'The congregation was besides themselves': Mormon bishop dresses as homeless man to teach flock a lesson

Mormon Bishop David Musselman dressed up as a homeless man to test his congregation's charity. Courtesy David Musselman/Tara Starling

A Mormon bishop who wanted to teach his flock a lesson about charity went to the extreme and enlisted a Hollywood-style makeup artist to transform him into a scruffy vagrant who then panhandled outside his church.

David Musselman, 45, said he knew some of his congregants would be kind and some might be mean, "but what surprised me the most was the reaction of indifference."

"The majority of the people just ignored me and went to great lengths not to make eye contact," Musselman, the bishop of Taylorsville Fourth Ward in a suburb of Salt Lake City, told NBC News on Friday.

"And that was an unexpected lesson for me: We don't always have to give money or even food, but if we act the way we say we believe, just smiling and making eye contact and allowing them to have a little bit of dignity can be enough."

Musselman said he got the idea for the stunt from a friend of his who chided him for being annoyed that she is always stopping to empty her pockets for the unfortunate.

He took it to heart and then began thinking about how he could get his church members to do the same. He decided he needed something with more "shock value" than a Sunday sermon to get the point across.

He approached makeup artist Tara Starling, whose TV and film credits include "High School Musical," and also started an organization that makes sandwiches for the homeless.

"For me, it was the two parts of my life colliding," she said.

Starling spent about two hours last Sunday giving Musselman unkempt mutton-chops, grimy, scarred skin and bad teeth.

About an hour before services, he showed up at the front door of his church in dirty clothes with a sign that asked for food and a box where people could put money.

"It was very surreal," said Musselman, a divorce mediator and father of six.

He had dozens of interactions with people arriving at the church. Some were giving: He collected an apple, some crackers and about $20.

"But I had several people ask me to leave the property," he said.

He said the children were "very kind," and he could tell many of them wanted to help and approached their parents.

"Some of them gave and some of them didn't." he said. "Some wished me a happy Thanksgiving and some avoided me."

When the service started, Musselman walked into the church and took a seat in the front pew until an assistant, who was in on the ruse, announced that "this homeless man would like to say a few words."

"The congregation was besides themselves," the bishop said. "They had no idea what was going to happen."

He approached the pulpit in character, recited the hymn "Have You Done Any Good Today," said he wanted to give some of what he had collected to the church, and asked if the bishop was there.

"Of course, they said he wasn't. Then I pulled my wig and glasses off," Musselman said.

"The gasp the congregation had nearly knocked me over. They were stunned."

Jaimi Larsen, 38, who had not recognized Musselman when she saw him outside, said, "You could hear a pin drop."

Once he had unmasked himself, the bishop gave a talk on "giving and gratitude and compassion," which apparently struck an emotional chord.

"There was one woman who was pretty much sobbing uncontrollably," Larsen said.

Afterward, those who had shunned Musselman came up and confessed their shame. One woman said she was going to tell her grown children to donate anything they bought her for the holidays to a homeless shelter.

"I felt horrible that they felt so horrible," he said.

"But I believe it had the effect I hoped it would have."