A year-and-a-half ago, when I was in Cuernavaca, Mexico on a faculty-staff seminar immersion, I heard a story told of a bishop in northern Mexico who, one Christmas Eve, abruptly entered the cathedral before mass and, announcing to the assembled worshippers that there was a homeless family outside in need of shelter, waited for an offer of aid that never came. Finally the bishop announced that the family in question was none other than the Holy Family, just as they were in Bethlehem, without a place to stay, turned away and forced to stay with the animals.
On Christmas Eve, of all nights, he seized on the opportunity to chide his congregation for their lack of compassion and, in so doing, imparted a lesson on Christmas hospitality. I was amazed and inspired on hearing this story. I nodded my head in self-righteous affirmation. “When put to the test,” I thought to myself, “Christians can be so hypocritical. And that bishop, such a saint!”
This story came back to me recently as I read about a story floating around on Facebook about a megachurch pastor. Apparently, the pastor disguised himself as a homeless man, complete with rags and unkempt beard, only to be shunned by his own congregation. It’s one of those social media legends that’s gone viral and shared, by this time, over 95,000 times. You’ve probably seen it around on your own Facebook news feed. Were you inspired? Did you (as I did) nod your head and triumphantly punch the “like” button, or join the commentariat in voicing your disapproval of those sinners?
If so, then I hate to break it to you, but the story of Pastor Jeremiah Steepek is probably a fiction:
Internet hoax expert Snopes.com recently took up the case of the undercover pastor and found that 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.
I have no idea if the story of the Mexican bishop is true or not. I hope it is. But on reflection I find myself asking: why do we get taken in by stories like this? Or better yet, why do we need to create stories like this?
If I’m honest with myself, I think the reason I (we?) latch onto stories like Pastor Steepek is just that it makes it just so darn easy to be judgmental. We’re casual observers, not unwitting participants, lulled into an easy contempt towards an anonymous sinner. I do it. I’ll bet you do it. For just a moment, we allow ourselves a sense of superiority, which, of course, we promptly share with all our friends.
Which is a shame, because there are plenty of inspiring stories of people who actually work with the underprivileged, not just pretend to be them to make a point. I’m thinking of Gary Smith, whose book Radical Compassion recounts his 10 years ministering to Portland’s homeless population. I’m thinking of Greg Boyle, who’s labored among L.A.’s gang members and transformed hundreds of lives, some of whose stories are told in his book Tattoos on the Heart. And these stories don’t invite the reader to any pretension. Just to an honest reflection.
Cover photo courtesy of flickr user quinn.anya