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News / Nation & World

Houston megachurch holds healing and thanksgiving service a week after deadly shooting

By Associated Press
Published: February 18, 2024, 12:24pm

HOUSTON — Celebrity pastor Joel Osteen’s Houston megachurch held a special service Sunday dedicated to healing and thanksgiving, a week after a woman opened fire in one of its hallways before being gunned down by security officers.

Osteen’s Lakewood Church has not had services since the Feb. 11 shooting that sent worshippers scrambling for safety. On Sunday, Osteen, his wife Victoria Osteen and members of the church staff who lead Lakewood’s Spanish ministry, sat in chairs on the stage and spoke about the shooting, how it has impacted Lakewood’s community and how the church was moving forward.

Osteen told parishioners it has been a difficult time with “a lot of trauma.” Following musical performances, Osteen thanked those in attendance.

“You just got to know Lakewood is strong and it keeps getting stronger,” Osteen said. “Fear is not going to win. Faith is going to win. We are going to move forward.”

Church leaders also thanked the security staff and others who responded during the shooting and protected parishioners. Attendees gave officers a standing ovation.

“What today is about is reclaiming what is ours, reclaiming the space that God has provided for all of us” Victoria Osteen said.

Joel Osteen invited Houston Mayor John Whitmire and police Chief Troy Finner to the stage and thanked them for their help after the shooting.

“After the tragedy of last week, (God) had a purpose in bringing us together to show how united our city is,” Whitmire said during a fiery and emotional speech.

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As Osteen and others spoke, people in the audience could be heard saying, “Amen” and “Thank you, God.”

Officers from various law enforcement agencies, including Houston Police, walked the hallways during and between Sunday services.

Church spokesman Don Iloff said 40 to 50 uniformed and plainclothes officers typically work every church service. He said he did not immediately know if that number was higher on Sunday.

Police say Genesse Moreno, 36, entered the church between Sunday services with her 7-year-old son and began firing. Moreno did not reach the main sanctuary and was killed after exchanging gunfire with two off-duty officers. Two people were wounded in the shooting, including Moreno’s son, who was shot in the head and remained hospitalized.

Osteen, who wiped away tears as he spoke, said he was praying for the boy.

Moreno “came to do a lot of harm but by the grace of God we are all here,” Osteen said. “Lord, I know she was troubled in her mind.”

Jocelyn Edwards, 39, who attended one of the two Sunday morning services, said she felt it was important to show her support and stand with church members who were at Lakewood during the shooting.

“Despite this event happening, we are going to continue to come and serve the Lord. This is not the end. We are not broken. We are going to move forward,” said Edwards, who has attended Lakewood since 2015.

Beth Mast, 50, also attended Sunday’s 8:30 a.m. service with her husband, two daughters and three sons. The family lives in Crockett, Texas, and every Sunday makes the 1½ hour trip to Houston to attend services. She has been a member of Lakewood for the past four years.

Mast said she wasn’t at the church when the shooting happened and that when she first learned about it from a friend, she felt anger.

“We come every Sunday, and the enemy is not going to stop us,” Mast said. “Fear is not going to have any power over us just because of a bad incident.”

Questions about the shooting remain unanswered, including Moreno’s motive and details about how she obtained the AR-style rifle she used.

Moreno’s former mother-in-law, Walli Carranza, told The Associated Press that Moreno had long struggled with mental illness and that she believed systemic failures and lax gun laws, ultimately led to the shooting.

Carranza also said she tried to alert authorities and others about Moreno’s mental health struggles, and that in 2020 and 2021, her attorney sent emails to Lakewood Church asking for assistance with Moreno’s struggles.

Church officials had not found records of the emails but they were still looking, said spokesman Don Iloff. Records show Moreno “sporadically” attended services at Lakewood for a couple of years, but there were no records of her being at the church after 2022, Iloff said last week.

Police have not said what prompted Moreno’s actions.

Texas lacks a so-called “red flag” law, which generally allows law enforcement or family members to ask a judge to order the seizure or surrender of guns from someone who is deemed dangerous, often because of mental health concerns or threats of violence.

Osteen, 60, preaches to about 45,000 people a week at the church located in a former basketball arena and he is known to millions more through his televised sermons. Lakewood is the third-largest megachurch in the U.S., according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.