Everything is bigger in Texas. Televangelist Joel Osteen preaches from the largest church in the country in Houston. His televised sermons have worldwide reach. And as an outright rich, bestselling author, he can afford a $10 million French chateau with five fireplaces, six bedrooms, six bathrooms, a guest house and a pool house.
Osteen, who attributes his shredded six-pack to daily workouts, is expected to draw about 40,000 fans to Little Havana Saturday night for the sold-out “America’s Night of Hope with Joel & Victoria.”
“Let’s have a great time here in Miami at the beautiful Marlins baseball park,” Osteen, 50, said with a soft Texas twang as he recorded a video at the stadium late last year to promote the event.
Beefy security guards stood nearby. He wore a finely tailored Sam’s Clothiers pin-striped navy-blue suit and a purple-paisley patterned pistachio-green tie that matched his eyes.
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He put his arm around Victoria Iloff Osteen, 52, the former University of Houston student he met in a jewelry store and wed in 1987. She flashed a pearly smile.
“It’s going to be a celebration with music, inspiration,” she said. “Bring your friends and bring your family. You won’t leave here the same.”
The Osteens have been criticized for their “prosperity gospel” and opposition to gay marriage, but his books have been endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, and he has prayed at the White House with President Barack Obama. This week, the couple received the keys to the cities of Miami and Doral.
Behind the Osteens is an army of former political strategists, FBI-trained security experts and hundreds of volunteers who worked to bring the $1.2 million event to Marlins Park. Tickets were $15 and sold out within weeks.
“We have a huge viewership in Miami,” said Osteen’s brother-in-law Don Iloff Jr. He and his wife, Jackelyn Viera Iloff, met while working on the 1988 Republican presidential campaign and later joined Joel Osteen Ministries in donor and public relations.
“We are also working on community service events and we are partnering with local organizations to make a difference,” Viera Iloff said. “We created an autism-specialized room, especially because autism has affected Mayor Tomas Regalado’s daughter.”
Organizing the worship events and running the 43,000-member nondenominational Christian church in Houston — which has an estimated $73 million annual budget and is housed in a former sports arena — is a family affair.
The Osteens’ teenage children, Alexandria and Jonathan, participate, as do his siblings Paul Osteen, Lisa Comes, Tamara Graff and April Simons. His sisters have written books, as has the family matriarch, Dolores “Dodie” Osteen. She says in her sermons that she can cast out demons and that a miracle cured her advanced liver cancer decades ago.
Osteen’s half-brother, Justin Osteen, former executive director of the church, has a consulting firm that, according to its website, focuses on “fair and attractive total compensation packages” for ministerial staff and church executives.
Osteen attended Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., dropping out in 1982 to help his preacher-father, John Hillery Osteen, produce televised sermons promoting the gospel of prosperity — the belief that financial blessings are God’s will for Christians.
“I just grew up believing there are great rewards when you follow the Lord Jesus Christ,” said Osteen, who took over the ministry after his father’s 1999 death, growing it into a multimillion-dollar enterprise.
Unlike other televangelists, he doesn’t ask for money on the air, but it clearly flows in judging from the large flat-screen televisions, colorful lighting, waterfalls and foliage that surround him on air. Before the sermons, a choir sings the church’s slogan: "Discover the Champion in You."
Osteen gave up his $200,000 church salary after the success of his 2004 book Your Best Life Now. Two years later, he landed a reported $10 million deal for FaithWords, and went on to write Become a Better You, It’s Your Time and Every Day A Friday.
In October, he got a rock-star welcome at Barnes and Nobles in Coral Gables, as hundreds of fans lined up for autographed copies of his fifth book, I Declare.
One of them, Mariela Santamaria, 32, was in tears.
“I was suicidal and the medication wasn’t working because I was abusing other drugs,” she said. “One Sunday I listened to him and my life changed. It was like God’s light guided me. I knew I had to be honest with my doctor. I knew I had to work on being positive and I had to let God into my life.”
When Santamaria handed Osteen her book to sign it, she smiled. Her hands were shaking.
“Thank you for coming,” he said. Santamaria wiped a tear. She had already made plans to attend Saturday’s Night of Hope.
“Thank you for being like a big sunshine,” Santamaria said. “I can’t wait to be at the Marlins stadium. I’m not Christian but I follow your message and it changed my life.”