On Saturday, the world lost a great advocate for human rights with the passing of Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, Nobel Prize-winner and best-selling author of the book Night. Mr. Wiesel was a great inspiration to me and millions of others for his constant reminders of the value of every human life, his fervent belief in the importance of freedom of religious expression, and his pleas to never forget the evil that can be done if good people remain silent.
Elie Wiesel was a voice cautioning against the injustice that happens all too often and, indeed, continues to happen today. He was a treasured advocate for humane treatment for all people, though his warnings were often ignored. In his seminal work Night, he addressed the human capacity to ignore tragedy as it slowly envelops us. This was perhaps best characterized by Moshe the Beadle, a character who escapes a concentration camp to return to his hometown with a warning of the horrors happening at the hands of the Nazis, only to be ignored. Elie himself was imprisoned in both Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps during World War II before going on to become a distinguished writer, academic and human rights advocate.
I only met Elie Wiesel once--by chance and only briefly--while attending a 2007 conference at a hotel in Tampa, Florida. This was long before I became president and CEO of Open Doors, an organization that advocates on behalf of persecuted Christians around the world. In 2007, I was running a rescue mission serving the homeless in Tacoma, Washington. In the scheme of things, I was no one of importance compared with Wiesel. But while we had never met before, I knew him well. His words on the dignity of human life and the freedom of everyone to believe or not believe the faith of their choice. The right of everyone to live free regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or other human divisions governments and people may create.
"Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must--at that moment--become the center of the universe," Wiesel famously said. I took those words to heart.
He was famous long before I knew of him. He received his Nobel prize the year I graduated from high school. He had been consequential, I was not. He had spoken to presidents and world leaders, I was just a simple social worker. Yet when I saw him sitting by the pool relaxing in the sun, I knew I had to meet him, just to tell him how much I appreciated his work. His words. Of course, I also knew that this must happen to him constantly and that by interrupting him poolside I was certainly being the worse kind of fan--one who didn't know his limits. Yet I sewed up my courage and walked over to him. "Mr. Wiesel, I'm sorry to interrupt but I just wanted to tell you that you have been an inspiration to me. Your book, it changed my life. Thank you." I got the words out--but just barely. I was nervous. I'm sure he could tell because he smiled broadly and asked me to come back as I briskly turned to leave so as not to interrupt him further. "Thank you very much," he said to me. "Before you go, tell me about yourself. What is your name? What do you do?" He seemed genuinely interested and we spoke for a few moments about my work with the homeless and about my life and family. It was a big moment for me, a fleeting moment to him, but it meant so much at the time. I recall going back and wondering if I had been too much. Maybe I shouldn't have interrupted. He had been so kind and so interested, but I still wondered if I had done the wrong thing. Then I reminded myself that we don't get enough encouragement in this world. If I was only another voice in his cheering section, then so be it.
Just days after my meeting Elie Wiesel, I was reminded why saying and doing something, no matter how small, is always the right thing to do. I picked up the newspaper to see that he had been attacked, an attempted kidnapping at the Argent Hotel in San Francisco, apparently by someone who had wanted to force him into admitting that it had all been a lie. That his book and all the things written about the Holocaust hadn't happened. Thankfully he escaped.
As I read that article, I was proud that I had spoken a kind word to Elie Wiesel. Especially knowing, in a much more profound way after the attempted kidnapping, that standing up for what's right carries a heavy toll. And that not everyone appreciates someone who speaks out on behalf of human rights.
Today I carry on a bit of Wiesel's legacy and so can you. My role is speaking out now for the millions of Christians who are living under persecution, unable to choose the faith and religion that they believe in without fear, harassment and danger. Our Open Doors World Watchlist calculates the increases in persecution in the 50 most dangerous and difficult places to be a Christian. Throughout the year, Open Doors documents many cases and circumstances of persecution taking place around the world, not least of which is the ISIS genocide of Christians, speaking out on behalf of those unable to speak for themselves.
But today I'm just happy I had a chance to give a word of encouragement to someone who meant so much to me. I'm inspired to honor Wiesel's legacy by continuing to serve and advocating for the persecuted and urging others to do likewise. And I'm reminded to encourage those who I admire by expressing my gratitude.
And so, once more, I say thank you, Elie Wiesel.