A Mormon bishop (not pictured here) recently disguised himself as a homeless man to encourage more compassion in his congregation.

A Mormon bishop (not pictured here) recently disguised himself as a homeless man to encourage more compassion in his congregation. (Shutterstock)

Last week, the Mormon newswire was dominated by a single story, that of a bishop in Utah who disguised himself as a homeless beggar in order to challenge his congregation to show greater charity. According to KUTV and Fox News:

He received varied reactions to his appearance at church. At least five people asked him to leave the church property, some gave him money and most were indifferent.

“Many actually went out of their way to purposefully ignore me, and they wouldn’t even make eye contact,” he told the Deseret News. “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.”

The bishop was interviewed on NPR, humbly describing what he did and why. The story has been picked up by a newswire as far away as Japan.

Why are people so fascinated by this simple anecdote of a Mormon bishop doing something out of the ordinary? This kind of action is not unusual among other religions. A friend of mine whose husband is an Episcopal priest told me that just before his ordination, he and two other ordinands were instructed to go out on the streets of Boston for three days and live as homeless people. They had no money and no place to go, and it was very cold outside.

What they learned over those three days taught them not only about the charity (or lack thereof) of Christians, but also about the vulnerability of life on the streets. They were hungry, frozen, and unsafe. And forever after in their ministry, they had a special compassion for anyone who was hungry, frozen, and unsafe.

It’s not that unique a tale. Why is the story of one Mormon bishop disguising himself as a homeless man for an hour or two captivating the public imagination?

Part of it is surely the unexpected juxtaposition of the words “Mormon bishop” and “prankster.” (Would that someone had caught people’s reactions on camera!) I also think that among Mormons, the story is encouraging because it is so uncorrelated. This rogue Bishop seems to have acted alone, having only informed one of his counselors about his plan.

But going deeper, there’s a theological lesson at the core.

Matthew 25 is full of unforgettable imagery about sheep and the goats and how our actions here — what we do to one another — have some bearing on our eternal future. This is a frightening thought. This is one of those passages in the Bible that is uncomfortably sticky, with a very matter-of-fact Jesus indicating that whatever we do or do not do to one another on this earth helps to determine where we spend eternity.

And it’s not just in this passage where we see the notion replayed that what we do to one another, we do directly to Jesus. Over the weekend I was helping my daughter with a project for her religion class and we read Acts 9, in which Paul has his conversion experience on the road to Damascus. I had never noticed before how Jesus’ question — “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” — expresses this precise dynamic. Saul had been persecuting Christians, putting them in prison and worse.

Jesus apparently takes that quite personally. Whatever Saul had done to harm Jesus’ followers, Saul had done to Jesus himself.

So I love the story of how this Mormon bishop called attention to some hypocrisy within our ranks. He knew that his ward members would never have shown a bishop the disrespect and ostracism that he experienced in his brief cameo as a homeless person.

On a personal note, I have been following the story because that bishop’s actions and my own on that same day are so different. I was in Baltimore on November 24, doing a talk and book signing at a Roman Catholic Church. When I arrived that morning, it was freezing cold, and my friend and I were primarily concerned with bringing the heavy boxes of books from the car trunk inside the church as quickly as we could.

We saw that the historic church was located next to a public park in which many homeless people were congregating. Yet we did not stop to see about their welfare; we had things to do! Even after the book signing was over and I had free time, I did not use it to go to the park; I got in my car and drove away so I could spend time with my dear friend. In fact, the only thing I did to help a homeless person that day was to give away a book for free to someone who wanted it but could not afford to pay.

What if one of those people was Jesus? What if they all were Jesus?

Sometimes I am a truly shitty Christian.

36 Comments

  1. Perry Bulwer

    “What they learned over those three days taught them … about the vulnerability of life on the streets. They were hungry, frozen, and unsafe.”

