I fell in love with a megachurch

I went to Joel Osteen's ministry on a lark. But after a heartbreak, I found something there I never expected: Hope

Topics: Life stories, Religion, Christianity, Editor's Picks,

The weekend my boyfriend began seeing another woman, I walked into a megachurch for the first time.

My girlfriends and I didn’t go to praise Jesus. We went for fun. (I didn’t know about the boyfriend yet.) My two friends, both 20-something journalists like me, were visiting me in Houston, and we considered Lakewood Church — the largest house of worship in the country and home to controversial superstar pastor Joel Osteen — a tourist attraction.

We parked in a crowded underground garage and followed a trail of people into a stadium built for the city’s basketball team. I’d rarely set foot in a church since growing up catholic in upstate New York, and yet I knew this religious gathering would be nothing like the one I’d attended at home. Everybody in Houston knew about Lakewood. You either went there every weekend — or rolled your eyes at people who did.

An usher guided us to seats up in the stadium’s second tier, practically the nosebleed section. Loud, upbeat music throbbed through the stadium. A woman not far from us clapped to the beat, tears streaming down her face. I stared at her like a child who’d seen the Amish for the first time. Was she really that moved by this song? I wondered whether her sister was sick with cancer or her husband had lost his job. Or maybe she simply felt alone.

When the throbbing music ended – a good half an hour into the service – Osteen didn’t read out of the gospel. Instead, he looked out over the packed stadium and told us, with a fist in the air, that we could accomplish anything we set our minds to. The future was full of hope, he said. “The best things in life are out in front of us!”

To my left, my girlfriends threw their hands in the air with everyone else. “C’mon!” they urged. But I felt awkward and out of place, worried the crowd would pin me for an imposter in this deep sea of believers. Wouldn’t they know I didn’t belong?

Two weeks later, my boyfriend dumped me. The woman he’d connected with the weekend my friends were in town understood him in a way I didn’t, he said. That night I heaved over the toilet, mad at myself for not seeing it coming.

The next Sunday, instead of spending the morning in my now ex-boyfriend’s bed, I went back to Lakewood. I wasn’t exactly sure why I went. I usually dealt with my emotions by running or lifting weights or throwing myself into work, not by praying to someone I wasn’t sure existed. But I felt pulled back toward that uplifting music, and I was too emotionally exhausted to resist.

As I stepped onto the escalator, a greeter handed me a pamphlet, the kind of literature my brother and I would’ve mocked as Jesus paraphernalia. “We’re happy you’re with us today,” she said, looking at me as though she really meant it. I faked a smile.

I could hear the music even before entering the stadium, just like during my first visit with my girlfriends. But this time I was the one alone – and on the verge of tears. Even more than being mad at my ex, I was mad at myself for wallowing over a man when life had something exciting in store for me: I was about to leave my job to go backpacking through Africa, a trip I’d dreamed about for years. Three more months and I’d be on the plane, out in the world, free. Why couldn’t I focus on that?

At the church I’d grown up in, crying would have caused a scene. I remembered kneeling next to my dad at Sunday Mass, just a few days after my grandfather’s funeral, and watching him lean back in his pew to wipe tears from his eyes, then kneel back in position. Catholics were stoic. We repeated the same words every Mass, pausing when we were supposed to pause, sparing our prayers the wrath of inflection, showing neither happiness nor sadness. We showed nothing.

But at Lakewood, emotion pulsed through the crowd. People sang loudly, with both hands outstretched, palms toward their God as if to receive whatever he offered. I put my hands out too, feeling sheepish, glancing around to see if anyone could tell I was a newbie. Soon the whole place was jumping up and down and belting the lyrics, “I’m Still Standing.” (Think worship lyrics; not the Elton John song.) As they waved their arms in the air, I hoped their strength would rub off on me.

Surrounded by people so full of faith and hope, I sensed an escape route for my ache. If I could just let that heaviness out of my chest, believers around me would absorb it, eat it up and digest even the tough parts.

So I let go. With my arms above my head, I let the tears stream down my cheeks just like the woman near me had done during my first trip to the stadium. It was freeing, crying in that crowd, anonymous yet part of something bigger than myself. I was among strangers, yet I felt less broken and alone than when I’d walked in.

I was used to leaving church feeling guilty for my sins from the previous week, for letting my mind wander to sex while Latin words rolled off an old priest’s tongue. But after Lakewood, I felt lighter, like I had handed some of my burden over to … God? Did that mean I believed in Him? Had the energy of this place pulled me here, or was it something bigger?

Maybe this was what it felt like to find God, I thought. In my heartbreak, had I discovered a different kind of love?

I went back to Lakewood the next week. And the next. But I didn’t tell anyone. My friends were still laughing over how a candidate for district attorney had struck a man from a jury pool because he went to the megachurch. “People who go to Lakewood are screwballs and nuts,” she’d told the judge.

Which meant Houston had an awful lot of screwballs and nuts. I was fascinated by the engine that was Lakewood, how the church organized parking for thousands of people, distributed the holy bread to every mouth in the stadium, and manned a bookstore that probably brought in more money on Sunday than most do in a month.

Yet Lakewood felt more motivational than religious – or maybe that was simply what I wanted it to be. Ironically, the secular spirit that drew me there was exactly why some religious folk criticized Osteen: They complained he wasn’t religious enough.

When Osteen did invoke religious images or drift into Jesus talk, I’d tweak his words so they worked for me. He said things were in God’s hands; I heard it as fate’s hands. He said God would send luck my way; I told myself to make my own luck. By performing this sort of calculus, I managed to convince myself that I wasn’t becoming one of those religious nuts.

Until, that is, Osteen mentioned something rather startling. “If you come to Lakewood three times,” he told the audience, pausing to flash his famous supersmile, “we consider you a member.”

My insides tense, I counted the number of times I’d attended. Was it four? Five? Definitely more than three. Oh my God, I muttered. Had I become one of them?

But my discovery was short-lived. Soon I would leave Houston for good, following through on my travel plans. On my last Sunday in the city, I took a break from packing to attend the church a final time. After the usual mix of uplifting songs, the pastor encouraged us to get out of our seats and join one of the prayer partners who were scattered around the stadium. For weeks I’d avoided this part of the service, remaining seated while people around me shuffled through the aisles to share their own personal pleas to God; a friend who’d attended Lakewood told me a prayer partner once spoke to her in tongues. But this was my last chance, and curiosity was on Lakewood’s side. Breathing deeply to shake my nerves, I got in line.

My prayer partner had middle-aged pudge around her middle and warm brown eyes. When it was my turn, she took my hands in hers and said, in perfectly comprehensible English, “What are we praying for today?”

My chin trembled as I contemplated asking her to help my heart heal or give me the strength say goodbye to Houston. But I wanted to look forward, not back. “I’m going on a long trip,” I told her, feeling comforted by her eyes. “A journey by myself. To Africa.”

She squeezed my hands, shut her eyes and prayed aloud to her God – my God? – to keep me safe during my travels. Around us, hundreds of people prayed aloud with their own partner, their words blanketing the stadium with murmurs, a presence that was palpable.

“Keep her safe and healthy and happy,” my partner finished, letting go of my sweaty palms.

As I walked back to my seat, I added my own little prayer, asking Whoever Was Up There to forgive me, knowing my fling with the megachurch, like all good love affairs, would be fleeting. And when the music began again, I lifted my palms to the sky.

Alexis Grant is writing a book about backpacking solo through Africa.

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