A very heartwarming, poignant and apparently fake story has been making the rounds on social media and religious blogs this week.
The anecdote, which has been shared more tens of thousands on Facebook, features a preacher identified as Pastor Jeremiah Steepek, an individual pictured as a haggard, homeless man with a straggly beard.
In the posts, Steepek is described as a leader at an unnamed, 10,000-member church who transformed himself into a homeless man on the day he was to be introduced to his new congregation.
Walking around the church, the disguised pastor was shunned by his future flock and asked to sit in the back of the building, according to the narrative. When the moment came to introduce the new pastor, Steepek stunned parishioners by stepping forward in his decidedly un-churchly garb. He then recited a passage from the Bible that urges Christians to help the unfortunate as they would Jesus Christ himself:
After he recited this, he looked towards the congregation and told them all what he had experienced that morning...many began to cry and many heads were bowed in shame.... he then said....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? He then dismissed service until next week.......Being a Christian is more than something you claim. I'ts something you live by and share with others.
But who is this mysterious pastor, and where is this church he so righteously humbled?
Internet hoax expert Snopes.com recently took up the case of the undercover pastor and found the anecdote contains echoes of several others, including a Princeton University psychology experiment from 1970, the true story of a Tennessee Methodist pastor who lived as a homeless man for four days before delivering a sermon on the experience and a best-selling book published in the late 19th century.
Perhaps more tellingly, Snopes, as well as Hoax-Slayer.com, revealed the stirring image of Steepek was in fact a picture of an English homeless man taken by photographer Brad Gerrard and readily available on Flikr and Tumblr.
Gerrard describes the photo, originally uploaded to Flikr in 2010, in a Tumblr post:
I was walking down the street in Richmond, saw this man talking to someone, could see he was quite a picture in the making. On the way back, when he was free I had a short conversation with the gentleman and he agreed to let me photograph him. I liked the result. He was very friendly.
The Huffington Post, too, failed to turn up any evidence of a Pastor Jeremiah Steepek independent of the parable, but if he does exist, we would love to hear from him.