After Joel Osteen was heavily criticized and accused of not doing enough to help evacuees of the deadly Hurricane Harvey, a spokesperson for the Houston celebrity televangelist’s megachurch has denied they were ever closed to those in need.
“We were never closed. This is crazy,” Lakewood Church spokesman Don Iloff told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “People are saying we’ve locked the church. The church has been open from the beginning, but it’s not designated as a shelter.”
Iloff also explained how the church building itself had been flooded with water getting close to spilling over the facility’s floodgate. And though he avowed that doors have always been open, Iloff stated that bringing in crowds of storm evacuees over the weekend “would’ve been unsafe.”
“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,” Iloff said about housing people on the church’s second floor.
On Tuesday evening, hundreds of volunteers gathered at Lakewood Church to help collect and organize donation items and supplies. The church shared video and photos of the many volunteers on Twitter along with the caption: “We cannot thank enough the hundreds upon hundreds of volunteers who came out today!”
The volunteers arrived after the 54-year-old Texas pastor announced that his megachurch would be “receiving anyone who needs shelter” in a tweet on Tuesday following the backlash.
On Saturday, Osteen faced heated criticism for failing to open the church’s doors to Houston evacuees who were displaced by the severe flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. Church officials issued a Facebook statement announcing that the Houston church — which can hold more than 16,000 — was “inaccessible due to severe flooding.” The post raised eyebrows, especially after photos surfaced showing the outside of the church unaffected by the rising flood waters.
However, Osteen issued a statement to ABC News that he was not closing the doors to those in need, but was waiting until “shelters reach capacity” to welcome evacuees.
“We have never closed our doors. We will continue to be a distribution center for those in need,” he insisted. “Lakewood will be a value to the community in the aftermath of this storm in helping our fellow citizens to rebuild our lives.”
The record-shattering storm touched down as a Category 4 hurricane on Friday, dumping several inches of rain on the Texas Coastal Bend. The storm left homes flooded, many without power and several buildings destroyed.
Local officials reported 19 confirmed and suspected flood-related deaths according to the New York Times.