“Too little, too late” is the best way to describe Joel Osteen’s response to Hurrican Harvey, but it makes us think about the role of churches in disasters.
On Monday (August 28th), megachurch pastor Joel Osteen was ripped apart over social media for reports that the doors of his Lakewood Church were closed to people seeking shelter from Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath. Lakewood Church‘s home is the former 16,800-seat Compaq Center NBA arena.
I’m hardly a fan of Mr. Osteen, and I was happy to participate in the pile-on via Twitter and Facebook. It turns out that the criticism wasn’t entirely founded as the church did get some water incursion and it’s a legitimate question whether many refugees could have gotten to the building. Regardless, the “smiling pastor” deserves every single bit of criticism he’s received, and here’s why.
Slate contributor Ruth Graham tweeted this on Monday:
I spoke with a Lakewood Church spokesman today who said no one from the city, county, etc. has requested Lakewood open as a shelter.
— Ruth Graham (@publicroad) August 28, 2017
What’s up with a church waiting for the government to tell them what to do?!
If there’s one thing that we’ve seen through domestic natural disasters over the last many years, it’s that government responses are either inept, inadequate, or overwhelmed by circumstances in very short order. It’s private citizens and organizations that rise to try and fill the gap, selflessly and often heroically so, and that’s certainly been true thus far in Harvey’s aftermath.
Lakewood Church claims an average weekly attendance of 52,000. Taking them at their word, that’s about 1% of the urban Houston area. Given their location near downtown, obviously their membership comes from all over the area – people around the whole region like bird shot fired from a shotgun at the map.
Why didn’t Lakewood Church have a disaster response plan to mobilize their considerable resources of both physical assets (the building and campus) and human assets (their people) ready to execute? It’s not like Houston being hit by a major hurricane was unpredictable.
What could such an effort have looked like?
- Lakewood Church could have acted as a shelter from the beginning, without being asked. People could have sought refuge there before the storm hit, and while access to the church was restricted due to flood waters, refugees wouldn’t have had to climb on the roof, like they often had to do on their inundated homes.
- Multiple news reports have mentioned that one of the problems emergency responders have is they don’t fully know where people need assistance or rescue. A phone chain – or even better, an auto-response system using text messages (I’m sure they have a large database of mobile phone numbers) – would allow them to aggregate information for overstressed authorities. For example: “Lakewood Church is checking on the safety of our congregation during this emergency. Please reply “SAFE” if you are safe. If you are in danger, reply “HELP” and also call 911!”
- After replies were received – or not – Lakewood could then mobilize people to check on others: “Message from Lakewood Church: Smith Family, your neighbors the Jones Family at [address] have not reported as SAFE. If it is safe for you to do so, can you check on them?”
- Then, as needs became clear, the system could be used to mobilize resources for other efforts: “Message from Lakewood Church: authorities are in need of volunteers with boats. If you have a boat, please reply BOAT.” The church could then contact authorities with the message that they had a list of people with boats, and could coordinate their connecting with response forces, saving time and effort for the organizers.
The possibilities along these lines are numerous and varied. Lakewood Church could have been an asset rather than an observer.
Then, with Mr. Osteen personally, he is a voice. Another thing we’ve all seen with impending natural disasters is that official, government pronouncements are either discounted or ignored. For better or worse, people listen to Osteen, and with his available outlets of social media, television, and radio (including his 24×7 SiriusXM station) he could have added his own voice to those calling for preparedness and warning.
There’s a very fine line between “shelter in place” and “die waiting for help to come”. Disaster preparedness and response is everyone’s responsibility, regardless of where you live. We’ve seen it before, and we’ll see it again: it’s “we, the people” who will have to rise up when government fails.
As the storm has now passed and the waters have begun to recede, we’re now learning of a wide scope of tragic stories, like that of the six family members drowned in their van as they tried to flee rising waters. Could they have been spared by better organized non-governmental organizations working within communities and groups to band people together in crisis?
We may never know, but given the scope of the disaster, it’s likely there were members of Lakewood Church who were in great peril of their lives because of Hurricane Harvey. Some may have lost their lives. Their church family should have been there to help them, and it wasn’t.
Over to you, Joel. Are there sins of omission in your prosperity gospel?
Image: By RobertMWorsham (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons