A controversial celebrity pastor worth an estimated $50 million has returned $4.4 million in federal COVID relief loans his megachurch received from the government.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church has repaid the money after the stadium-sized facility was widely-condemned for accepting the cash last year.
A spokesman claimed they needed the loan because the church, which is America’s largest, and can hold 16,800 worshippers at one time, was unable to take weekly collections during COVID closures which it says helps pay its 368 staff.
But that sparked an outcry as details of Osteen’s extreme wealth were once again shared.
His most recent address is listed as a six-bedroom, eight-bathroom mansion in Houston’s River Oaks neighborhood worth an estimated $15 million.
Small businesses could apply for PPP loans with their banks under the federal government’s CARES Act stimulus package as an incentive to keep their workers on the payroll amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lakewood welcomes about 52,000 attendees across multiple services per week, and its services are streamed worldwide, as Osteen proselytizes about the word of God and spreads the prosperity gospel – which teaches that wealth is a sign of God’s favor (disregarding the fact Jesus Christ died owning only the rob on his back).
And during the pandemic, the Daily Beast reports, he appeared on the Today Show urging people not to ‘focus on what [they] have or don’t have.’
The apparent hypocrisy drove some people on social media to complain about the church’s federal loan – the third highest handed out in Houston in July and August, according to the Houston Business Journal.
‘How many small businesses in Houston have closed their doors because they were denied PPP funds?’ Rog Wagner asked. ‘Joel Osteen got $4.4 million from taxpayers even though his church pays zero f***** taxes.’
Karen also referred to the Osteens’ mansion in River Oaks, while another person asked how the churches could get the funds if they don’t pay taxes.
And Joel Jackson joked that the loan is a ‘big collection plate.’
Lakewood Church shut down in-person services last year during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, telling the Houston Business Journal at the time they had to go months without the ‘ability to collect substantial donations.’
‘Believing the shutdown would only last a few weeks, Lakewood did not initially apply for PPP assistance during the first half of the program,’ the spokesman said.
‘However, as the shutdown persisted month after month, given the economic uncertainty, Lakewood finally applied for the PPP loan and has been able to provide full salaries and benefits including health insurance coverage to all of its employees and their families.’
The spokesman also insisted that none of the PPP funds went to Osteen or his wife, Victoria, neither of whom reportedly receive a salary from the megachurch, but instead provided financial assistance to ensure their 368 employees would ‘continue to receive a paycheck and full health care benefits.’
It was then granted the $4.4 million loan from Bank of America last July.
More than 1,000 religious institutions in Houston were approved for PPP loans, receiving up to $7.8 billion, despite not having to pay taxes under federal law.
The loans were completely forgivable if a company retained all of its staff at the same pay level and if the money was spent on payroll and other expenses.
The outrage over the loan comes four years after Lakewood was forced to open its doors to the victims of Hurricane Harvey after facing extensive backlash for initially refusing to do so.
The Category Four storm dumped 20 inches of rain on Houston, causing extensive flooding and killing 100 people.
At first, Lakewood did not open its doors for the victims, citing flooding at the megachurch, according to NBC News.
But after videos were posted to Twitter showing the location relatively unaffected by the widespread flooding, people began to question why Osteen’s megachurch – which has the capacity for more than 16,000 people, and had once been a stadium home to the NBA Houston Rockets did not open for guests.
Osteen later tweeted: ‘Victoria and I care deeply about our fellow Houstonians. Lakewood’s doors are open and we are receiving anyone who needs shelter.’