    Sorry, I just don’t buy it. They were only hungry, frozen and unsafe for three days. Politicians where I live occasionally pull similar stunts, ostensibly to highlight the plight of the poor, but I question their motives. Some do it for a few days or a week, like in this article, and one actually attempted to live for one month on social assistance only. He couldn’t do it. He payed for a cheap room, but he ran out of money before the end of the month and had to rely on free food.

    But my main point is that while these stunts may highlight the plight of the poor, they do not teach the stunt person what poverty is truly like because they know they have a way out. They know they will return to their lives of comfort, so they do not truly experience the vulnerability and deep deep despair that poverty and homelessness cause. And they also do not experience social stigma day after day, month after month, year after year, which is as devastating as poverty, knowing that your society has no compassion for you and is willing to kick when you are down.

    To truly understand poverty and homelessness, try doing it without any hope whatsoever of ever escaping that your situation and improving your life.

  2. Infinite power and YET still wanting more

    Yes U R…. I’ve noticed it in the tone of many of your blogs….

    And so am I… a worthless…follower of the Lamb…

    May we all find His power to transform ourselves…

  3. The bishop was wrong.

    He set a trap for his ward members. He set them up to fail. He tricked them.

    He might say he did it to help them learn. Ha! Here’s an idea for his next stunt: When he next interviews a teenage boy, he can say how good the boy looks and ask him if he is working out. Can he take off his shirt so he can see his muscles? Ooh, can he touch them? Just as a test, you understand, to see at what point the boy will say no. Ha!

    The bishop was wrong. He violated (and forfeited) the trust of his ward members.

    • Jana Riess

      I don’t see it as a trap, but a teaching opportunity. And it’s interesting that what he tried to do is not all that different from what Jesus himself did after his resurrection. Jesus certainly could have made his appearance exactly the same as his followers were used to during his lifetime, so there would be no confusion about who he was. Yet he did not do this:

      — Mary mistook him for a gardener (John 20).
      — The men walking to Emmaus did not recognize him even after walking and talking with him for some time, and Jesus did nothing to identify himself as they blathered on about some man who had just risen from the dead (Luke 24).
      — The disciples don’t recognize Jesus when they are out fishing until he recapitulates their first meeting (John 21).

      Why the divine disguise? He is not setting them up to fail, as you suggest the bishop did, but setting them up to learn that God is not neat, tidy, and predictable.

      • How about my suggestion for his next “teaching opportunity”? There really isn’t a difference, is there?

        (But the bishop DID set them up to fail — that was his purpose in the stunt — and he promptly and jubilantly reported his outcomes to the press — there was no privacy and no teaching.)

        The real question isn’t whether the ward members received the man, yet that is getting all the focus — the real problem, the real sadness, is the bishop’s negative judgment of his own ward members and then his setting a trap for them, all in the name of teaching correct principles and so he can get his fifteen minutes of fame.

        • It’s not a problem, it’s the truth. Why shouldn’t people be called out for stuff like this? We like to pat ourselves on the back and talk about how much service we do (another joke that Jana has pointed out), yet when this person, apparently in need, is literally at the doors of our church, what do we do? Ignore him or tell him to leave. Way to show your true colors. Jana asked the question of the folks in Baltimore: “what if one of those people was Jesus?” Based on Matthew 25, those people were, that Bishop was, and that person I saw in need the other day and didn’t help was Jesus too. We (yes, I’m pointing fingers back at myself too) stink it up every day in our treatment of our brothers and sisters, seven billion personifications of Jesus walking around our world. I see nothing wrong with that Bishop calling them out for stinking up the joint. Needs to happen more often, I think.

    • He only set them up to fail because he exposed them (and all of us, really) for what they really are. Jana cites Matthew 25 where Christ teaches that if we don’t treat everyone we meet the same way we would treat him we “shall go away into everlasting punishment.” It’s Matthew 25:31-46 if you’d like to read the whole passage. I’d ask how their actions fit in that passage? It’s a very simple passage, treat everyone as you would Christ himself. We often forget about passages like that as we’re wearing out the writings of Paul trying figure out ways to exclude people.

