Open Doors, How Charity Operates, and Social Media Outrage

Note: I wrote this before drinking coffee. If some of the sentences don’t make sense, I apologize. I mean every word I said though.

So the meme is finally challenged after Hurricane Harvey. Years ago, someone created a familiar meme referencing Lakewood, one of the biggest churches in the United States, headed by a rich pastor named Joel Osteen. Due to it’s huge size, the meme creator challenges Christians to build communities that fight social injustice and help the poor, down-and-out, and the needy. With churches these large in North America, they can house at least two to five thousand people. So, where is this referenced Lakewood church located you ask? That’s right! It’s in Houston Texas! The epicentre of the hurricane that is not only flooding Texas, but social media commentary as well.

I personally had to endure Mr Osteen’s preaching while taking Master’s Commission years ago. I looked at this three-piece suit pastor with a huge Bible held high in his hand and believed that one day I would become a successful speaker like he was.

Then after flashing that shiny “Benedict Cumberbatch-ish” signature smile, he started speaking.

He talked about faith the size of a mustard seed and how with that small amount of faith, I can overcome obstacles in my daily life while making a difference in the world for Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, what Osteen failed to mention in that sermon was that Jesus was using sarcasm with his disciples because they wanted to smite non-believers with superpowers from heaven (I had to figure that one out myself by researching Jewish culture and the depth of Jesus’ character using a huge multitude of mixed sources). Perhaps one has to pay to hear that part of the message. Or maybe Osteen says something like that in his book “Your Best Life Now” (I doubt it though).

Before I digress too much, I don’t want to be judgy of the way Lakewood handled turning its church into a homeless shelter, but I already did judge him. It’s difficult not to judge a televangelist when all I’ve experienced since leaving Masters was years of pain, suffering, deeper spiritual discovery, and growing up in faith and experience. Those experiences and a deeper intimacy with God have brought a new mindset where I have to take life on day by day without denying that the struggle is real. Mr. Osteen’s messages aren’t very deep or challenging at all, they paint life with spiritual sunshine lollipops and rainbows, and give Christians the sense they’re easily entitled to blessing, healing, prosperity, and emotional well-being. Compared to a lot of the other lessons God has taught me since 2012, these mindsets are actually much more destructive than helpful. And it attracts a lot of people who go to his church. Most individuals attending for the first time aren’t satisfied with what they have, and after going through their own pain while trying to live up to Osteen’s teaching will not be satisfied with what they want if they do get it. One of the biggest things God has taught me was that having “my best life now” is secondary to being loyal, obedient, and faithful to Jesus Christ and responsive to the Holy Spirit while struggling hard with Aspergers and autism. Yup, I digressed too much.

I originally wanted to talk about how charitable organizations work. Note that I’m speaking from experience as a call-centre worker taking credit card donations for The Salvation Army Canada over the phone.  I was constantly bombarded with calls rebuking The Salvation Army for not accepting any other donations except money. It’s important to understand that when a  disaster hits, travel and shipment of goods or supplies for survival become unpredictable.  Trucks and cars will hit trees or pieces of buildings that block various critical roadways to certain destinations resulting in slower traffic and shipments. Flying supplies in bulk have to go through various screening and vetting to prevent terrorism on top of keeping goods safe for flood or hurricane victims. Every charitable donation accepts money first because money is easily transferable via digital bank accounts, Paypal, or money orders. When that money is transferred in a matter of seconds, intact places close to a disaster with abundant supply of what people need can accept the money quickly and as a result, ship the paid supplies to the injured and starving parties of a disaster in a matter of hours. When donors of food, clothes, or even medicine hear that from me while I’m on the phone with them taking their credit card info, they get extremely upset, hang up, and sometimes are even more harsh than all the social media posts tweeted out by Tump-supporters and “Liberal babies.” This is why Lakewood updated their webpage first with a form to donate towards relief for Hurricane Harvey first before officially announcing doors were open.

Another issue is crowd control. If Lakewood opened up their doors, a huge crowd of people barging into the church like it was Black Friday would result in injury. As a result, a meeting had to be held to decide how to properly handle the large crowds of people that are coming in who are starving, injured, or possibly dying. Volunteers had to be delegated tasks. To make sure everyone’s doing their job, management strategies had to be employed. I wish the process would be sped up, but organization has to be firm and well in place to ensure no lives are lost. I’m sure Jesus and his disciples had a system in place when giving out five loaves and two fishes, but unfortunately, even Jesus himself couldn’t help everyone physically while He was on Earth even with all the miracles He performed. Neither could Lakewood even with its doors wide open. Not everyone makes it. I don’t agree with how God runs the show like this either, but that’s life.

However, I can understand the rage behind social media when it comes to the way Lakewood runs. My issue with Lakewood’s handling of the issue is with communication. They mentioned their acceptance of various non-monetary donations on Twitter before officially tweeting less than 24 hours ago they were receiving people who need shelter along with coordinating with the city of Houston. If I was running from a natural disaster, the first thing I’d be thinking about is hiding safely under a roof that will keep me from getting hit from debris (or in other cases hail) flying in the wind.  Food would be second. Clothing would be the last thing on my mind when trying to find a place of security from weather.

In social media, timing is everything. Posting at the right time helps to avoid controversy. The rage from social media was rising even quicker than the floodwaters. As confirmed by a Fox News broadcast, Lakewood didn’t see it coming, but as a Christian, one of the first things that popped up in my mind as Harvey unleashed hell was what Joel Osteen was doing for his congregation and if his church doors were open. I even tweeted my discontent at the lack of news sources (tweets now deleted). Lakewood should have been aware of the backlash they would have faced since they may have gotten a lot of criticism for “Your Best Life Now” and some of Mr Osteen’s sermons for Christians that left some of his congregation starving for a deeper relationship with God and not just something to feel good.

I’m not saying all this in criticism of Lakewood Church. Many companies with the ability to support others just aren’t that quick on the draw when it comes to their connection with people, both online and offline. This is the case with organizations like Catholic Relief Services, The Humane Society of the United States, and The Red Cross. When it comes to spreading news of humanitarian causes, this needs to change. The bar is much higher than a lot of companies think. Social media isn’t a playground and it shouldn’t be the troll-infested battlefield it is today.

There are sheep and there are shepherds. Being prepared to face the farm animals who communicate hate, controversy, accountability, and a need for honour requires armor, preparation, strategy, a really long stick, and tactful response. I’m not just talking about Hurricane Harvey or the exhausting threads of outrage culture. I’m talking about life itself. If Joel Osteen’s Sunday sermons can teach us how to fight in a hard struggle with God by our side and how to properly respond to life’s obstacles instead of how easy it is to obtain blessings that we want right now, many more Christians will be able to take on the Hurricane Harveys in their own lives. Maybe this natural disaster and social media backlash will help Mr Osteen write about how content we should be with what we have so we’re satisfied with what we want. I pray this happens, but I’m not confident that it will.