Guest Post: “Mea Culpa”
Guest Post: “Mea Culpa”
Editor’s note: Our Guest Blogger is David Byler, writing on the controversy at Lakewood Church during Hurricane Harvey. Please see his brief bio at the end of this post.
I have murdered a man. I have most surely maliciously murdered him. My heart was filled with malice. even with malice aforethought. You will have likely never read such a confession on Facebook nor are you likely to ever read one such as this ever again.
The particulars of my malicious deed:
Hardly any of you who knew me in Wharton High School, or Crosby High School, where I spent my senior year, knew anything about me after I left those towns. I attended a bit of college, joined the Air Force, and wound up selling lumber and helping manage truck, rail, barge, and ocean-going transportation for what was once the largest Yellow Pine sawmill in the world. I wish some of the folks I ran with in those years were still alive so they could tell you, too, about the fellow who owned a big honkin’ Chevy C10 pickup truck with oversized bracing and shocks and tires so big that the whole rig stood right near four feet off the pavement. That’s me. No, I was not a “mudder,” but I needed that rig to get in to see about my parents’ little farm over next to David and Gayla Neel’s place on County Road 743 in western Brazoria County. I also lived on the high ground in a subdivision out on old highway 90 which tended to flood anytime there was any sort of tropical storm. Several of my co-workers lived out there too. We were all on high ground, and we all had big honkin’ trucks to get around in when the water got up. When the water receded, we old swamp rat types, my buddies from places like Votaw over in the Trinity swamps, and me from Wharton/Matagorda/Brazoria county lowlands, we picked our way through the water into Lakewood Church which was on our side of town in those days on what was more or less an island in these flood times. We’d carry some of our neighbors who needed to get their feet dry over there, and then, like as not, we’d be commandeered to take in some loads of water bottles and other provisions. We’d pick up people and stuff and carry them in there until our fuel started running low, and then we’d go home having done what we could. No, we were not no heroes, neither. If we let our neighbors down too much, they’d sell out after the flood, and our property values would go down. It was in our own interests that we done what we done so don’t go trying to say we did something good. I do remember several times thinking that Lakewood had a population equivalent to a small town inside their facilities during the floods.
Years went by, and I became more of an outlaw redneck than just a redneck, but we won’t go into all that. I wound up in college again, and then in Seminary, so I could take up a career that paid me less than ten percent of what I’d made before. One of the first things that happened in my first parish up in Paris, Tennessee, was that the Henry County Emergency Management people contacted me. That wasn’t hurricane country; it was tornado country. It was virtually impossible to plan shelters for people against tornadoes, because when one happened, you had seconds to get in a basement or other low place. We could and did plan what to do with people AFTER the tornado had taken down their house or such.
Churches and schools were, of course, part of the network – if they were still standing and still fit to be used. We had teams organized in advance to provide support to the first responders. Someone needs to provide sandwiches and coffee to the firemen and police and such so they can keep working. There was a tornado once seventy miles away. The crew from “my” church was on the ground before all the first responders were in place. They had hot coffee, hot chocolate, and sandwiches for the rescue people and were serving and providing comfort to some very scared and bewildered victims of the storm as they were gathered under tents pending transport to overnight shelter. None of that happens without a plan. Pastors report which buildings were still usable for shelter. School officials do the same. The County Emergency Management folks then decide which facilities are most suitable for the circumstances. My house, for example, was where everyone from a couple of blocks around me came running when the warning sirens went off. On the other hand, if the creek over by me was rising, my basement was useless, and I took people on down to the church.
Are you getting the picture yet?
I left there and went down to the Rio Grande Valley, close enough to the coast for hurricanes to be an issue. The County Emergency Management team contacted me before I had my bags unpacked. There was a plan. Not every church nor school building is necessarily suitable shelter during high winds. There are engineering issues to be considered. Not every church or school building is necessarily suitable shelter in high water. Elevation and accessibility come into play. Not every church or school building is provisionable for sustained shelter. There are all sorts of matters to consider, and that is what the Emergency Management people do, not after nor during the storm, nor hours or days ahead of the emergency, but months and years before the emergency is even on the horizon. It wastes resources, for example, to ferry people from one flooded place out to another which is destined to go under water. Old people and children, anybody for that matter, are under enough stress already having to flee to safety once, much less having to be evacuated again and again, so you try to have data long in advance so that what you are doing makes sense. Not a small matter, one of the considerations for any designated shelter concerns working bathrooms and running water.