  4. My guess as to why this story was popular…it plays into the stereotype that Christians are more about the appearance of righteousness than actually doing good. Some churchgoers may fall into that category, but I think most people are good and try to help others. As a believer, I think it’s more beneficial to examine our own lives for hypocrisy than to find satisfaction in seeing others unwittingly shown to be lacking. Publicly sharing our own failings doesn’t erase the finger we are pointing at others. Only the Savior can call others on hypocrisy without being hypocritical Himself.

  5. Ken Satterfield

    This was a questionable urban legend shared earlier this year (www.snopes.com/glurge/homelesspastor.asp) and now we have had two documented cases of church leaders that actually have done this in the last six months.

    In one of our seminary classes it was known as “The Plunge” to live on the streets — and I have to say, I avoided that class.

    Whether this person tricked his congregation or taught them a valuable lesson, we should all take the parable of The rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 to heart. I know I need to.

  6. I have not been homeless,but I have poor most my life. I have seen the very rudeness and ignorance from my fellow ward members. Its worse in Utah. I think all Bishops should be homeless for a day, so they can better understand fellow members. When we had no money and food, I had a bishop tell me he doesn’t understand how anyone could be poor, you just have to work hard and you could be a millionare, just like him. Itried, but when no one wants to hire you because you didn’t have a diploma and 2years of college, what can you do. I did what i could, i got a job at Wendys. Iwork hard been there over 5years, worked my way up from crew all the way to General manager. I work hard, always going on and above at work, putting in extra time, that i don’t get payed for, since i’m on salary. So, why am I not amillionare like that bishop said? This is why all Bishops should do it so they can truly understand better the humble who walk through there doors. So I hopemore people react, I hope it’s talk about at church, and I pray that all of the congregations(including myself)learn humility, so we can become better christians.

  7. It goes to show us what the Scriptures teach: We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Without the Law, sin is dead, but when the Law comes (love your neighbor in this case), sin springs to life and we die. We find what we are made of. We are by nature objects of God’s wrath and in need of a Savior.

    That’s why Jesus went to the cross…to pay the penalty that we deserve for our sin, and to justify (declare righteous) all who trust in Him alone.

    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/

  8. The fine line comes with the Elizabeth Smart case. That man tainted giving for lots of people. And it’s unfortunate. Learning to find wisdom in giving and assisting can be challenging.

    I hope the Bishop had a good heart, only he would know – and only he should. My job is to check my heart. I won’t be judged for the Bishop’s decision, I will be judged for mine.

  9. The fact that what he did grabbed the attention of the media, has made his message one in which we may convict ourselves through our own conscience. This is not about the Bishop judging us, or even the members in his own congregation; it’s about true learning which comes from within.

    It has had an impact on me, and made me want to look at everyone I meet as if they might be Jesus in disguise.

  10. One final comment – In Mormonism the Fourth Fold Mission of the Church is to “help the poor and needy”. It’s one we overlook, other than some fast offerings, and crisis humanitarian aide, our congragations don’t spend much time working directly on this 4th branch. Maybe the Bishop helped that cause, too. Either way he gets my high five for the effort.

  11. Imagine the shock which would be created if religious leaders actually followed through on vows of poverty as a sign of their devotion to Christianity?

    Imagine how much money donated to a church (or tithed) could actually end up helping the poor and needy?

  12. I thought tthe Deseret News article brought out some very valuble points as Bishop Musselman talked about what he learned from the experiance and that the idea came out of his own strugles with being as gving as he feels he should be.

    http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865591437/Mormon-bishop-disguises-himself-as-homeless-man-to-teach-congregation-about-compassion.html

  13. So, how long before this Bishop is “released”?
    Uncorrelated activity is soooooo frowned upon. Especially when it is embarrassing to the PR department.

