Amid a fierce debate on social media, Joel Osteen, pastor of a Houston “mega-church,” has issued a statement refuting claims that he shuttered the church doors to people displaced by the widespread flooding in the city.

Osteen denied the charges and posted photographs showing standing water in the huge church – the former home to the NBA’s Houston Rockets, that seats 16,000 for services.

The embattled pastor had offered prayers and a list of resources available for shelter and help when he first claimed the church was “inaccessible,” as creeks overflowed, overwhelming the ability of the city’s drainage system to deal with record rainfall.

As thousands left their homes to seek shelter, local, state and federal rescuers navigated streets turned to rivers to help those stranded by the surging water.

Response teams from other states as far away as New York and California have joined in the efforts, and Brock Long, Director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration Administrator estimating that as many as one-half million Texans may require disaster relief in the coming months.

Fox News is reporting that as many as 18 people may have died due to the flooding, including a Houston police officer whose car was overwhelmed by water as he drove to work.

Stories, such as the rescue of a small child standing in deep water clinging to the body of her dead mother, have touched the hearts of Americans who are contributing to relief efforts through donations of food by fellow Houstonians and cash from those around the country.

Osteen’s initial response was criticized as social media users posted stories about local businesses pitching in with relief efforts, including a bakery where employees stranded by the worked around the clock to provide free bread to the displaced, and the owner of a mattress store opening it up as a temporary shelter.

Bass Pro Shops contributed boats for the rescue efforts.

Criticism suggested that the pastor did not open the church as a shelter because of the potential for what occurred in large venues like the convention center in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina where violence and mayhem left the premises in shambles.

On Monday, Osteen said the church had never closed our doors” and said it was available for those in need.

Here is the full statement:

Our hearts are breaking as we see the images of the damage and destruction in our city and the surrounding areas from Hurricane Harvey. We are praying for everyone’s safety in Houston and Texas. As a community we can help each other get through this storm. We appreciate your prayers, both for our city and for Lakewood Church. We are working diligently with the city of Houston to mobilize our many volunteers at shelters around the city as well as various other points of need in and around the Houston area. In addition, we are working with Samaritan’s Purse on major relief efforts. In the days ahead, the needs in our city will be great and we are mobilizing even more volunteers to help those who have been devastated by this storm.
While no one could have anticipated how severe this storm would be, we are thankful for the heroic efforts of our police officers, fire department, first responders, and the many volunteers across our state. We are also thankful for the City of Houston and Harris County officials who were wise enough to prepare accordingly, both in rescue preparations and in sheltering the displaced. We are honored to support them in their efforts.
Victoria and I believe we will all come out stronger and filled with a greater faith than before. We love you and continue to pray for all of Houston and Texas.
To join with Lakewood Church and Samaritan’s Purse in helping our community recover, please visit LakewoodChurch.com/Relief.
– Joel & Victoria Osteen

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