Whether you know it or not, pastors wind up being among the first responders to a crisis. Everyone ought to know this. When there is a crisis at a school, counselors are called in. Guess who winds up with that task during and after a storm? Yeah. And it’s not just spiritual counseling. I remember the eighty plus year old woman who called me in a panic just as soon as phone service was restored after a hurricane. A tree was on her house. Now by this time, I was no longer the redneck in my four-foot-off-the-ground, big honkin’ pick-up truck, but I was the pastor who had been busy on the phone locating my congregation and checking to see that all was well, or whether there were needs. I knew who in the congregation had chain saws and were young and strong enough to rescue her from her predicament. One phone call, and off they went to get the tree off her house. They followed the path of the hurricane-spawned twister and got some other trees off of other houses. You see, that’s what pastors do, and that’s what churches do. Larger churches perhaps have staff to do some of this. Heroes? No, that’s just what they do.
Having had all these experiences and more in these matters, first as a redneck, then as an outlaw redneck, and in several more instances as a clergyman, I should have known there was something wrong with the criticisms of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church when I first heard them. I was duped. I was duped because I wanted to be duped. I do not especially like Joel Osteen, but that is a personal matter. I do not especially like Osteen’s theology, but that is a professional matter. What is important is that I allowed my feelings to overshadow truth and I, myself, besmirched Osteen’s name, the name of his ministry, and the Name of the Lord God Almighty.
Now let’s look at the truth. Lakewood said on Facebook “Lakewood Church is inaccessible due to severe flooding! We want to help make sure you are safe.” Pictures promptly surfaced purporting to show that Lakewood was not flooded. After that, pictures surfaced to show that in fact portions of the building were flooded. Neither set of pictures has any bearing on the matter. Highway 69 immediately adjacent to the building was impassible. More than that, the building did take on water during Hurricane Allison. While the building was being used for secular purposes, it flooded several times. Those are all well-known and demonstrable facts which any responsible Emergency Management team would have, should have, and did take into consideration before designating the present Lakewood site as a primary shelter, especially in the face of a storm which they knew already to be worse than any the county had ever faced. To have done otherwise, would have risked a repeat of the Super Dome situation in which tens of thousands were housed with no water, no sewage, and no security for those housed. The circumstances of the structure demand that it NOT be used as a shelter until the waters have begun to recede and that is exactly what has happened. Please note that the building can SEAT 16,000 but no way can it house more than 3-4 thousand. No one died because of how Lakewood was used or not used. Bear that in mind as you consider that the storm was more powerful and dropped more water than Katrina did a few years back. Responsible planning may have been part of the difference.
Second, in the case of a building like Lakewood, as a storm approaches, supplies of various sorts – diapers, bottled water, non-perishable foods, and the like – are prepositioned above the levels likely to be flooded, so that they are near where people will be housed. This is exactly what happened as the church served as a warehouse and distribution point to several shelters.
Osteen mentioned that the church has a sixty-year history of responding to crises such as Harvey. I have personally known since the 1970s that this is most certainly true. Whether I personally like Rev Osteen is not important. Whether I much care for the theology of his church is beside the point. What is to the point is that both Osteen and the congregation he serves did exactly what Harris County Emergency Management called upon them to do, and they did it in a magnificent and responsible way. What is to the point is that I, David Byler, bore false witness against my neighbor.
I have willingly broken the eighth commandment in which I learned that as God’s child I am not to be bearing false witness against my neighbor, but that is exactly what I have done. I have learned and I have taught others that, in breaking this commandment, we have also murdered someone, because when we slay another’s good name, we have not protected the life and well-being of that person. Many times, we read how someone is bullied by others to the point that they take their own life. When we steal (uh oh, another commandment) their good name, we kill a part of that person. If indeed, they die, it is our fault. In this case, it is certainly not to my credit if Rev Osteen survives my onslaught, but it was my duty to protect him, his name and his life. In this case, I have also violated the fourth commandment which instructs me to honor not only my own parents but all who are in authority but I have, in my behavior, denied that there are those who are in authority in this matter – to wit: the Emergency Management Agency. In this case, I have taken the Lord’s Name in vain by allowing and encouraging others to mock the name of the Lord. In doing all these things, I have placed myself above Almighty God Himself.
It is for this reason that I confess to God Almighty, before the whole company of heaven and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault; wherefore I pray God Almighty to have mercy on me, forgive me all my sins, and bring me to everlasting life. Amen.
David Byler spent most of his professional life in southeastern Texas, first in the forest products industry in and around Houston, and later as a Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod pastor in Brownsville. Having moved to Southern California in 2016 upon his marriage, he maintains contact with his family, extended Croatian-American family and life-long friends, many of whom have been affected by Hurricane Harvey.