By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - A Mormon bishop says he taught his Utah congregation a novel lesson in compassion by showing up at church disguised as a homeless man, prompting some worshipers to try shooing him away only to learn his true identity once he stepped to the pulpit.
David Musselman, bishop of a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregation in the Salt Lake City suburb of Taylorsville, recalled on Friday how some of his parishioners were shocked to the point of tears by his undercover ruse.
Musselman said he came to church dressed in clothes sullied with motor oil and dog hair, a ratty gray wig and long sideburns, then stood leaning on a crutch outside the building before last week's Sunday services, offering best wishes for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday as congregants filed past him.
Most of the churchgoers acted with indifference and ignored him altogether, or uncomfortably looked away. A few handed Musselman some coins or bills and said they hoped better times were in his future, he recounted to Reuters in a telephone interview.
"But many asked me to leave," said Musselman, 45. "The thing I was trying to get across is that we don't need to be so quick to judge."
During the services, an accomplice introduced the shabbily dressed stranger as a visitor and allowed him to take the pulpit. After reading from the hymn, "Have You Done Good in the World Today?" Musselman thanked those gathered for their kindness and ripped off his costume to reveal his true identity, he said.
"And my goodness, the gasp that came over the congregation. People started sobbing," he said. "I had no idea the effect it was going to have."
Musselman earns his living as a professional divorce mediator and arbitrator who, like other leaders in the Mormon faith, is a lay person rather than a member of the clergy.
He said the idea for his lesson in the Golden Rule grew out of months of his own soul-searching.
In the spring, Musselman's business partner, Jen Stewart, chided him for impatience he showed after she asked him to stop their car en route to an appointment so she could give money to a homeless person by a highway overpass.
"I was obviously annoyed," Musselman said. "She said, ‘You're a bishop, you should know better.' That caused me to think: What's caused me to change? Why have I become more callous?"
Musselman said that for months afterward he lay awake at night, thinking about what he could do to improve himself and encourage more compassion in others.
"I could have easily just given a talk from the pulpit," said Musselman who speaks in church each week, "But I thought, 'Let's give them something that they'll never forget.'"
On Friday, Musselman told Reuters he has been overwhelmed by the positive reaction to his stunt, with text messages and emails pouring in from congregants, friends and even strangers, who thanked him for his special message.
"We might not always be able to open our homes or our wallets, but we always need to open our hearts," Musselman said. "You don't have to expose yourself or your family to potential harm to show somebody that they are human."
(Reporting by Jenifer Dobner; Editing by Ken Wills; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman)