Entitled “From pauper to pastor,” Jeremiah Steepek’s story had all it needed to go viral. People were moved, liking and sharing it on social media with an enthusiasm that, ironically, is never seen in relation to real beggars. Is there a way out of this seemingly unfortunate situation?

“From pauper to pastor” is the story of an American pastor who was about to take over a New York church with more than 10,000 members. On the day of his installation, Steepek, dressed in shabby clothes and looking like a homeless man, wandered around the church as worshippers gathered for services. The disguised pastor approached people and asked for money to buy food, but no one offered him anything. Of the thousands of worshippers who passed by, only three greeted him.

As the service began, the pastor entered the church and sat down in one of the front rows. Soon one of the overseers discreetly invited him to sit in a back row instead, which he did. The programme then proceeded as usual, quietly, until the presbyter coordinating the service pompously announced that he was inviting the new pastor to the pulpit. The people began to applaud enthusiastically, but after a few seconds the whole room fell silent as none other than the homeless man made his way to the pulpit.

As Steepek took the microphone and addressed the crowd, quoting a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, the silence became as heavy as during a judge’s sentence:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 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 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'” (Matthew 25:31-40).

The pastor continued his sermon by telling the congregation how he had been treated that morning. People lowered their heads in shame and some even began to cry.

The stories we choose to believe

Many people resonated with this story and shared it with their friends. The source of the article, blogger “P-Dub”, said on his blog that some were so moved by the story that they wrote to him confessing that it made them feel vindicated or, on the contrary, guilty.

However, only a minority of those who responded to the story went on to check whether the story was true or not. And they discovered that it wasn’t. The scenario is fictional, the pastor is fictional, and the photo originally attached to the story is actually of a homeless man in the UK (photos of other people have since appeared). “P-Dub” had left no indication on the website that the story was untrue. Nor did he have the right to republish the picture of the homeless man. All this he would admit in a later post, after the story had already been viewed more than 8 million times, according to him, and after it had come to the attention of the international press with the help of publications such as The Examiner and the Huffington Post.

Journalists investigating the story found not only that it was not true, but that it was not even original. Author Charles Monroe Sheldon wrote a very similar story in his 1897 book In His Footsteps: What Would Jesus Do? An experiment conducted at Ivy League Princeton University in 1970 also replicated the story. And Methodist Reverend Willie Lyle of Clarksville, Tennessee, tried a similar experiment in 2013, living as a homeless man for four days and presenting himself as such on his first day preaching at a new church. But unlike the scenario in Steepek’s story, Lyle got a good response: of the 200 members who attended the service, 20 offered to give him food, money or other items.

The fact that Pastor Steepek was nowhere to be found, despite supposedly pastoring a 10,000-member megachurch, should have been a strong indication that the story was not true. Instead, the fact that so many people believed the story to be true is a very good example of the effects of what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” People surround themselves with information that matches their opinions or beliefs. We tend to like people who think like us (if we agree with someone’s views or beliefs, we are likely to become friends). This means that we unconsciously ignore or avoid what doesn’t match our own views. We distort reality to gain confirmation when we proactively seek information to validate our already held beliefs. For example, a 2009 Ohio State University study found that we spend 36% more time reading an essay that follows the same line of thought as our own than one that contains ideas or concepts that contradict them.


Moral fables and real-life morality

Whether true or false, Steepek’s story requires a search for the stakes, the plot that made the story so popular and, by extension, the lessons that can be drawn from it. But this search must be done carefully, because while it would be easy to condemn the believers who ignored the man, the fact that each of us often passes indifferently by beggars on the street demands a little more caution in formulating a conclusion.

On the other hand, another important question arises: how far should we go in helping the homeless? The old dilemma between Christian good works and begging has always had to do with the understanding that not every form of assistance is helpful, and sometimes the helper may expose him or herself to real danger or unwittingly contribute to the proliferation of a criminal network.

The limits of generosity

There is a close connection between the reason behind the enthusiasm with which Steepek’s story was shared and the reason we extend a hand to a pauper in real life. Both may be based on the same emotion. If we are honest, we admit that offering money to beggars on the street is the embodiment of a mixture of compassion and the need to feel that we have alleviated someone’s pain without costing ourselves too much emotionally (we don’t have time to get attached to a beggar, but the amount we offer can buy us the feeling of a lighter conscience).

