Hurricane Harvey is turning out to be one of the most devastating storms ever to hit the Houston area. It’s a 500-year weather event, which means it’s probably the biggest flood since Noah’s. At least six friends of mine, including my fellow Black Math Experiment founder Bill Curtner and Houston’s greatest poet Sara Cress, lost everything. Literally, everything.
As I sat glued to my local news throughout Sunday and Monday, it was filled with the horrors of flood. It was, though, also filled with kindness. Strangers and neighbors performed feats as great as daring rescues and as small as a homemade brownies. This is a city well-known for its heart when it comes to natural disasters. Mattress Mac turned Gallery Furniture into an impromptu shelter. Governor Greg Abbott, not generally the nicest guy, opened up Texas state parks to refugees, free of charge. Many doctors and nurses left their homes on Friday to live at our hospitals and care for patients. Stories abound to warm the human heart even as so much devastation continues to mount.
At least one man, though, with more means than most, has failed this city. Pastor Joel Osteen, whose centrally located Lakewood Church seats over 16,000 people and generates millions of dollars in revenue, declined to open his opulent house of worship to refugees. The building is spacious and well-within walking (or wading) distance of many of the hardest hit parts of town, but thus far there is apparently no room at the inn for our community in need.
Many other churches haven’t had any problem using their space and means to shelter folks. Here’s a full list of shelters if anyone needs one, but churches from Tomball to League City are offering up beds, food and childcare. If places like the Golden Acres Baptist Church can find the resources to feed and clothe the needy in the storm’s aftermath, it makes you wonder what a complex that gets 7 million nationwide viewers a week on television might be able to do. That kind of success could buy a hell of a lot of sleeping bags and sandwich makings — Just saying.
Of course, that sort of Christianity is not generally Pastor Osteen’s bag, baby. He’s one of the best-known preachers of prosperity doctrine, the belief that God materially rewards those serve and please Him. As Robert A. Heinlein joked in Stranger in a Strange Land, “blessed are the rich in spirit for they shall make dough.”
It’s an old belief system that goes back at least to the Victorian times, when being seen as in need was supposed to indicate some sort of moral failing. Poverty, no matter the cause, was the punishment of sin, which is convenient if you’re a rich dude who is keen to hold onto his money and wants to find a justification why no one deserves anything from you. You’ll recognize the (mostly) secular version of this idea in many of the policies Texas has in their dealings with the poor. To not have enough money is your fault, period, and we should be grateful for the crumbs thrown to us.
Of course, Osteen didn’t give Houston nothing. In a tweet, he assured us “Victoria & I are praying for everyone affected by Hurricane Harvey. Please join us as we pray for the safety of our Texas friends & family.” Subsequent tweets have been rather banal platitudes regarding how we just need to believe harder.
He has since been deservedly raked over the coals on social media for his failure to mobilize his considerable resources to aid his city. That’s because most of us don’t need prayers. We need places to sleep, diapers, food, phones, rental cars, internet access, boats, dog chow, help filling out forms for government aid, formula, rides, shoes, etc. What we do not need is a millionaire in a mansion pretending that the best he can do is grin out vague comfort on Twitter.
I’m going to pray for Joel Osteen because clearly he sucks at it. Unlike the pastor, I’m not going to pray to his God for money, fame, security, book sales, or ratings. I’m not even going to pray that the clouds disperse and the waters go down and that the sun shines down on a city where everything can go back to the way it was. I’ve read enough of the Bible to know God doesn’t actually work like that. Only assholes think of the Lord as a cosmic cash machine that doles out magic wishes.
No, I’m going to pray that God truly opens his heart because. World-famous churchman or not, it is as closed and locked as Lakewood Church is against refugees. That’s what God is for, Joel. He’s not there to make you feel all warm and fuzzy for being rich; He’s there to guide you into good works. No one needs faith to keep making money hand over fist or to ignore pleas for help in a suffering metropolis. Those are actually called greed and sloth. What people need faith for is to get off their butts and unfuck this world.
Get your keys, Pastor Moneybags. A man whose faith is so weak he won’t open his doors in the face of this tragedy is not fit to lead a congregation.