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Mormon bishop disguises himself as homeless man to teach congregation about compassion

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 27 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

Makeup artist Tara Starling documented her work to transform Bishop David Musselman to appear battered and homeless on Nov. 24.

Tara Starling's Facebook page

David Musselman, a bishop for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, did not receive his usual greetings as he approached his meetinghouse last Sunday. But then again, Bishop Musselman is usually not disguised as a homeless man for church.

“As a bishop I try to always be as giving as I can, and I was surprised at my own inability to have compassion,” Bishop Musselman said in an interview with the Deseret News. “I thought about some ways I could somehow convey the importance of not being critical … and sometimes the best way to do that is through experiences that go beyond just a talk in church. And so I just laid awake many nights just thinking about what I could do, and then this kinda popped into my brain.”

To make his altered appearance more convincing, Bishop Musselman contacted Salt Lake City makeup artist Tara Starling to transform his familiar face in the Taylorsville, Utah, congregation to that of a virtual stranger.

“The plight of the homeless is something that is particularly close to my heart,” said Starling, who co-created a nonprofit organization called Soul Food USA that provides both food and encouragement to the homeless. “So when Dave (Musselman) approached me with this idea, it was this magical moment of the two parts of my life, my two worlds, colliding in the most perfect way.”

Bishop Musselman received varied reactions to his appearance in the church building. At least five people asked him to leave the property, some gave him money and most were indifferent to his presence.

“Many actually went out of their way to purposefully ignore me, and they wouldn’t even make eye contact. I’d approach them and say, ‘Happy Thanksgiving,’ many of them I wouldn’t ask for any food or any kind of money, and their inability to even acknowledge me being there was very surprising,” Bishop Musselman said. “It made me think of the category of people that … the Savior has the most difficult time with. That’s the people that are lukewarm. That really don’t take a stand either way.”

Most of the children in the congregation were curious and wanted to give to the “homeless man” the bishop appeared to be.

“They (the children) looked to their parents to determine whether or not that was safe, and that’s certainly something you would expect and it’s a good thing,” Bishop Musselman said. “Some parents completely embraced it with their children, other parents were very, very guarded and evasive.”

But even with some negative reception, Bishop Musselman said he learned not to judge people’s motives and hearts.

“One of the gentlemen that approached me and asked me to leave the property felt horrible (afterward), and it would be easy to judge him,” Bishop Musselman said. “But what I didn’t know about this was that just one year before that time his granddaughter had come to his church … and helped an old man get into his car, and at the time that she did that, he was faking, and he stole her purse and drove off. So he came out because he was concerned about the safety of people, and his experience caused him to view me through a different lens.”

Bishop Musselman told only his second counselor that he would be disguised as a homeless man. The bishop purposefully walked to the front of the chapel and sat in the front row at the beginning of sacrament meeting. After his counselor's talk, the bishop had his counselor lean forward over the stand and he asked through a whisper if he could say a few words.

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