Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Why the "Homeless" Bishop Story Makes Me Mad

  You may have heard recently about a Mormon bishop who dressed up as a homeless man to teach his congregation a lesson on compassion. If not, here's an article from the Salt Lake Tribune. I'll sum up the article. A bishop turned to his Hollywood-makeup artist friend to turn him into a homeless man for a day. He wore ratty clothes, had an icky beard, a crutch, and a sign. Then he stood in front of the church wishing people "Happy Thanksgiving" on Sunday. He then went inside the building, and sat in the front row during sacrament.  In the middle of the meeting, he got up and asked if he could speak. He was allowed, but people were freaking out. He took off his hat and his beard, and the congregation got really emotional.
   In the article, he talks about the different reactions he received. They ran the gamut from giving him food, water, and money to telling him to get off church property.  Some people tried to help him walk up to the podium, because he used a crutch. In fact, his first counselor got him a water bottle, and escorted him to the stand. Others ignored him completely, until he shook things up by trying to speak in church.
   This article makes a nice story about loving everyone. And it ties into tales about the Saviour appearing as a beggar, only to be cast aside, until the moment of reveal, and then repentance was sought.  That's not what bothers me about this situation.

   I'm bothered, because it's easy to be compassionate to those that are obviously less well-off. I'm not minimizing the affects of homelessness on a person, nor am I saying that giving is simple. I'm saying when the difference between you and another person is so pronounced that you can actively see the difference; generosity, kindness, and giving is more automatic.
   And while some of the church members were kind to the obviously out-of-place homeless man, significantly less of them would have acted the same way towards an unwed mother, or a homosexual couple, had they tried the same thing.

   Some will say I'm being too cynical or that I'm one of those "angry ex-Mormons".  And I'd hope that the church members would prove me wrong. But far too many times, I've been the person that conforms outwardly, but is shunned anyway.
   You see, in a lot of ways, Mormonism is like High School. There's the "cool kids", which are the large, well-to-do families, where the mom stays home, and the dad works 9-5 and then works as Bishop or Stake President. The "wannabe's", who don't make as much, don't live in the suburb, maybe the mom has to work, or there aren't as many kids-but the family still tries to sit at the same lunch table.  There are the "new kids", or those investigating the church, who are fawned over as potential converts. (This lasts until a little after baptism, then drops off unless the convert is somehow connected to the cool kids. And I'm not being facetious much at all. My husband served a mission in Portugal, and said that people would drive miles out of the way to pick up an investigator, but once they got baptized, just stop. That's why retention rates in Portugal are like 20%)
   Of course, like High School, there are other cliques. But the group I want to talk about are the invisibles. I don't know if you had these types of people at your High School, but I did at mine. These were the people that were too poor, too fat, too pimply, too intense, too weird...just too much (or even too little). They are the people that, when you look in your yearbook, wonder who that person was-even if you had 50 people in your graduating class.

   The invisibles at church are the ones that come every week, or every other week. You don't know much about them, they are just there. They dress like a Mormon, sing hymns like a Mormon, will pray like a Mormon, and when asked how they're doing, they'll smile and say "Just fine", like a Mormon. If they get any notice, it's pity. "Oh, Sister Jones looks awfully tired today." or "How sad! I hear little Gracie Yates is having problems in school."
   I've been a Mormon invisible. I've been pitied for being a child to a single mother. I've been ostracized because I wasn't as "sweet" or "feminine" as the other girls in my Young Women's class. I've been pitied because of infertility. I've been shunned because of radical views on feminism.

  So I think it's a crock to have a stunt like what the Bishop did, and have the congregation say "Oh, we've learned our lesson! We'll be nicer to people that are hurting and give more to people that need it!". Because they see the same people week after week after week, and don't care enough to get to know them (outside of Visiting/Home Teaching assignments, which are superficial most of the time).
   I think, that instead of going for shock value with a homeless costume, the bishop should have tried some strategies to have people show more compassion for those already in the ward. It's kind of how I feel about the US sending aid to other countries. Yes, it's nice that you can give $25 million to African Aids. How about feeding America's hungry and poor?
   It's often easy to see the forest when you're standing on the hill. But you know what the forest is made out of? Trees. Trees that are sick, that are dying, that are too close to another tree and don't get adequate nourishment. Forests are also made of bushes, and grass, and flowers, and other things that don't look like trees. But they're a part of the same forest; a part of the same system.
   And honestly, I have no solution. I just think it's easy to want to change your attitude when there is a shocking event. Most people that I've asked about this article have said something like "This article made me want to change how I deal with the people in need." When I asked who was in need, they said "The homeless, and orphans, and poor and stuff." When I pressed about those in spiritual need in their ward, they looked at me like I was crazy.
   Because spiritual need is hidden. It's not noticeable like tattered clothes and a stained beard.  I think it's sad that members of the church seem to be better at dealing with physical needs than spiritual. It doesn't take much thought, effort, or mercy to throw money or food at a problem. (Unless, of course, those things are scarce in your family. Not trying to be rude to those in that situation) . It takes a lot more concern to look at the person sharing the pew with you, and want to know them and help them.

   My point is that instead of the take-away message being "Let's help the poor and the needy in our community", I think the emphasis should be on "Let's help the needy in spirit in our church."  But if that is too much to ask, then please, donate to a homeless or battered women's shelter. Or do both!


  1. So true! I wonder what the outcome would have been if the bishop had instead gotten up on the stand and talked about his lifelong struggles with same-sex attraction and then a couple weeks later announced it had all been a ploy to see if it changed how the ward members treated him. I doubt he'd last long as bishop.

    The other part that kind of had me rolling my eyes was that while I think it's great that some of the people offered him food and money I really don't think you're a terrible person if you don't give to every panhandler you come across or if you're the type who would rather give to a shelter or the local food bank. And I probably would not approach an unknown homeless person with my children in tow. It's not because I want to steer clear of the "riff raff" but that I know that a large percentage of homeless people are severely mentally unstable and addicted to drugs. I know that most often they are harmless but I also know that someone jonesing for a fix or paranoid delusional (or both) is not generally the safest person to be around. Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped after her dad had tried to help out some homeless dude. Honestly I can't blame those who steered clear although I do think I would have at least suggested to the bishopric that someone find out if he has a place to go and if needed get a couple of people willing to offer him a ride to a local shelter or soup kitchen.

    1. I would love to read an article about that type of bishop! But you're right-he probably would be released.
      And I agree with your last point, as well. It's not smart (or feasible) to give to every needy person, nor does it make you a bad person for not.

  2. Do you know how special you are? It takes effort, will and a desire for true compassion to look at this story and see what you do. Your heart is deep and I, for one, appreciate you.