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.