The boy in the waffle house

Every so often, a video will go viral on the Internet.

There was the chunky kid who practiced Star Wars lightsaber moves by himself. There was the cat that seemed to play an electric keyboard. There was Dancing Matt, who shot videos of himself dancing goofily in places all over the world.  There was the “Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That” lady. The icebucket challenge videos. The Harlem Shake. And some guy getting excited about double rainbows.

If you’re on Facebook – and who isn’t? – some or all of these videos have shown up in your feed at one time or another.

It’s hard to say what makes a video go viral. Lots of people will tell you they know the secret. Those people are usually slick bloggers named Chad or Vince who have a link in their byline to their advertising company where they offer “solutions” and know how to “drive engagement.” But if there was an actual formula – a surefire way to make any video massively popular – someone out there would be floating on a yacht made up entirely of bundles of those brand new plastic Canadian $20 bills.

The truth is, you probably shouldn’t take anyone’s theory on viral videos as gospel – and that probably includes the one in the next paragraph.

What I think makes a video go viral is uniqueness and authenticity. Not all viral videos are funny. Not all of them are profound. Not all are political, or musical, or whimsical or creative. But they are all unique. They’re all authentic, somehow. Viral videos are the ones that you see and think “well, that’s something I haven’t seen before.” Then, you share it with all your friends and family on Facebook and they comment and share it, too. Eventually, when you’ve seen it hundreds of times – and just when you think it’s finally gone away for good – your crazy uncle living in someplace that still has dial-up internet will discover it and send it to you in an email.

Invited in

The reason you can’t make just any video go viral is that uniqueness and authenticity are, well, unique and authentic. If you plan a video too hard, it won’t feel authentic and spontaneous. If you try too hard to copy the success of other viral videos – which is what advertisers like Chad and Vince try to do – it’s going to feel fake. Because it is.

And that brings us to the latest viral video. In this case, it’s not so much a whole video as a short clip and a news story, but it did go viral and it’s worth asking why.

A few weeks ago, Ava Faulk and her five-year-old son Josiah were at a Waffle House in Prattville, Alabama. They spotted a dirty-looking man standing outside. Josiah asked his mom about him.

Mrs. Faulk told her son that the man was homeless. Josiah took pity on the man because he looked hungry and ragged, and suggested to his mom that they buy him dinner.

They invited him in. When the man sat down – looking grubby and scaring off the customers – the little boy stood up and offered him a menu. His mom told the man to order a burger with as much bacon on it as he wanted.

What happened next was caught on video – and went viral.

Little Josiah walked over to the man and began to sing: “God our Father, God our Father, we thank you, we thank you, for our many blessings, for our many blessings, amen, amen.”

That’s when all the patrons in the Waffle House started to cry. The man started to cry. The mom cried. Of course, for the little boy, it was no big deal.

This story was everywhere for a few days. It was on CNN. It was in the British Daily Mail. The Huffington Post. And – naturally – all over Facebook.

A lot of Christians were pretty proud of Josiah’s witness.

Here was a little boy living up to the very letter of Jesus’ words in Matthew: “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.” For a few precious moments this little boy gave a stranger more than a meal – he gave him love, compassion, friendship, a family. A HOME.

But if you really think about it – I mean really think about it – the fact that this story went viral should fill us with shame.

Insufficient evidence

Remember: videos go viral because they are unique and authentic. So what does that say about us Christians? Why is it “unique” to see one of us selflessly reaching out to help someone in need? Why is it so rare to see one of us so authentically moved by the plight of another human being that we have no choice but to act? Why does the world have such a low opinion of Christians that they are so surprised to see one of us actually doing what Jesus commanded us to do, they send the evidence to all of their friends?

We shouldn’t be surprised. When the message that so-called Christian political leaders send to the poor is that they need to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” or when the only people they seem authentically motivated to help are the rich folks they give tax cuts to, or when their whole economic and religious belief system boils down to “God helps those who help themselves,” people are absolutely right to be stunned to see a little boy in an Alabama Waffle House following the example of Jesus. He didn’t learn it from us adults.

His faith was the reason he acted with kindness. We adults often use our faith as an excuse to turn away.

I’m reminded of something Stephen Colbert once said: “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

The little boy in the Waffle House did something wonderful. That it was somehow unique is – literally – a crying shame.


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