Hurricane Harvey, Joel Osteen, and Outrage Culture

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Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey is one of largest natural disasters in recent history, spanning parts of Texas and Louisiana with over 31 people dead, many more injured, and more than a trillion gallons of rainfall in a period of 4 days. In the wake of this havoc, individual volunteer response has been swift and and inspiring, as well as the response of local organizations such as the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund and the LGBTQ Disaster Relief Fund and American national organizations like The Salvation Army and Catholic Charities.

Unfortunately, thanks to the mass proliferation of half-baked outrage in exchange for clicks, for every inspiring story of hope and solidarity in the midst of tragedy, there are 10 that polarize, demean, and criticize. The latest target is celebrity evangelist Joel Osteen. Osteen, who ministers to more than 45,000 people at his Lakewood Church and reaches millions more online and on TV, came under attack for not immediately opening up his church to shelter flood victims.

On the surface, the social media outrage is understandable. Osteen is a millionaire who lives in a gorgeous mansion and pastors a giant church that could house many, and as the Bible says, “to whom much is given, much is required.” People are rightfully demanding that he do more than pray and that he practice what he preaches. And eventually, Lakewood did open its doors.

Unsurprisingly though, further study of Lakewood’s disaster response is more complex and harder to market than the narrative of hypocritical Christian one-percenter does not care when it counts. Lakewood has done, and has a history of doing, more than prayer.

Joel Osteen giving a sermon

Lakewood has been a well-known charity leader during past disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. Also, Osteen claims that he did not initially open up Lakewood as a frontlines shelter because of the risk of the building itself flooding. Despite this setback, they continued to mobilize volunteers to provide supplies and help direct victims to nearby shelters that could better accommodate them. There are also several pictures of the church being readied with air mattresses to prepare to house people should other, better-equipped shelters, fill-up. Claims that they have simply turned a blind eye to the victims appear to be inaccurate.

And it is this inaccuracy that concerns me. We live in a clickbait culture where purposeful misdirection in 140 characters or less has never been easier or more common. Instead of  quickly meme-sharing why we believe Osteen is a hypocrite, we should take the time to examine the issue from more than one angle. We could also take some of that energy for the victims in Houston and use it to actually help them, perhaps by donating to one or more of the groups mentioned above (links provided). Because whether or not you believe that Lakewood is helping enough, they are at least helping. And actually helping has power to share positivity and love, as opposed to the division that comes with an ill-conceived witch-hunt.

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