Not many people can say that they’ve visited the biggest church in America and the biggest church in the world. I went to both of these, not as a welcomed speaker or acclaimed, best-selling author, but as a traveler needing a place to sleep.
I came upon America’s biggest church quite by accident. I had just arrived in Houston, Texas at the turn of the New Year, 2016. A winter storm with strong gusts and torrents that blinded my driving pushed my car off the downtown freeway to Lakewood Church one night. I thought it was odd that the name “Joel Osteen” was lit up in lights next to the church’s name. The building was a former convention/sports stadium that had been turned into a mega-church. It boasted several levels, below-ground parking, and an arena that could seat hundreds of thousands.
I parked in the lower-level parking area and found my way inside the church which was hosting many events for children and adults on a Friday night. I walked past the cafe and bookstore and took an elevator to Level 4 where people gathered for a Celebrate Recovery meeting. While my husband, still shy about America, waited in the car, I listened to a woman give her testimony of being free from an abusive relationship. She also played the guitar and sang. I stayed for the free soup after and asked a woman with a badge if anyone could help me and my husband, new in town and with little money, to find a motel for the night.
“Oh, you have to come back on Monday when the office is open,” the badged woman informed me. I thanked her for the soup and mentioned, as I walked away, “I need gas and food, and that’s 3 days away. I’ve tried all the public welfare agencies.”
A black man handed me $20. “I don’t know if you are telling the truth or not, but Jesus loves you,” he assured me.
He walked quickly away, before I could thank him. I found my way back down to the parked car. We drove to an old auto repair shop not far away to spend the night in our Mazda 5 minivan. Since we blended in with other parked cars, no police or neighbors bothered us.
Monday morning I returned. The church looked more ominous in the daylight. I walked up its steep entrance ramp, through one of many glass doorways, past a uniformed guard, to the long security desk.
“May I please meet with a pastor?” I asked.
“Do you have an appointment?” the second security guard inquired.
“No. I’m from out of town. My debit card got hacked in the middle of Texas, and I’m sleeping in my van.”
“Try calling this number.” He handed me a piece of paper. I called and left a message.
“Can’t I just go up to the church offices?” I asked as I put down the land phone he had let me use.
“No. You need an appointment.”
A week later, after many attempts to contact someone in Lakewood Church Office, I returned during an evening service. I walked in with the crowd, circled around the arena, and ended up in the vast book store which featured Joel Osteen’s giant photo above his books.
“Do you think there’s a pastor around?” I asked the bookstore attendant.
“You could go up to the third floor and see if anyone is still in the Women’s Meeting,” she replied.
I got on one of several packed elevators where women we getting off. On the third floor, a few women still lingered. I headed toward one especially well-dressed lady near the front stage. She was talking with someone but eventually noticed me standing there in my simple California t-shirt and jeans, black sports shoes, and short blonde hair with one shiny hairband.
“May I help you?” she asked, pushing back her long, straight dark hair with one hand. She wore heavy gold rings, earrings, and necklaces spattered with diamonds. On her head was a black cowgirl hat that matched her curvy dark suit with white edges and high heels.
“Oh, I . . . I was wondering if the church ever helped travelers who need a place to stay?” I stuttered.
“Come back tomorrow when the office is open,” she replied.
“I already did that,” I explained. “I couldn’t reach anyone to get an appointment.”
“You need to ask for Peggy in the Help Ministries,” she explained. “Sometimes she can be found on the first floor.”
“O.K. I’ll try tomorrow,” I said, trying not to sound pathetic. The woman strode off with her friend, both in perfect condition (not too thin, no extra fat, obviously toned by a high-end health spa).
Of course, it took over an hour the next day, standing at the long security desk, to locate Peggy. She came and prayed with me in a back room, a chubby woman who smiled and wore a floral dress.
“I filled out the Ministry Request Form,” I told her. “Could I get some help with a motel room? Houston is surprisingly cold and wet in January.”
“Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry. Didn’t anyone tell you that only members of Lakewood Church can receive aid? We have so many needy people, you know.”
“How can I become a member?”
“Attend a few Sunday services. Give a little something in the offering envelope. Pastor Joel just knows when you belong to the family. There’s no set limit, but I’d suggest a month or so.”
I set down the glass of water she had offered me and walked past the long security desk, two security officers, and through the big glass doors.
Once, when Joel Osteen (who took over his father and mother’s ministry to create Lakewood Mega Church) was interviewed on T.V., he was asked how he gathered in so many people.
“I never talk about sin,” he answered. “I make people feel good about themselves.”
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