When I was eight years old, my parents packed up a comfortable life in Scotland, sold everything they owned (house, car, the lot) and as a family, we set off on a huge adventure as itinerant missionaries, travelling across the US.
Times were tough. We drove across the States, pulling a caravan behind us and stopping at different churches and towns along the way. The parents were living by faith and sometimes didn’t even know where the next meal was coming from. But even all these years later, they will happily recall story after story of how God provided for them. He never once let them down.
During one particularly lean patch, we were travelling through Houston, Texas and unknown to us kids, money was really tight. Our parents were also tired and wearied by all the struggles of full time ministry life and decided pull up our caravan for a few days and take a rest. So we parked up on a pitch owned by a local church. I say ‘local church’ but really, it was a campus. It had a congregation of thousands and was almost like a mini city, known for programmes and all the amazing work it did in the nearby community.
Those first few days were like a little slice of heaven. Everyone was so friendly, so warm. It felt like a refuge from the storm. My parents decided they’d like to meet the senior pastor. They wanted to thank him for the great facilities on site, tell him how impressed they were at all the ministries the church was involved in. So, after making an appointment, the parents put on their Sunday best and off we went to the offices where my brother and I were deposited in the air-conditioned waiting room.
It was a hot, hot day and I remember the receptionist calling us ‘sugar’ and asking us if we wanted some lemonade or iced tea. As we sat there, two shy British kids, blushing at the warmth of Southern hospitality, the door fell open and in a rush of sweltering air, a tall teenager fell in, carrying a big stack of books.
A few dropped to the floor, he reddened, apologised, picked them up and went into one of the back offices. Not long after, my parents emerged from the office and I could tell it had been a good meeting. They were beaming.
Turns out they’d been able to meet with the senior pastor, a man called John. He’d listened to their story of being missionaries from England. They’d laughed, prayed and shared ministry tales.
At the end, Pastor John asked them suddenly, ‘how’s your financial situation?’ Immediately jumping into British reserve mode, both parents were at pains to point out they were fine. But Pastor John saw through it and the church wrote them a cheque, a ministry gift, which basically helped to fund the next few weeks of life on the road. That weekend, as a family, we were invited to sit in the family section of the huge arena they called their sanctuary and dad was invited up to close the service, (in front of thousands), in prayer.
It was those simple acts of gentleness and kindness to my weary parents, which recharged their emotional batteries and gave them the strength to go on.
I was thinking about this today after reading an article, Megachurch closes its doors (and an onslaught of angry tweets). It seemed person after person has lined up to attack this church for supposedly not doing enough, after the horror of Storm Harvey.
There have been aerial shots of the property, reporters demanding answers and everyone (seemingly) overlooking the fact that for decades this church has opened its doors wholeheartedly to anyone who needed help. A quick look at the ministries page on their website shows they do everything from helping with addiction issues to offering respite nights for families with disabled children. In addition, during previous disasters, the church has been there, serving with food projects, clothing for people in need and for years, offered tireless generosity to probably hundreds of thousands of people who have passed through its sites.
I know, because my family was the recipient of their incredible open-heartedness. The church that ministered to my weary parents all those years ago, was Lakewood church in Houston. The senior pastor was John Osteen (who has since passed away) and the young book-carrying teenager who swept through the office doors, was the boy who would one day become the pastor, Joel Osteen.
As soon as I read the story and the sadly predictable social media reaction, I knew something was ‘off’. It just didn’t fit what I knew to be true, both from that visit as a child and from visits I’ve made since as an adult. And as soon as I started to dig into the facts, sure enough, it seems there was more to the tale. As soon as news of the storm started to circulate, the church had offered to open its doors as a shelter but was told by the local authority they had enough shelter places. The church had then cancelled its Sunday services, so that people didn’t try to battle through flood waters to get there. Somehow, that ended up as the headline, ‘church closes its doors to victims’.
Bad story if you’re a church. Great story if you’re a headline writer, trying to sell newspapers.
No church or church leader is perfect and I know Lakewood has had its controversies, but I know from experience that generosity and kindness run through the heart of this church like writing through a stick of rock (or, for the Americans, like frosting through a twinky). And if that weren’t the case, it would have been a church our family quickly forgot.
So as Lakewood church faces its own storm, both the horrifying aftermath of Storm Harvey and a PR battle, there will always be a family in England who remain incredibly grateful for their kindness and generosity.
And oh, if you’d like to read more about what really happened at Lakewood, here’s the details.