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Mormon bishop goes 'homeless' to teach lesson of compassion

Published December 2, 2013 3:51 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

You could have heard a pin drop as the ragged, dirty, stooped, scar-seamed homeless man hobbled down the center aisle of Taylorsville 4th LDS Ward.

Everyone knew he had been outside armed with a box and a sign, asking for food and money.

After all, it was sure hard for ward members to miss the grizzled man who shouted "Happy Thanksgiving" to everyone going inside.

Nobody had ever seen the man before, and it was highly unusual for a homeless panhandler to wander so far south in the valley.

Richard Lamoreaux, 80, of West Valley City, said the man's sudden appearance was alarming. He had just finished reading the story of Elizabeth Smart's abduction by street preacher Brian David Mitchell.

"I thought, this guy can't be on church property, especially when the meeting was about to start."

Lamoreaux said he approached the stranger and told him that he needed to move to the street to panhandle.

"He just said, 'Thank you' and 'Happy Thanksgiving,' and he picked up his crutch and his box and started to walk toward the street," Lamoreaux said.

But even as Lamoreaux was throwing the man off the property, there was Jan Yates, one of the ward's first counselors, trying to invite the man in. When the man declined, Yates went inside and emerged with several bottles of water.

The ward's bishop was noticeably absent that Sunday, so nobody was quite certain what to do when the man apparently changed his mind and wandered inside about 15 minutes after the service started.

"All stooped over and walking very, very slowly, [he] made his way to the front row," Lamoreaux's wife, Kay, said.

The usually noisy children had fallen silent. The looks on people's faces ranged from fear to compassion.

Everyone was waiting to see what would happen next.

"The children were just captivated through the whole thing," Kay Lamoreaux said. "You could have heard a pin drop."

But then some church members rushed to help the man.

"I was just overcome with emotion," Kay Lamoreaux said. "Because this is church in action. He's not being escorted out, but he's being treated with love and respect."

Then the man made a highly unusual request — he wanted to address the congregation — in the middle of the service.

Yates said the man mumbled at first, then read a verse of a song and said the ward had been nice to him and said he wanted to give something back.

But where was the bishop? the man inquired. He wanted to put the money in only the bishop's hands.

"I pulled my wig off. The glasses came off. The congregation fell off of their pews," the "homeless" man recalled Friday. "The audible gasp. I wish I had recorded it. It was unbelievable."

Underneath that ragged, scar-seamed exterior was the absent bishop, David Musselman.

"What a shock that was," Richard Lamoreaux said. "Oh my goodness. He really, really shocked me. I thought he was real."

Musselman, 45, said he decided to dress as a homeless man to drive home the lesson of compassion and generosity this holiday season.

"Not all the time can we open our homes or even our wallets, but we need to open our hearts," he said.

A friend who does makeup for Hollywood films stepped in, and before he knew it, the old David everyone knew was gone.

The makeover was so thorough, his wife and five children didn't even recognize him as they trekked into church that Sunday as he stood outside.

"I had people try to kick me off the property, and I had people who were very warm and invited me in and offered to give me food and money and everything in between," Musselman said.

He said some children ran home and gave him graham crackers, apples and water, and he collected $20 in cash.

When he wandered in during the church service, all eyes were on him.

"Everybody was really uncomfortable," he said. "I sat on the front pew."

"I wanted to get a reaction," Musselman said. "I had no idea the extreme in intensity. There were people that literally started to weep. Everybody was emotional. It had a shock value that I did not anticipate, but it was very, very cool."

Now that nearly a week has passed, Musselman's ward members have apparently forgiven him.

"It's just a lesson that reminds you to treat everyone nice," Yates said. "You don't know if it might someday be you."

But for Kay Lamoreaux, the lesson was even more profound.

"It was an extremely spiritual and uplifting, powerful lesson," she said.

"[It's about] compassion. Not judging. [It's about] how we need to be more thoughtful to each other."

Kay Lamoreaux said she scolded her husband when she heard that he had tried to throw the bishop off the property but said she has a more immediate concern.

"I hope we don't lose [our bishop] to an acting career," she said with a laugh.

jstecklein@sltrib.com

Twitter @sltribjanelle