    ji — Right now, the LDS people are Saints in name. The object is to get them to be saints in reality. Whatever it takes… Once upon a time, I was assigned as Gospel Doctrine teacher. My first day, after the class president introduced me, I said, from the door, via a wireless mike, “I don’t want to. I don’t want to teach this lesson. I’m going away!” The gasp from the entire class was almost enough to noticeable reduce air pressure in the chapel. :) I gave them 30 seconds of shock, then said, as I came in the other door, “Well, now that I have your attention, please open your Scriptures to the book of Jonah.” Never had another problem keeping the HPs awake in that class.
    I bet the Bishop won’t have a problem with part Four of the Mission of the Church from now on… :)

    • I bet the Bishop won’t have a problem with part Four of the Mission of the Church from now on…

      True, but the members of his ward won’t be able to trust their bishop anymore. He looks for fame in the press, and he shares the failings of his ward members with the general public, all in an effort to make himself look good.

      • What’s the other option? Continue glad-handing and back-slapping all the members so they think everything is just dandy? That’s the standard operating procedure within the church, or at least in some places. Find wards that are growing and vibrant, and I bet this attitude is not there. But members just think everyone should always say nice things and go with whatever flow is there and that is why when someone, like this Bishop or Jana in some of her articles, actually calls people to the carpet they’re villified. No this Bishop merely revealed the true colors of folks.

        • What’s the other option?

          Teach correct principles. Love his ward members without judging them and without setting a trap for them. Maybe invite a homeless man to his own home for dinner. Maybe invite other ward members to join him in giving meaningful service to the homeless people in his area.

          By the way, what did you think of my suggestion for this bishop’s next teaching opportunity? See my posting of Dec 2, 2013 at 7:16 pm. Great idea, huh?

          I think it is unfair and unkind to villify the members of that ward.

          • I saw your other jewel of a suggestion. I think it’s idiotic and borderline criminal.

            He’s probably tried to teach principles before and I bet it failed. In my ward we beat the dead horse of “service” almost monthly. Yet in almost 3 years we’ve done exactly 0 sustained service projects in the community, and not from lack of trying by some of our members. I WISH we could do an example like this Bishop did for service.

            I’ll just quote what I posted earlier: “It’s not a problem, it’s the truth. Why shouldn’t people be called out for stuff like this? We like to pat ourselves on the back and talk about how much service we do (another joke that Jana has pointed out), yet when this person, apparently in need, is literally at the doors of our church, what do we do? Ignore him or tell him to leave. Way to show your true colors. Jana asked the question of the folks in Baltimore: “what if one of those people was Jesus?” Based on Matthew 25, those people were, that Bishop was, and that person I saw in need the other day and didn’t help was Jesus too. We (yes, I’m pointing fingers back at myself too) stink it up every day in our treatment of our brothers and sisters, seven billion personifications of Jesus walking around our world. I see nothing wrong with that Bishop calling them out for stinking up the joint. Needs to happen more often, I think.”

  14. Garry Holland

    You know as members of the church we give financial gifts for welfare after we fast for two meals, They are called fast offerings and we give them every month. In our ward we gather food and other donations and give those to community organizations. If your ward or church doesn’t give to community organizations why don’t you be the organizer and get it done?

  15. Giving to the homeless is more complicated than it looks. I’ve lived all over the world, including in cities where there are many homeless, some of whom aggressively go after handouts and jealously guard their territories. In one of those cities, I made sure I had a little cash to give to one homeless person on each trip downtown. In another, I donated to St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic charity, that sponsored special programs for the homeless. This, at the request of my neighbors, who had been victimized and robbed by the “homeless.” Jesus had a great advantage, in that He discerned the hearts and histories of the people He helped. In that matter, we really are blind in our giving, and trying to do the best we can without knowing what gift the sufferer really needs. Even those who walked by their Mormon bishop may be charitable in other ways, and fearful, embarrassed, or without cold cash on this occasion.

  16. I love the parallels between the “homeless” bishop and the resurrected Jesus who apparently disguises himself as a stranger and introduces himself to two believers.

