Faith

Homeless Pastor Tale Surely Fake, But Too Good to Resist

If you’re on Facebook, you’ve surely seen a widely circulated photo of a homeless man with a scraggly gray beard billed as a pastor who went “undercover” in his own church. But despite evidence the homeless pastor photo is a fake, no one seems interested in fact-checking.

When you work in the media, you hear constant complaints from news consumers who insist that the media spends too much time racing to be first and too little time checking their facts before they put information out there.

You then see postings on Facebook like the story of Pastor Jeremiah Steepek.

It’s a nice little story at first, but it has an aftertaste stronger than saccharin. That’s because the moral of the story is quite convicting when it comes to Christian compassion, or, in this case, the complete lack thereof.

But then I suppose that’s the whole point.

The story goes like this:

A new pastor about to take the pulpit of a 10,000-member church for the first time decides to make an unusual entrance. He dresses down as a homeless guy and slips into the church before the service is set to begin just to see what happens. For a half-hour, he walked around and noted that only three people out of the thousands assembling even spoke to him. None of the people he asked for change to buy food gave him a cent. To add insult to injury, ushers asked him to move to the back of the sanctuary after he settled in a seat down front.

When it came time to introduce the new pastor — a man apparently few of them had actually seen before — the elders, who were in on the joke, called out for their new preacher and this homeless man rose and walked up front.

He then recites this:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

As he then told the congregation what he had experienced at their hands, the church members dutifully bowed their heads in shame. Some even cried.

Then, just before dismissing the service, he says, “Today I see a gathering of people, not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples. When will you decide to become disciples?”

It’s a great little story. It’s the kind of story that all of us, deep down, recognize could easily happen in virtually any church we’ve ever set foot in. There’s a sense of believability inherent in it because within us there’s a sense of guilt about whether we’re truly doing enough to help others in need.

Essentially, we walk around at times wondering if we’re really doing enough to love our neighbors as ourselves. And for those of us who worry that we might be falling short, and for those of us who are certain that we are, such a story strikes a personal chord.

Even so, when I see a story like this, I immediately want to know where this church is. (Because I find it curious that we are given a pastor’s name, but not his location.)

So I Google it. And a funny thing happens.

Here in this Information Age of ours, in which I can find too much information about nearly everyone these days, I can find no information on “Pastor Jeremiah Steepek.”

None. Zip. Nada. The only results that came up earlier this week were four entries and all four were retellings of this same little story. No mention of a real Jeremiah Steepek. No mention of a church at which he serves as lead pastor.

And let’s use a little common sense here, folks: what are the odds that a pastor of a church with more than 10,000 members wouldn’t have some presence on the internet in 2013?

One in I-don’t-know-how-many-million.

Just for fun, I Googled the name of my pastor. My church does not have anywhere near 10,000 members. Yet I immediately found multiple search results for my guy: the church’s website, his Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles, and his blog, among others.

But for Rev. Steepek, there’s nothing.

At least, there was nothing until a couple of days ago. Now, search result after search result shows that within the past week, a great deal has been written about this alleged clergyman.

Snopes.com, the site at which every social media fact check should begin, offers a few possible explanations of this urban legend. One of them is that it is based on a Princeton University social psychology class study for seminary students in 1970. Another is that it may have been adapted from a Clarksville, Tennessee pastor who spent four days posing as a homeless man. This pastor, Willie Lyle, was the newly-appointed pastor of a Methodist Church, where 20 people not only spoke to him but offered him some kind of assistance. When he eventually took the pulpit, his daughters gave him a haircut and a shave and he removed his dirty trench coat to reveal “Sunday clothes” underneath.

And then there’s the book In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?, a 1897 book with an opening that is somewhat similar to this tale.

But most damaging to the Jeremiah Steepek story is the fact that a London photographer has claimed the photo as being of an unidentified homeless man and not, apparently, a pastor lurking around his new church.

Still, it serves as a good reminder for us. Even if we accept the story as fiction, if the point of it causes feelings of conviction, then maybe we should spend time thinking about how much or how little we’re doing to help others.

How about you? Did you see the posts? Did you think anything was unusual about it or did it pull you in at first?

12 Comments

  1. MeghanMBiro patricksplace Thanks for sharing! Interesting story. I work at a homeless shelter and see the opposite-ppl giving so much.

  2. I saw this story on Facebook today and knew it was false.  The snubbing that this “pastor” took from his 10,000 member congregation was over the top–it would never happen in a Christian church.  It has a bad odor to it and I wonder if it wasn’t planted on the Internet by some leftist person wanting to speak poorly of Christians.

    1. John0316 Oh, I think the snubbing is perfectly possible in some Christian churches. I’ve seen it myself (though not against people as dramatically dressed down as we are led to believe this person was). The universal snubbing seemed a bit too stereotypical, however.
      But Christians are perfectly capable of snubbing people. Which makes it all the sadder.

  3. patricksplace I found this piece really interesting Patrick! I guess we’ll never know where the story really starred.

    1. preppylogic15 Thanks so much, I appreciate it. Yes, probably an urban legend. May have been “inspired” by something real elsewhere?

  4. patricksplace Very good post, Patrick! Convicting even if the story is more of a parable. Makes me rethink how I welcome people to church!

    1. MissAsKinder Thanks, Miss A. I suppose that was the true point of the piece, even if they didn’t execute it in the most honest way! 🙂

  5. I originally saw the “homeless man” story on FB a couple of nights ago.  I was so impressed that I immediately posted it on my FB page and then went to bed, briefly explaining it to my husband.  Whoa!  After talking a minute, I realized I’d been had, and I got up and deleted it.  I usually don’t get fooled by this stuff, and I’ve made more than a few people annoyed by telling them that their warm and fuzzy story was either not true or a scam. And Costco is NOT giving away $100 voucher cards today!  I think the worst  was the one about a tenured professor in an eastern university, picture included, and the whole thing was ugly. I actually contacted his office, got a cordial reply with the truth, and went on a semi-tirade against my friend–now my former friend.   Now I’m the one annoyed by people actually saying this is like Jesus’ parables, or like telling morality stories to our children, and we should learn a lesson from it even if it isn’t true.  No, the first sentence starts out with a lie (the picture is purported to be the subject of the story), and the picture itself is copyrighted by a professional photographer.  Right?  So maybe I should settle down and not crusade so much over stuff like this?
    BTW, Patrick, I like your blog!!!

    1. TrenaJo Thanks, TrenaJo! I appreciate the compliment and glad you found my blog! 
      I think this one was easier to be fooled by than most because, as Michael pointed out in a comment below, most of these stories are designed to spread fear and paranoia, and this one, at least on the surface, seems to be nothing more than a good moral lesson.
      Still, as I said to someone on Facebook who took exception to my point of view in this, if Christians are to be purveyors of Truth, we should make a very strong effort to insure we’re dealing in truth. It would have been one thing if the story didn’t start off with a deception, as you pointed out. Because of that alone, one can’t defend the story as being just a simple parable that isn’t supposed to be based in any kind of real scenario.

  6. Interesting urban legend. Unlike most, which usually spread fear or paranoia, this one actually has some positive substance to it, if not actual literal truth.

    1. MichaelLucero I think that’s a big part of the defense among those who posted it and then realized they’d been fooled, but it’s a valid point.
      Although, some Christians might argue that while it makes a good point about not judging, it unfairly generalizes church-going Christians. I guess it’s a matter of one’s point of view.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.