Hurricanes and Homilies

I am disinclined to expend much time and effort in disparaging Joel Osteen and others of his ilk. The evidence of departure from true Christianity in the “faith,” which such Prosperity Gospel preachers propagate, is so abounding and obvious to anyone who reads the Bible without jaundiced eyes; one must conclude that attempts to dissuade acolytes from that “faith” through exegesis and reason will avail little. My own assessment might be best and succinctly expressed by one of my favorite authors in The Walrus and The Carpenter. Besides, so many others have taken up the cause of attacking such an easy target, that the law of diminishing (and even nil) returns probably applies.

However, the Osteen/Lakewood Church evolving response to the Hurricane Harvey disaster befallen their home town, Houston, is much too delicious to forego savoring.

In a story, of relative insignificance in the scheme of things, yet covered by media outlets from Breitbart to Huffington Post and everything between in an age of partisan selectivity as to what constitutes news; it can be minimally discerned that Osteen’s Lakewood Church initially “closed” their approximately 600,000 feet, 17,000-seat coliseum to hapless evacuees of Hurricane Harvey.

“Closed” has become a disputable fact.

You know our church doors have always been open. I think at the time early on this building was on the verge of flooding. We have big flood gates, [and] it came real close So you know we didn’t have staff here at the right time. We work with the city all the time. When the city said we need you as a shelter, we said, hey, we can be a shelter. But we do have to protect our staff. There was nobody in the building except a couple of security guys. But the notion that we’re gonna turn people away . . . that’s such a false narrative that people that don’t like us to begin with. Hey, we’ve been here for 60 years my parents anyway. We’re to help people.[1]

To reprise and revise Bill Clinton’s infamous aphorism, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘closed’ is.”

Lakewood Church had cancelled all Sunday services and posted the following notice on their Facebook site on Sunday afternoon.

Dear Houstonians! Lakewood Church is inaccessible due to severe flooding! We want to help make sure you are safe. Please see the list below for safe shelters around our city . . .

A number of motivated individuals would visit the Lakewood site to determine the veracity of that claim, providing pictures and video clips which appeared to prove otherwise. Herein, they would seemingly prove that the doors were indeed closed and demonstrate that the local thoroughfares were not flooded. There were even about 20 cars on the Lakewood parking lot.

The acolytes of Lakewood Church would quickly come to the defense of their pastor and church with evidence of flooding, which could not be confirmed by independent sources and are, according to Snopes, somewhat suspect. Furthermore . . .

A map of the area surrounding the church shows it is under a flood advisory, but not a warning. (Houston police told us that they have no pending calls from the area.)

It becomes a doubtful claim that the doors were not actually locked if Osteen is also going to also claim that “there was nobody in the building except a couple of security guys.” (If an establishment requires security guards, who must perform occasional tours of the whole premise; keeping the front doors open seems counterproductive to their existence and task.)

One of Lakewood’s associate pastors, John Gray, would publish (and then later retract) an Instagram post Sunday.

For the people spreading lies about my church. If WE could get there WE WOULD OPEN THE DOORS, As soon as the highways aren’t flooded please know @lakewoodchurch will do all they can alleviate the pain and suffering of as many people as possible. Love y’all! #CantStandLiars.

But how “inaccessible” can a location be if there are twenty cars in the lot? And if there were twenty cars in the lot, were there only security guys in the building? Or does Lakewood Church have their own fleet of cars on site?

Even so, let us presume that the doors were technically open (although one of Lakewood’s own clerics denies this); or that those cars in the parking lot were part of a fleet (whereas usually buses do) or were abandoned (but to where would those occupants flee). Or that if a person in distress really requested shelter (Luke 18:1–8), they would have received it; it is nevertheless clear that Lakewood sought to pre-emptively discourage potential evacuees from seeking refuge from the church in their hour of need, further evidenced by the apparent lack of available staff to receive such evacuees, and to, furthermore, waylay the problem onto others.

Lakewood Church policy would change by noon, the day thereafter; receiving people, ostensibly “as soon as the water started receding,” but too coincidental with the vehement social media backlash.

We worked with the city constantly. The city set up a shelter about four miles from here that can house 10,000 people, showers, dormitories, kitchens, security, all that. They didn’t need us as a shelter at that point. They wanted us to be a distribution center.

Osteen would later claim that the city did not require or ask for their assistance (except as a distribution center). But how could even the latter task be accomplished, if there “there was nobody in the building except a couple of security guys.”

While some might give Lakewood an irenic benefit of the doubt, the incongruencies in their own explanations are a-plenty. If the rationalizations look like dead fish and smell like dead fish, then they probably are dead fish.

“Everything in Life Happens for a Reason”

Victoria & I are praying for everyone affected by Hurricane Harvey. Please join us as we pray for the safety of our Texas friends & family.

– Joel Osteen (August 26, 2017, 12:29 pm)

 

Jesus promises us peace that passes understanding. That’s peace when it doesn’t make sense.

– Joel Osteen (August 28, 2017, 4:01 am)

The tasty morsel, in this PR debacle, lies in the inadvertent similarity of initial Osteen’s and Lakewood’s responses to James declamation.

What does it profit, my brothers, though a man say he has faith, and have not works? can faith [practicably] save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say to them, Depart in peace, be you warmed and filled; notwithstanding you give them not those things which are needful to the body; what does it profit? Even so faith, if it has not works, is dead, being alone.

– James 2:14–7

Proffering prayers and sweet pieties while doing little to be the agent and secondary means of that divine assistance, that is until socially shamed, becomes a more palpable witness of desolation of spirit to the common man than esoteric discourses about their theology.

To be sure, there is no legal obligation for a private enterprise, like a church, to act as a charitable social agency. Besides charity, in the Christian context, must always serve as handmaiden to the central message of the Gospel. There may or may not have been a civic obligation, exercised by local officials, to act as a distribution center, although the facts on the ground (lack of support staff in place) seemed to refute this.

That being said; there does exist an unwritten social “contract” or understanding within human societies that those individuals and corporate entities, who are the greatest beneficiaries within that society, are expected to bear the heaviest brunt of the defence and/or support of the common good when disaster befalls (i.e. heavy taxation during the Great Depression and WW2). And when those beneficiaries repudiate that duty (or perform that duty with most grating reluctance), the common social reaction is to ask, “what are these individuals or entities good for?” This always becomes a precarious sociopolitical situation to place oneself (re: French and Russian Revolutions), especially for a Christian organization. (“You are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his flavor, with which shall it be salted? it is thereafter good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men” – Matthew 5:13.)

The question arises, however, as to why Osteen and Lakewood Church needed to wait for a civic call from local officials to act as a refuge from the storm, even if not at the church. When airline flights into the United States were cancelled due to the 9/11 terrorist attack, the whole town of Gander, Newfoundland “played host to thousands of airline passengers stranded there.” While being a small town in, arguably, a more religious region (at least, by Canadian standards) may tend to make the hosts more hospitable than urbanites and especially suburbanites, the response to those who were foreigners must contrast embarrassingly with Osteen’s and Lakewood’s initial callous sounding response towards fellow Houstonians, especially since Hurricane Harvey was not a sudden and anticipated calamity.

[1] Joel Osteen, Videoclip (Houston, TX: AP, August 29, 2017) embedded in Rachel Lewis, “‘Our Doors Have Always Been Open.’ Joel Osteen Defends Harvey Response,” Time, August 30, 2017, http://time.com/4921686/joel-osteen-houston-lakewood-church/.

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