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WWJD About Homelessness in America?

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Along with spandex shorts, Pokémon, SUVs, and those black leather Doc Marten boots, the 1990s gave the masses a simple bracelet with four letters: WWJD. For people of Christian faith, this popular motto meant, "What Would Jesus Do?"

If you encounter some persistent temptation, those four letters are a reminder to help you make the right decision.

I was sitting with a large group of faith leaders in Los Angeles this past week, when I thought of what these four letters brought to our popular culture two decades ago. I realized that WWJD could also be a spiritual reminder when you step over a sleeping homeless man sprawled across the sidewalk or when a tin can is shoved into your personal space by a woman in desperate need of change.

The group consisted of leaders from the Jewish and Islamic traditions as well as the Christian faith, but the idea WWJD can apply to any of these. WWJD: what would Jesus do, or what would Jehovah do? WWAD: what would Allah do? WWBD: what would Buddha do? Bestow an act of compassion on hurting people or ignore these homeless people by concluding they just need to get a job?

Mobilizing the Faith Community

The nearly three dozen faith leaders met to bring together their moral voices in order to tell society, "enough is enough!" Their purpose for gathering was to tell our society that the scourge of homelessness ravaging our population needs to end.

For decades the faith community has helped build an amazing network of compassionate institutions, from homeless shelters and soup kitchens to food pantries and transitional housing. They have transformed the lives of thousands of people.

But despite their efforts, homelessness has increased dramatically, to a point that political and community leaders are yearning for new ways to approach homelessness.

A leader who represented hundreds of Islamic congregations in Southern California shared with the group, "After years of performing acts of 'Rahman' (for example, compassionate programs that feed homeless people) my young people keep telling me that we need to do more than just fill their stomachs. We need to house them."

Heads nodded. Handing out a sack lunch or a bag of groceries is strategic compassion to fill a person's stomach today. But if they continue to return for months, or even years, that "Mitzvah," the Jewish term for "good deed," becomes less and less compassionate.

From Compassion to Justice

Those in the Jewish tradition also embrace "Tzedakah," best defined as an "act of justice." Where a Mitzvah is passing out clean socks to homeless people, an act of Tzedakah would help that person access permanent housing or help change a society that allows homelessness in the first place.

Justice should become the true mantra for ending homelessness in this country. Across our nation, we spend billions of dollars performing compassionate acts. It is really time for the faith community to use its moral voice, its faith traditions and to begin to transform our society's approach from Mitzvah to Tzedakah, from compassion to justice.

What would Jesus do about today's homelessness? He would start with a sack lunch and a prayer. And then would begin to overturn society's approach to homelessness.

Perhaps in the decade of 2010, a new sort of bracelet will become the fad: WWID. What Would I Do (to end homelessness).