Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images
Joel Osteen is speaking out about his efforts to help Hurricane Harvey victims after being accused of denying them shelter at his megachurch.
The hurricane, the most powerful to hit Texas in more than 50 years, has killed at least 17 people and displaced tens of thousands more. Lakewood Church said on Facebook Sunday that it was "inaccessible due to severe flooding" and directed displaced people to nearby shelters. On Monday, ae flood victims posted on Facebook a now-viral video of what appeared to be a locked—and largely dry—Lakewood Church, spurring public accusations that the church's doors closed were purposely closed to the public in time of crisis. Some other witnesses posted online that a sign on the door said services were canceled.
Following the criticism, a post on the church's Twitter page Tuesday read, "Lakewood is receiving people who need shelter. We are also receiving supplies such as baby food, baby formula and other shelter needs." On Wednesday, Osteen, whose church's capacity is 16,000 people and whose congregation is the largest in the United States, appeared on several news programs to reply to the criticism.
"Our church doors have always been open," Osteen said on NBC's Today show. "In fact, we took people in when the water started to recede, which was just a day after the big storm hit. We worked very closely with the city, four miles down the road, the city established its biggest shelter with room for thousands, with beds, with kitchen supplies, with everything they need, security. They didn't need us as a shelter right then. We coordinate with them all the time. If we needed to be a shelter, we would have certainly been a shelter right when they first asked," he said. "But once they filled up, never dreaming we'd have this many displaced people, they asked us to become a shelter. And we said, 'Hey, we would love to be a shelter. That's what Lakewood is all about.' But I think this notion that somehow we would turn people away or weren't here for the city, is about as false as can be."
"We're all about helping people. This is what the churches and our church is all about," he said. "I think if people were here, they would realize, there were safety issues. This building had flooded before and so we were just being precautious but the main thing is that the city didn't ask us to become a shelter then."
Osteen told CNN's Chris Cuomo, "The church has always been open, our doors, we received shelter victims just the first day or two. But there was a time, Chris, that this place was flooded."
Osteen's brother-in-law Don Iloff told CNN that the area around the church flooded on Monday and at least three people had come that day for help before they were taken to the George Brown Convention Center. He also said there were safety concerns about potential flooding, citing past flooding from Tropical Storm Alison in 2001.
"So there was a safety issue the first day or two," Osteen told Cuomo. "I mean, you were seeing, you know more, as well as I do, this was a huge storm. But the idea that we wouldn't receive people, I mean we've been here in this community for 60 years and Allison, Tropical Storm Allison, we housed 3,000 people, so we've always been open. There's a big shelter four miles away, the city shelter that has all the dormitories. Once they filled up, people started coming here. How this notion got started that we're not a shelter and we're not taking people in is a false narrative."
Osteen also said some of the church's own staff members and pastors were rescued from the flooding.
"How do you get people to the building to take care of people?" he said. "This is a big building. You can't just open it up."
"We don't turn anybody away," he said. "People came at some point and we would take them to different shel- or they chose to go to other shelters, but nobody's turned away. But the first day or two, you know, I think it happened on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, that's when this building was not accessible. It can look like it's high and dry but they can't see behind us. We would never put people in here until we know that it's safe and it was not safe at those days, I can tell you."
Osteen echoed his comments on HLN.
"The church doors have always been open," he said. "We received people right after the water started receding the first day or two. For a while, it was inaccessible, but the notion that we weren't going to receive people in here is not true. There is a shelter four miles away, it's the big city shelter. Once they filled up, people started coming here more. But we're here to help the community, to be here, to make a difference. But it is a huge storm and it's difficult and there were safety issues as well."