    Did he set a trap for them? Fortunately, they were good enough men that they were willing to talk to him, and even offered him food and a place to stay for the night. Only afterwards did they recognize him for who he was. If only the rest of us could follow their example.

  17. This bishop’s action sounds like a publicity gimmick, and I think I would have a hard time listening to him on this occasion were I a member of his ward. Nevertheless, we are commanded to love all our neighbors, including the least among us. I believe the church handbook identifies helping the poor as the fourth mission of the church.

    I have found that helping the poor is often a very complex problem that defies simple formulas or remedies. For example, simply giving money may help one person but hurt the next. We need to take care that our motivation is about actually helping another versus simply feeling good about ourselves. It’s clear we need to love our neighbor, but you sometimes need the wisdom of Solomon to know how best to help.

    It’s wrong to harshly judge a person in unfortunate conditions such as homelessness. It’s also wrong to judge others harshly who choose not to respond to a need in the same way that we do, especially in a public setting. In both cases, we arrogantly assume we know what is best for someone else.

    All of us fall short of the perfect example of Christ. All of us are prone to misjudgment and spiritual pride. Our busy life styles make us prone to hasty and poor decisions. I recommend googling “Good Samaritan Experiment” for a sobering account of how focusing too narrowly on a good cause can blind us to opportunities. My local newspaper talks incessantly about addressing poverty in other nations but never says a word about the immense poverty in our own neighborhoods.

  18. This article has been bothering me for days. Is it correct to teach by publicly shaming? How many people would respond positively to this same bishop setting up a scenario that revealed which of his youth would participate in watching pornography? And then give public interviews (which he has been doing) about how some youth did well and walked away while others needed to learn how to avoid such things. Is it tempting for us to respond more positively to certain types of shaming than others? Are we OK with some types of shaming, in the name of learning, but not others? I don’t know that shaming, used as a teaching tool, is ever appropriate. And I don’t agree with above references that imply that Jesus used similar methods, but even if I’m incorrect, Jesus is the only one who can teach without ever being hypocritical.

  19. Infinite power and YET still wanting more

    Such a good reply…..and thank you for asking the REAL questions…
    I agree.. every person… who shows up to a food bank, or the bishop, or for food stamps… ( I never give money to the walking around… unless they can answer a few simple questions) MUST be held accountable… to show that they WILL acknowledge that there is/are many things they can do to change their status… AND IF there is true need… then … but if NOT… then sometimes we need to suffer… until we come to ourselves…
    I have… and it was the best thing for me…

  20. “I couldn’t help seeing how many ways these individuals were victims of their own earlier–and continuing–poor life choices. … I think Jesus would expect me to see through the facades…”

    “…every person… who shows up to a food bank, or the bishop, or for food stamps… MUST be held accountable…”

    Those two comments by the two anonymous commenters above begs the question: what kind of morality is it to blame the poor for their poverty in a system where the game is fixed, where all the rules are rigged for the benefit of those who already have all the power and wealth?

    Why is it the poor who must be held accountable, but not the rich who deliberately create the conditions of inequality and poverty? What kind of morality says suffering is good? What kind of morality starts from the assumption that the poor are liars and fraudsters so don’t deserve help unless they can offer proof of their suffering, but ignores the massive frauds being perpetrated against citizens by banksters and corporate thieves? What kind of morality puts conditions on helping the most vulnerable citizens?

    Here’s a couple interesting articles on this issue. The first is by a Christian evangelist (I’m not sure but he might be one of those prosperity preachers) who listed 20 things different between the rich and poor, which seems to blame the poor for their condition. The second is a response listing 20 things the poor have to do every day that the rich don’t. It ends with these words: “These are the real habits of the poor, those with whom Jesus identifies most closely.”

    20 Things the Rich Do Every Day
    http://www.daveramsey.com/blog/20-things-the-rich-do-every-day

    20 Things the Poor Do Everyday That the Rich Never Have to Worry About
    http://www.alternet.org/20-things-poor-do-everyday-rich-never-have-worry-about

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