Inside D.C. entertainment

I got three minutes with Joel Osteen

October 25, 2011 - 01:01 PM
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3 p.m., Oct. 24, 2001: I arrive early to Nationals Park, where I am to interview Joel Osteen. The pastor of America’s largest church is in town to sign books and promote "A Night of Hope," an event co-hosted with wife Victoria at the stadium, scheduled for April. I sit on the curb outside a parking garage.

3:50: I am directed to the Presidents Club by stadium security, where Team Osteen is set to arrive.

4: Nats staff and a video crew mills about the Presidents Club. Osteen, we learn, has been waylaid by traffic. The Jumbotron advertises "A Night of Hope."

4:30: Osteen arrives in a navy suit, blue tie, and trademark smile. He and his team commence discussing the stadium while I stand at a distance.

4:56: A member of Osteen’s staff apologizes profusely but tells me that because of the delay, we’re going to have to push my time with Osteen back to a few minutes at tonight’s book signing. He is gravely upset about this. “Time is more valuable than money,” he says. “And it seems we’ve wasted yours.”

6:30: I arrive at Barnes & Noble on 12th Street. Around 100 people line the sidewalk outside the store, with scores more teeming inside on the second floor. The Osteens have forgone the traditional setup of book signings and decided to move through the crowd, signing books on foot. Store staff has arranged a complicated system of rotating lines that involves velvet ropes, tape on the floor, and much shuffling.

6:45: Michelle Lee and Freda Dumcan have just had their copies of Every Day a Friday: How to Be Happier 7 Days a Week signed by Joel Osteen. “It was wonderful,” says Lee, who is also a Champion of Hope (donor to Osteen’s church). “I got attracted to the church when I was going through my divorce in 2005,” she says. She calls his message inspirational. “I think that’s what people need. I’ve gone to church and left feeling worse than when I walked in. There’s no motivation. There’s no inspirational message.”

6:50: “He’s taller than he seems!” one woman exclaims. A man in a pinstriped suit asks if he can step out of his line, as he has gotten overheated.

6:55: An excited young woman with a Russian accent kneels on the floor next to the Former Bestsellers table to get a better shot. “Uh, no ma’am,” says a security guard.

7: Osteen moves down a line of people in the center of the store. A crowd balloons between the Notable Paperbacks table and the Former Bestsellers table. “Please get back,” a security guard says. No one budges. “Step back,” she commands again, a little louder. Finally, “Can y’all just back up?”

7:10: Staffers begin discussing cutting off the line outside, which has apparently gotten no shorter.

7:15: A baffled shopper surveys the crowd while talking on her cell phone. “Yeah,” she says into the phone. “Some guy. Olsteen?”

7:20: The security guard is once more having to chastise the crowd. “When he comes up, y’all cannot take pictures too close,” she warns. “It must be from a distance.”

7:30: A man poses in front of a stack of Osteen books. His companion snaps photos as he moves behind and beside the table for additional shots.

7:35: Cadley Burns has just had his book signed after waiting at least an hour and a half, but he lingers at the store and watches Osteen work the room. He loved the experience, despite having to buy a second copy of Every Day Is Friday. (Fans had to buy a copy that night in order to get a signature.) Burns, a Hill staffer, took it in stride. “I had to keep the Joel attitude,” he says.

7:45: Team Osteen is moving out. A staffer calls out for me to join them as they hustle out a back door.

7:46: I stand face-to-face with Joel Osteen in the corner of some building. His hair is very shiny. I ask him what question he gets most often. He says people often ask about direction. I ask him what theological issue gets brought up most frequently. He smiles. “I don’t get a lot of that,” he says. I say it seems like theology comes up a lot in his interviews, and he often just won’t answer, or he’ll say “I don’t know.” Osteen nods. If he doesn’t feel like he has to answer a question or he doesn’t know the answer, he says, he doesn’t answer it. “I just try to stay true to who I am,” he says.

7:49: Osteen smiles, and a staff member calls time.

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