church (which can hold more than 16,000 people) didn’t initially welcome evacuees from the hurricane — a decision that brought a wave of criticism against Osteen.
“[The city] didn’t need us as shelter then,” Osteen said. “We coordinate with them all the time. If we needed to be a shelter, we certainly would’ve been a shelter right when they first asked.”
He added, “We work very closely with the city. Four miles down the road, the city established its biggest shelter with rooms for thousands. With beds, kitchen supplies — everything they need. Security. … Once they filled up, never dreaming we’d have this many displaced people, they asked us to become a shelter. And we said, ‘Hey, we’d love to be a shelter. That’s what Lakewood is all about.’ ”
On Saturday, Osteen received heavy criticism on social media when he tweeted prayers for those affected by the storm — with many questioning why Lakewood Church was not being offered as sanctuary.
By Tuesday, Osteen had announced on Twitter that Lakewood’s doors were opening, and hundreds of volunteers gathered to help collect and organize donation items and supplies.
As of Wednesday, roughly 300 people had taken up shelter at Lakewood, according to Today.
“Our church doors have always been open. In fact we took people in right when the storm started to recede, which was just a day or two after the big storm hit,” Osteen said on Today.
The 54-year-old continued, “I think this notion that we would turn people away or we weren’t here for the city is about as false as it can be. We’re all about helping people. This is what the church is all about. …The main thing is, the city didn’t ask us to become a shelter then.”
Looking back, Osteen said he doesn’t think they would have opened any sooner.
“There were safety issues,” he said — explaining that the building had flooded before. “It’s easy to say, ‘There’s that big building, and they’re not using it,’ but we don’t have volunteers and we don’t have staff that could get here. If they would’ve asked us to be a shelter early on, we would’ve prepared for it all. But thank God we can do it now.”
“We were just being precautious,” he added.
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The TV star also criticized social media, saying that “it can be very powerful and they can create this false narrative.”
“I don’t really pay much attention to it, I’ve never read one negative thing,” he said. “The main thing is social media doesn’t run our lives. We run our ministry, we do what we’re called to do. Everybody that’s making a difference is going to have critics. We tried to use the best wisdom we can… That’s what were going to continue to do long after the media and everything has calmed down… We’ll be here in five years helping these people.”
Before he left, Osteen asked the audience to donate funds if possible. “We’re a distribution center,” he said. “People are dropping off by the thousands, all different kinds of supplies. I think now we need prayer, we need support, any way you can make a difference.”
On Thursday, Osteen spoke with Entertainment Tonight and admitted, “Knowing what I know now, I would have put staff in here before the storm hit, put beds, do everything we could to be prepared.”
“When it catches us by surprise, even when the cities overflow and, you know, nobody dreams that shelters will overflow. … Hindsight, it’s 20/20, but we got to move forward and do what we’ve done for the last 60 years and take care of these people, help them rebuild their lives, bring hope to their spirits and let them know that they can come out of this stronger than before,” he continued.
Still, he feels “at peace” about the church’s decision.
“I don’t spend any energy on the Twitter universe or social media,” he said of comments fro critics. “And I don’t mean that disrespectfully. I just don’t put any energy into it. I mean, life is too short to put energy into negative emotion and I feel at peace because we did the right thing.”
“My reputation is in God’s hands and he can take care of that,” he added. “We’re going to continue to help people.”