WASHINGTON CITY – Nearly a week ago, a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bishop from Taylorsville made national headlines for going to church disguised as a homeless man. He was received with a mixed reception; some people were friendly while most were indifferent. Some asked him to leave.
Thus far David Musselman has shared his story with the state’s major media outlets, as well as CNN, NPR, Good Morning America, The Today Show, and a host of smaller outlets. St. George News is easily his 20th interview so far, he said.
Musselman is visiting family in Washington City over the holiday and allowed St. George News to share his experience with our readers.
Bishop in disguise
That Sunday, Musselman appeared in church in worn clothes and make-up done by a professional make-up artist. The only person who know the bishop was in disguise was one of his counselors. Not even his family knew, Musselman said.
While posing as the homeless man, he said many people were indifferent and avoided him. They didn’t make eye contact or acknowledge his saying “Happy Thanksgiving.” Others, though, were more accepting.
“I had a few people who gave, and gave generously, specifically the children,” Musselman said.
After a few people asked him to leave, Musselman did so, only to return soon after and reveal to the congregation who the man under the dirty clothes and make-up truly was.
“It was very surprising,” Musselman said. “The shock value was more than I expected.”
While the experience was aimed at teaching the congregation a lesson in compassion, Musselman said he ended up learning some things too.
He said he was amazed at how genuinely good people want to be. When his identity was revealed he said he witnessed from the pulpit the shame some congregants were feeling after the way they had treated him while in disguise.
“It made me feel horrible,” Musselman said. “I never wanted to make anyone feel as bad as some people felt.”
He mentioned a man who had asked him to leave the church earlier. The man’s granddaughter called Musselman to defend her grandfather’s actions. She told the bishop that a year earlier, a man in the parking lot of the church was lying about having car trouble. When she went to help him, the man stole her purse and drove away. She was worried that the disguised Musselman may be trouble and asked her grandfather to get him to leave.
After the revelation of who the homeless man was, Musselman was told the grandfather was feeling horrible about the incident.
Musselman said the grandfather is a former bishop himself who was just looking out for the congregation.
“His heart was in the right place,” Musselman said. “I assured him later he shouldn’t feel bad.”
“We don’t always know where people have been,” he said. “We don’t always get the luxury of knowing what’s happened in someone else’s life.”
As for the indifference he experienced, Musselman said he feels that’s how the world in general tends to be. If you don’t have to acknowledge or deal with something unpleasant or unseemly, then maybe it will just go away if you ignore it long enough.
Sometimes a simple acknowledgment and a smile can go a long way in comforting people who society may otherwise ignore outright, he said.
“You don’t have to open your wallets or open your homes,” Musselman said. “Sometimes you just need to open your heart. Just acknowledge their presence and say, ‘You have a Happy Thanksgiving too and I hope things go better for you.’”
Origin of the lesson-in-disguise
Musselman said the idea to disguise himself as a homeless man came about from a combination of experiences. Specifically, he noted a friend and business partner who makes a habit of stopping at overpasses and other places the homeless may congregate and provides a helping hand where possible.
During one particular incident, Musselman’s friend had them stop at an intersection where homeless individuals had gathered. He must have come off as offended or incensed by the idea, Musselman said, because his friend said that, as an LDS bishop, he should be more compassionate.
“If I need to have a lesson learned, then maybe while I’m leaning it, I’ll have an opportunity to share it with someone else,” he said.
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