However, if we make the effort to go beyond the emotional impulse, the brutal conclusion for a conscience that would have preferred to be pacified by sharing a web link or a 1 euro handout is that giving money to beggars does not count as “social work.” There is no guarantee that the beggar we help today will be helped tomorrow. And even if that were to happen, it wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing. A person who is constantly being helped with things he or she could do on his or her own (with some effort) will, over time, become dependent on the helper. The beggar becomes socially atrophied, unable to stand on their own feet: a burden.

Sometimes they may even be motivated to take advantage of others. And the area around a church is one of the favourite places for experienced beggars, because they know that people are sensitised (or pressured) by the religious context and are more willing to give. That’s why a network of Roma beggars exposed by BBC reporters in London sent their children to beg outside mosques. And the worshippers who “helped” them had no idea that, in Romania, the parents of the children who were forced to beg owned mansions and luxury cars, which the police suspected had been bought with money begged on the streets of Western Europe.

When we put the pieces of this huge jigsaw puzzle together, it becomes clear that if we really cared about the people we give money to on the streets, if we really wanted to do some good, we would be happier to see them engaged in some useful activity that would provide them with a steady income, rather than helping them get used to a life of permanent humiliation. Such an attitude is more Christian than wiping away a tear with a banknote, no matter how many zeros it has. And if we find the level of commitment and effort that such an approach would require frightening, then when we speak of churches and Christians, we need to remember that this was essentially the method by which Jesus Christ approached people in need.

Jesus and the needy

The Bible does not tell us of any episode in which Christ gave money to a beggar. However, it does show Him responding to the deeper needs of the destitute by offering them physical or spiritual healing (forgiveness of sins). Such a response emancipated the recipient. It didn’t solve all their problems, but it was such a powerful impetus for change that some of those Jesus helped had to be told to remain discreet, so that their enthusiasm would not jeopardise His mission. Moreover, the mercy that Jesus showed to the needy was not one that capitulated to the tragedy of the human condition, but one that encouraged the dignity of the poor and their need for autonomy. This attitude is implicit in Jesus’ appreciation of the gesture of a poor widow who donated her last two coins to the temple. Jesus does not deplore her economic situation, but praises her for her deep reverence, for the faith she shows despite her circumstances.

Chuna Devi Pangeni grew up believing that she was worthless. As an illiterate, she couldn’t even write “worthless.” At 47, her life and self-esteem were radically transformed after she learned to read. Her story illustrates the power of education to empower the poor. “My family didn’t send me to school because I was a girl. This made me feel that my life was worthless,” Chuna says in a short documentary by the NGO READ Global. “I got married when I was 16. The belief was that girls didn’t need an education, and so I didn’t have the opportunity to go to school, and I grew up illiterate, herding our goats and cows,” she said. The 47-year-old Nepali woman’s confession continues with a dramatic episode: “When my mother got sick [with cancer], I took her to the hospital. They told me to take her to room 105 to see the doctor, but I didn’t know how to recognise room number 105. We couldn’t find the doctor, so my mother and I went home.”

The turning point in Chuna’s experience came when she met an NGO that works to educate women from disadvantaged backgrounds. Something as simple as what our society considers basic—education—completely changed her outlook on life and opened up new opportunities for the future. Chuna has now surrounded herself with women who she teaches to read, and is now helping to empower those who need it.

What do you give first?

It’s difficult to find a balanced answer to the dilemma of “to give or not to give money to beggars,” because it’s the kind of question that requires a complex answer, one that is both emotional and rational. We cannot deny the emotions we feel when we see someone suffering, but it is important to keep our heads cool so as not to make mistakes because of our emotions, which are susceptible to manipulation. We are bound to make a mistake anyway, precisely because there is no standard recommendation to “always give” or “never give.” But if there is one general piece of advice, it is that the poor should not be infantilised by your donations, but rather helped to become independent.

Indifference is not the answer: “The poor you will always have with you” says Jesus in the Bible. It’s no use closing our eyes and pretending we don’t see them; they are there. But if they are cared for, guided and supported, they can be transformed or prevented from becoming more numerous. It’s true that this approach takes things to a whole new level of effort and commitment on our part. In the end, it’s a choice: a “like”—or a personal project to help at least one vulnerable person become a model of change and hope?

Alina Kartman is a senior editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.