This story, about the Mormon bishop who disguised himself as a homeless beggar to see how his ward members would react, has already created quite a stir.      

I understand Bookslinger’s observation that some of the ward members did not react perhaps as ideally as one might wish.

But I am also really uncomfortable with what the bishop did. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, he deceived his ward members in order to catch them at their worst. This does not seem consistent with scriptural principles.

Second, his action genuinely frightened some ward members who had had dangerous encounters with the professional homeless before. At the same time, it may have shamed other ward members into taking dangerous courses of action with the professional homeless in the future.

Third, he has compromised his ability to sit sympathetically in counsel with his ward members as a bishop. A bishop who plays “gotcha” games with his members is not a bishop many members will feel comfortable coming to to confess their weaknesses and seek counsel and help.

It is not difficult for me to imagine some of his file leaders reaching for a bottle of aspirin after seeing this story.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh on him. And so, I have thought of a good way for the Church to put his loudly proclaimed sympathy and sensitivity to the professional homeless to good use.

Many years ago, I lived in a small, struggling ward in a fairly large city. The ward had 300 members on the books, but it was a good Sunday if we hit 100 attending Sacrament meeting. The ward boundaries took in both some suburban areas with prosperous members — who provided much of the ward leadership — and what we called the Combat Zone. This was an area on one of the main streets in the city that was notorious for its adult theaters and small motels that charged by the hour.

Sadly, we had some ward members living in the Combat Zone, including a few good and faithful members, who couldn’t afford more expensive housing elsewhere. I home-taught one of these families for a time: Divorced mother*. Three sons, all of whom were Eagle Scouts, all of whom served missions. I could not help noticing that one of the neighbors liked to shave his head and had a large swastika flag in his front window. (Perhaps I judge him too harshly: The sister I home-taught reported that he was always very polite to her and kind to the boys. Apparently, other than supporting a genocidal political philosophy, he was a pretty decent guy. An old joke about Lincoln’s assassination comes to mind.)

I have never been a bishop and am serenely confident that I never will be. (The Church has lingering misgivings about the Alderaan business, even though I’ve explained many times that it was all Tarkin’s fault. The man was insane.) But I was privileged to work closely with a fine bishop in this ward for many years, and among other things, I occasionally was given assignments in connection with the bishop’s duty to administer assistance to the poor.

This led to some interesting experiences. There was, for example, the time one woman called for help. She was out of diapers for her baby. I do not recall whether we could find her name anywhere on our ward records, but, when in doubt, we are encouraged to go ahead and give assistance. When I arrived with the diapers at the motel room where she was staying, I discovered that I had interrupted her with a client. We later discovered that the woman was a diagnosed schizophrenic who, because she was not judged dangerous to others, could not be involuntarily committed — which was very clearly what she needed.

An aside: I am bemused by activists in the Church whose existence has been so sheltered that they think the biggest issue facing the Church is whether women should be welcome to wear pants to Sacrament Meeting.

Another aspect of living and serving in this ward was that our city had a fairly large population, but only a modest percentage of Mormons.There were enough members for two or three stakes. Our city was also a major highway communications center for the region. As a result, we had a great deal of what the Church terms “transient welfare” to deal with. These were folks on the road who felt the need to find a Mormon church and ask for assistance. There was enough transient welfare that our stake president worked up a rotating schedule for each bishopric to take a month and handle all the transient welfare. It did simplify the administration, though it was a significant burden on the bishop when it was his turn.

