Costumed As Homeless, Mormon Bishop Teaches A Lesson In Compassion

A Mormon Bishop in Taylorsville, Utah, went to great lengths last Sunday to teach his congregation a lesson. David Musselman disguised himself as a homeless person and walked around outside before the service. Then, in character, he walked up to the pulpit and asked to deliver remarks. He tells Ari Shapiro what happened next.

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ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Finally, this hour, a Mormon bishop in Taylorsville, Utah, went to great lengths last Sunday to teach his congregation a lesson. David Musselman disguised himself as a homeless person, with the help of a professional makeup artist friend. After getting mutton-chops, a ski hat and thick glasses, the bishop waited outside his church and wished congregants a happy Thanksgiving.

To describe what happened next, I'm joined by Bishop Musselman. Welcome to the program.

BISHOP DAVID MUSSELMAN: Glad to be here. Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Describe the response you got.

MUSSELMAN: Well, I got several types of responses. I had some people that went out of their way to let me know that this was not a place to ask for charity, and that I was not welcome, and that I needed to leave the property. I should also state that I had a number of people come and were very kind to me. But I was most impressed with the children. The children definitely were very eager to want to reach out and try to help me, in some way.

SHAPIRO: What did you look like? We said mutton chops and a ski cap and big glasses. Describe how you came across.

MUSSELMAN: Well, I employed the services of a makeup artist here in Salt Lake. She put these big huge, white sideburns on me, and got a grayed wig and ratted it up. She put a big scar across my cheek and then, of course, with her makeup put stuff on my teeth that made them look broken and dirty. I looked pretty authentic, Ari.

SHAPIRO: I'm imagining the scene from "Mrs. Doubtfire" with Robin Williams and Harvey Fierstein, where he gets made up.

MUSSELMAN: You know what? I was worried that maybe my wife and children would at least recognize me. And the shock value on their face when I exposed who I was, was worth it. I mean, she did an amazing job.

SHAPIRO: How did you eventually reveal your identity, and what was the reaction?

MUSSELMAN: After walking around the church for an hour before the service, I made my way into the church after the service had started, about 10 minutes after. So I made my way around to the pulpit, came up and at that moment, I pulled the wig off, and the glasses off; and I can't even begin to describe the audible gasp that came over the congregation when they saw it was their bishop.

SHAPIRO: How did people respond once they realized that they had reacted coldly - and in some sense, maybe hostilely - to their church bishop, thinking he was a homeless man?

MUSSELMAN: I anticipated there would be some people that might feel bad. I had no idea that it would cause the shame and guilt on certain individuals that it did, and that made me feel bad. But as I gazed across the congregation, there were so many eyes that were just filled with tears. There were some people that were weeping and, you know, I made a point in my remarks over the pulpit to let them know that I, in no way, cast any judgment on any of them because had I been the one that maybe was on the other side, I could've been one of the individuals that maybe even would've asked them to leave the premises.

SHAPIRO: Do you think this lesson in compassion that you've tried to impart will stick with the congregants who were there that day?

MUSSELMAN: You know, I could've easily given a sermon or a talk on the subject, and I did it this way because I wanted all the people - especially the children - to look back when they become older and say, I remember when I was at church. My bishop dressed up like a homeless man. And I have to think that it did a lot more good than bad.

SHAPIRO: Bishop David Musselman of Taylorsville, Utah, thanks for sharing your story with us.

MUSSELMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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