Behind the viral moment of Baltimore teen praying over homeless man

Mysterious Baltimore teen photographed praying over homeless man talks to The Sun.

Steven Watkins says it was the voice of God that urged him to jump off his bus one afternoon last week to pray over a homeless man.

And it was the power of the Internet and University of Maryland, Baltimore police officer Eric Gaines that captured and transmitted that image to tens of thousands of people on Facebook.

Watkins' identity was largely unknown until Friday, when he met with Gaines for the first time and shared his story with a reporter at Lexington Market and at the bus stop where the photo was taken.

"People keep telling me about Facebook, saying 'Oh, you famous,' and I said, 'Yeah, but all glory belongs to God,'" said Watkins, 18, who says he began exploring his faith about two years ago.

The key moment unfolded as the Edmondson Village resident and his twin brother, Stephan, were on their way home from school at Friendship Academy of Engineering and Technology in Northeast Baltimore. Watkins had fallen asleep on the bus listening to gospel music. When he woke at his transfer, at Paca and Saratoga streets, he said he saw a man lying motionless on the sidewalk and heard the voice of God.

He hopped off the bus.

"I immediately went over to him and knelt over and prayed," Watkins said. He said he silently prayed, "Father and Son, Holy Spirit, Lord, I pray for this man today. This man is in need … because he's down and I'm high."

Gaines saw Watkins kneeling before the man and took a picture. Minutes later, the teen darted to his next bus. Gaines posted the photo to Facebook that day.

"I thought it was an amazing sight. I had to take a picture of it. It was extremely powerful," said Gaines. The homeless man, whom Gaines had previously seen in the area, rose seconds after Watkins left with the help of some people nearby. Just days after the picture was posted March 1, it went viral. It has since been shared by more than 35,000 people.

"It was unexpected," said Watkins, who found out about the picture through a schoolmate. The next thing he knew, he was tagged in the picture, which was shared again and again.

"He didn't do it for any accolades or any praise. … I didn't get a chance to say anything. I wanted to say something to him," Gaines said. "But it was just as if he did what he had to do and left."

Watkins' mother, Nichole Goodman, said she wasn't surprised by her son's actions.Goodman's sons have been commuting to Friendship Academy since the sixth grade, waking at 5 a.m. for an hourlong bus commute, with a transfer downtown.

"They were always giving their money away to the homeless," said Goodman, who has worked in security for years.

"Not everybody who is homeless [is] looking to do good by the change you give them, so I told them to offer a prayer if you can," she said. "That's how it got started."

Until Friday morning, Watkins' identity had been a mystery to many people — Gaines included. But Watkins visited the officer at the police station that morning.

"I was very impressed," Gaines said with a laugh. "He is very smart, very gifted."

Watkins' ambition is to go into law enforcement. The two took photos together.

"We laughed because he didn't even realize I was there [at the bus stop]," Gaines said. "He said, 'How did I miss you?'"

bbritto@baltsun.com

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