Because of the amount of work involved, my bishop assigned much of the welfare administration to other ward leaders. I don’t have a problem with this. He had teenage children who needed to have their father there from time to time. But I found myself dealing with a lot of transients when it was my turn. Most were frankly pretty hard to deal with. Our procedure was to first determine if they were actually Church members. If not, we directed them to one of the homeless shelters in town. If they were Church members, we pulled out the Church directory, contacted the leaders of whatever Church unit they had come from, and asked about their situation, to determine if Church assistance was appropriate. It’s hard to say no: I contacted one local leader, from three states away, who informed me that the man I was calling about was just out of jail after six months’ on drug charges and hadn’t been seen in Church in years. “I dunno; do what you think is best.” In other words: I think the answer ought to be no, but I can’t bring myself to say it; you do that.**

That was more rule than exception, I’m afraid. There was one positive, uplifting experience: A young woman with her child on the way from one side of the country to the other called, apologized for bothering us, but the fuel pump had gone out on her car and she just didn’t have the cash for a new one; she hated to ask, but could we help? I called her bishop; he told me she had been putting her life together, was headed to a fairly solid job offer that might be just the thing to help her start a new life, and please, please do anything you can to help. Well. The woman gave me the part number over the phone (impressive in itself); I dropped by the Autozone and got the part (using my own cash, but of course I kept the receipt for later reimbursement from the fast offering fund); and brought it to her motel. She literally snatched the pump out of my hand, grabbed some tools, and got to work putting it in her car. Herself. That was impressive, even if it turned out not to solve the problem, and we ultimately had to tow the car to a local shop to have a plugged fuel line cleared. (The shop owner charged us just $65; he had heard the woman’s story; the additional costs, which I am sure were significant, were on him. He was not LDS. Mormonism is true Christianity, but it does not have a monopoly on decency.) The woman asked how to pay back the help. I explained that Church assistance does not come with any formal  obligation, but that the Lord would doubtless smile on her if, once she was settled in her new ward and back on her feet, she gave a little extra to the fast offering fund.

I wish all the transient welfare had been like that. Most was like the welfare recipient — I am not sure which one — who one of our leaders unwisely allowed to see where the check book was stored when he wrote them out a check for assistance. Not long after, our ward building was broken into, by someone who bashed in the back door, headed directly to the clerk’s office, pried it open, went directly to the drawer with the checks, pried it open, and stole the checks. The property damage was estimated at several thousand dollars. The police later caught a guy trying to cash one of our checks at a local bank. He didn’t understand the requirement of two signatures on the check, the bank tellers had the presence of mind to quietly call the cops, and he was arrested in the parking lot with our check book. Got six month’s probation because the police couldn’t prove that he was the one who actually burgled our church (and I doubt he was) so the only charges were receiving stolen property (the checks) and attempting to pass a bad check. Which were plea bargained down to the aforementioned six months’ probation.

Yeah, that showed him.

After a couple of years of this, the local stake presidents got their heads together, consulted with the Area Authority, and received permission to call a transient bishop, vested with full episcopal powers but no ward assignment, to deal with transient welfare throughout the city. The man chosen was already an experienced bishop with both some background in accounting and some training in mental health and social work.

And my modest proposal, if you haven’t already seen it coming: I think Bishop Musselman would be just the fellow to call as a transient bishop in the Taylorsville area. This would afford him the opportunity to spend countless hours assisting those for whom he professes such compassion, while resolving the awkward situation of how his ward members could ever feel comfortable confiding their spiritual weaknesses to him again. Win-win!


*I am well aware that Christ condemned divorce in general. But even Christ made exceptions. I believe one of those exceptions applied here. I was witness to the continuing baleful effects of the ex-husband on his boys, in spite of the fact that he was eventually denied even visitation rights.

**It may seem harsh to non-Mormons that Fast Offering assistance is primarily reserved for Church members. It is therefore appropriate to point out that the Church also has a Humanitarian Fund specifically established to help those outside the Church. However, it is used primarily for community projects, largely in the Third World (though I believe there is also some support for homeless shelters in American inner cities) and is not administered through the bishops. Members are encouraged to assist with homeless shelters and other assistance efforts in their own communities on their own initiative. Several members of my present unit, for example, are active in the local children’s legal assistance charity, and one brother is very active in Big Brothers of America.



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