Sunday, December 01, 2013

Insight from a Mormon Bishop in Disguise

Bishop Musselman - before and after his disguise.
The most interesting post-Thanksgiving story I’ve heard in years came from a segment on ‘All Things Considered’ that aired on NPR radio on Saturday afternoon. (Click here to give it a listen or read the transcript.)

Back on November 24th, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, David Musselman, a Mormon Bishop from Taylorsville, Utah hired Tara Starling, a professional makeup artist from Salt Lake City to painstakingly enshroud him in the costume and appearance of a homeless man. 

As you can see from the pictures at left from Tara Starling's Facebook page, she added a scar to his cheek, put a roughed-up wig on his head, glued white mutton chops to his cheels and intentionally discolored his teeth to make him seriously look like one of those homeless it’s hard for people to physically face in public.
As the parishioners walked into the church, the disguised Bishop wished each of them a happy Thanksgiving; and he simply watched how they treated him as a homeless person.

Some were open hearted and kind to him; went out of their way to treat him with respect – and he didn’t say so specifically in the interview but I got the clear impression some had freely given him some money without being prompted or asked. But others were not so kind.

Some suggested he should leave, or that the church wasn't the appropriate place to panhandle and that he didn't belong there. Some would not make eye contact with him and five people asked him to leave. Interestingly, Bishop Musselman said most of the children treated him nicely and were less apt to be uncomfortable talking with him.

The congregation was shocked when he walked up to the pulpit, removed his hat and wig and revealed himself; bringing some who had shunned him to tears. It's worth listening to the Bishop's interview with NPR's Ari Shapiro and here more about why he did it.

The story really struck me because on many occasions I've acted just like some of the Mormon parishioners who ignored him. Sure I give to charity, have stopped and helped homeless people a bunch of times and I've even volunteered overnight in a homeless shelter in New York with my brother.

But let's be honest, we’ve all been there. Unexpectedly caught up in some normal social situation or in a rush to get somewhere when a truly disheveled homeless person tries to stop you for money. It's easy to walk on by, or dismiss their request; or even judge them silently. 

The Bishop's story made me think about that.  

Like many people in this country I have to be frank and say I’ve taken some potshots at the Mormon faith in the past. On the pages of this blog I’ve shared some pretty skeptical views about a faith that is often maligned in the eyes of the mainstream media partly because of some of the rather unusual aspects of the religion's origins. 

So taking a page from Bishop Musselman's lesson on judging other people I have to call myself out for having made fun of the Mormon Church on occasion; it's not like I'm responsible for creating a hit Broadway musical based on making light of Mormons as the two creators of South Park did with "The Book of Mormon", but still. Who am I to judge someone's beliefs because they're not the same as mine?

Bishop Musselman's experiment taught me a valuable and insightful lesson on judging others and being charitable; one that has also reached many across the nation outside of the congregation in Taylorsville. 

In light of the Thanksgiving holiday and the deplorable behavior by many American shoppers there's something that resonates spiritually about the Bishop's lesson; something non-denominational and simply human. One I won't soon forget.

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