As Hurricane Harvey inundates the Texas coast, the people of Houston are looking for all the help they can get. Specifically, many of them have wondered if they can count on one of their most famous residents: the mega-wealthy Christian preacher Joel Osteen, Mr. “Choose Faith in Spite of the Facts” himself. However, as of a few days ago, he’d offered nothing to Houston except this tweet:
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 (@JoelOsteen) August 26, 2017
If you’re a Houston resident who bought into Osteen’s theology, you might be forgiven for feeling a little disgruntled.
Remember, Osteen owns Lakewood Church, a converted sports arena that can accommodate more than 16,000 people. It would be an ideal place to shelter people whose homes were destroyed in the storm. In fact, Osteen himself owns a $10.5 million mansion in the exclusive neighborhood of River Oaks. Rather than just reciting platitudes about prayer, why not throw open his doors to flood-displaced people who need somewhere to stay? I’m sure he’s got a few spare bedrooms.
Osteen justified the decision to close his doors by claiming that his church was inaccessible due to rising floodwaters, but people who live nearby posted photos of the church and environs which showed no flooding apparent. Snopes reported that Houston police had no calls for help from that area.
Finally, after a firestorm of social media criticism, Osteen reversed course – sort of. He said that he would open his church as a shelter for flood refugees, but denied that he’d ever said anything different. That appears to be a lie:
But despite Osteen’s statement that the church “never closed its doors,” as of 9:30 Tuesday morning, the church doors were indeed closed. Member station KUT’s Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon tells NPR that a security guard was posted at the building, directing any evacuees to contact the city of Houston.
“There was no sign of anything about to be open,” said Jorge. “It just looked closed.”
Jorge noted that the church is an upscale neighborhood and was unlikely to be an obvious shelter to the people who need it most — unless the church made a point of inviting them.
So the pastor of a large, wealthy church is telling people in need to go to the government for help? I thought Christian conservatives were all about private charity, needy people turning to the church like they used to in the good old days. To any religious-right footsoldier who’s ever claimed that we can shred the safety net because the church can handle it all, Hurricane Harvey is an acid test of that hypothesis, and it looks like it’s failing miserably.
Also, what Osteen said specifically was that his church was “prepared to house people once shelters reach capacity”. This is a troubling equivocation which implies that he’s prepared to admit evacuees only as a last resort if every other possible shelter has filled up. It’s better than nothing, but it suggests that his offer of welcome is grudging at best and he’s hoping not too many people take him up on it.
It’s almost too much of a cliché – the rich and famous Christian preacher who turns up his nose at having to come in contact with the ordinary people whose devotion is responsible for his success. Yet Osteen’s behavior seems to be conforming to the template in almost every detail. His obnoxiously optimistic prosperity theology is totally unequipped to cope with genuine tragedy when it strikes close to home. Osteen’s message is that God is a magical Santa Claus who’ll make your life perfect if you just believe enough, and when that rosy faith collides with hard facts, he has no answers.
If you want to see someone in Houston stepping up to the plate, don’t look to shiny-suited Christian preachers. Look to people like the furniture sales baron Mattress Mack, who’s turning his stores into temporary shelters and even sending out his delivery trucks to pick up people who can’t get there:
“We sell home theater furniture that you watch TV in, they’re sleeping on that. They’re sleeping on recliners, sleeping on sofas and love seats. We have sleeper sofas, they pulled them out and slept on that… They’re sleeping on hundreds of mattresses throughout the store. They’re sleeping on the couches — wherever they can find a place that’s comfortable, and God bless ’em.”
But despite rare acts of altruism like this, America has a bigger problem than hypocritical rich Christians. With climate change fueling ever bigger and more destructive storms, and a wildly ignorant and incompetent conservative government in power, it’s likely that Harvey is a harbinger of more and worse disasters to come. There’s no help from above to get us out of this mess. It seems there’s no alternative but to construct refuges for ourselves, hunker down and hope to ride out the storm.