Lakewood Church, the Houston arena-cum-megachurch home of celebrity preacher Joel Osteen, would seem a natural place to house some of the tens of thousands residents driven from their homes by Hurricane Harvey-related flooding this week.
As the former home of the Houston Rockets, its 16,000 seats are spacious enough for big crowds. And one would think a religious institution would be inclined to open its doors to the needy in a time like this as others in the area already have.
Yet as the fallout from the storm continues to devastate the area, the massive building remains empty.
The church said in a Facebook post on Sunday morning that it’s “inaccessible due to flooding” and directed residents to a list of other shelters.
But several people in the area are now questioning this claim with photos posted on social media of the building’s exterior and surrounding grounds.
Aside from that initial post this weekend, the church was silent on the matter. Emails were not returned, and an automated phone message said no one could answer because of “inclement weather conditions in our area.”
A statement from the church issued later on Monday afternoon said it had volunteers working in shelters around the city, but made no mention of the status of its building or its prospects as a similar relief zone.
“We are working diligently with the city of Houston to mobilize our many volunteers at shelters around the city as well as various other points of need in and around the Houston area,” the statement posted to Facebook read. “In addition, we are working with Samaritan’s Purse on major relief efforts.”
A church spokesperson told a Slate reporter that the church is open, but it’s social media channels make no mention of that change.
“We ARE open,” he told me. “Anyone who comes there, we’ll let in.” Skeleton staff of 6-8 are on site.
— Ruth Graham (@publicroad) August 28, 2017
Later, the church released a statement saying it’s “prepared to house people once shelters reach capacity.”
As for Osteen himself, the superstar pastor has punctuated his usual stream of religious aphorisms on Twitter with a few calls to pray for Harvey victims, but he’s stayed mum on the church controversy. Making the optics worse, he’s also reportedly blocked users who’ve asked him about it.
Photos circulating on Twitter purported to show floods in the church’s lower parking levels on Sunday night, and some users speculated problems in the underground parking and floods in the surrounding roads have been to blame for the church’s response.
The freeway to get to his church is underwater and so are the bottom levels. Y’all are advising people to drown.
— Deaconess (@AmandaDannielle) August 28, 2017
But judging from the number of social media sleuths who visited on Monday, the place seemed accessible enough.
Stay tuned for updates.
Updated Monday, Aug. 28, 4:40 p.m. PT, with a new statement from the church. A previous version of this story said the flooding claim was most recently posted on Facebook Friday. It went up on Sunday.