Pastor Jeremiah Steepek

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The Story of Pastor Jeremiah Steepek

Jeremiah Steepek
Viral story about a pastor who tests the empathy of his new congregation by walking among them disguised as a homeless man.

Description: Viral story
Circulating since: July 2013
Status: False, though likely inspired by real events (details below)

Full text:
As shared on Facebook, July 22, 2013:

Pastor Jeremiah Steepek (pictured below) transformed himself into a homeless person and went to the 10,000 member church that he was to be introduced as the head pastor at that morning. He walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service, only 3 people out of the 7-10,000 people said hello to him. He asked people for change to buy food - NO ONE in the church gave him change. He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit n the back. He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.

As he sat in the back of the church, he listened to the church announcements and such. When all that was done, the elders went up and were excited to introduce the new pastor of the church to the congregation. "We would like to introduce to you Pastor Jeremiah Steepek." The congregation looked around clapping with joy and anticipation. The homeless man sitting in the back stood up and started walking down the aisle. The clapping stopped with ALL eyes on him. He walked up the altar and took the microphone from the elders (who were in on this) and paused for a moment then he recited,

"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.'

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. It's something you live by and share with others.

Analysis: When you Google the name "Jeremiah Steepek" the only hits you get are instances of, or references to, the selfsame story reproduced above — which is to say, there is no evidence at all that a Reverend Steepek actually exists, let alone that the story about him is true. The anonymous text is bereft of supporting details. No specific church is named, no city, county, state, or country. And no eyewitnesses.

A viral image going around that purports to show Pastor Jeremiah Steepek in disguise is actually a 2011 photo of a real homeless man on the streets of London taken by photographer Brad Gerrard.

We have every reason to believe the story is fictitious, albeit probably inspired by real-life events. Which brings us to Willie Lyle

The true story of Pastor Willie Lyle

On the morning of Sunday, June 23, 2013 (about a month before the Pastor Steepek story surfaced online), the newly-appointed pastor of Sango United Methodist Church in Clarksville, Tennessee, Willie Lyle, lay down at the foot of a tree on the church grounds with an overcoat for a blanket. Unkempt and bearded after spending most of the previous week on the streets, he looked for all the world like a homeless man, which was precisely the effect he hoped to achieve.

"He wondered how many people would approach him and offer him food, or a place to sit inside an air conditioned room, or just see how they could help," wrote freelance reporter Tim Parrish in a June 28 story for the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle. "Twenty people spoke to him and offered some type of assistance."

When the time came to deliver his inaugural sermon he did so from that very spot, changing into a jacket and tie and shaving off his beard with the help of his daughter as he spoke. "Before the 200 people gathered that morning," Parrish wrote, "he went from looking like a homeless person to the new pastor of the congregation."

Appropriately, Lyle's sermon was a call to emulate Christ, to not judge other people by appearances. "Our goal should be to improve and change the lives of people as we live like Jesus," he said in closing. "You see, we look at the outside of others and make judgments. God looks inside at our heart and sees the truth."

Despite differences in scale (Lyle spoke to 200 parishioners, Steepek supposedly addressed 10,000) and tone (Lyle entreated, Steepek admonished), the similarities between the stories are strong. We don't know who came up with fictional tale of "Pastor Jeremiah Steepek," or why, but given the timing of its appearance there seems little doubt they took their inspiration from the true story of Pastor Willie Lyle.

Sources and further reading:

Sango UMC's New Pastor Lives as a Homeless Man Before Installation
The Leaf-Chronicle, 28 June 2013

Pastor Goes Undercover for 5 Days as Homeless Man
USA Today, 24 July 2013

Mormon Bishop Disguises Himself as Homeless Man to Teach Congregation About Compassion
Deseret News, 27 November 2013