Starved for Dignity

The beggar in downtown Jerusalem taught me that the greatest gift we can give each other is the gift of acceptance. It might seem like a small step, but in choosing to affirm human dignity – to accept people because they are people – we inadvertently declare war on one of the most consistent violators of human freedom

Many years ago I was walking in downtown Jerusalem and came to a major intersection where I had to wait for the pedestrian light to turn green. In that short minute, an old, hunchbacked beggar shuffled up to the crowd of delayed pedestrians and began shaking his little coin-filled plastic cup in our faces – something all of us tried very hard to ignore. I was relieved when the light turned green and I could hurriedly walk away from this awkward encounter. But as I reached the other side, the sudden blaring of car horns made me turn my head, and I was horrified to see the old man slowly limping his way across the busy street. Muttering under my breath, I ran into the street, grabbed the beggar by his elbow, and led him to safety. Feeling a touch of guilt, I grabbed a few coins from my pocket and tossed them into the beggar’s hand. But before I quite understood what was happening, he gently placed the coins back into my hand, leaned forward and whispered, “Thank you – for touching me,” before slowly making his way to another group of delayed pedestrians.

I stood there, in the midst of all the city’s chaos, completely stunned.

In that brief moment, my world was turned upside down. I suddenly saw not a beggar, but a person – and one who, in that exchange, had been the better of the two of us. It was he who had touched me that day, leaving his indelible mark for all the years to come.


Saturday, December 10, was Human Rights Day – the day we commemorate the United Nation’s historic vote to accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The Declaration took three years to write and was the world’s response to the terrible atrocities committed during the Second World War. The Declaration consists of 30 articles that establish basic rights and freedoms for all human kind. The first article sets the foundation, declaring that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and right. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Many are the issues associated with human rights (and their violation) – issues that are well represented in the remarkable work of our sixty peace heroes. There is one issue in particular, however, that seems to weave in and out of their stories, making a repeated appearance – whether in the capacity of a main player, or skulking somewhere in the background, unheeded.

The culprit, astoundingly, is poverty.

According to the United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR),

No social phenomenon is as comprehensive in its assault on human rights as poverty. Poverty erodes or nullifies economic and social rights such as the right to health, adequate housing, food and safe water, and the right to education. The same is true of civil and political rights, such as the right to a fair trial, political participation and security of the person. This fundamental recognition is reshaping the international community’s approach to the next generation of poverty reduction initiatives. (“Human Rights Dimension of Poverty”) [1]

The reason for this is that poverty is a great colluder: it is that “secret” ingredient that, when tossed in with an already unsavory concoction, turns it into something toxic. As such, poverty tends to be one of the most consistent violators of human rights. And yet, it often remains an unseen force – an almost invisible backdrop that doesn’t always present itself as one of the major oppressors of human freedom.

This surprised me at first, but a quick look at our list of peace heroes proved the point: I could hardly believe how many of these women and men faced difficult situations that were, in some way or other, exacerbated by poverty, even though their stories are as unlike each other as can be. There are the obvious heroes, like Mother Teresa or Egypt’s Mama Maggie, who looked poverty squarely in the face and stepped, undaunted, right into the heart of their country’s most impoverished communities. But there are other heroes who also contended with the devastating effects of poverty, though it was not the focus of their struggle. Among them, for example, is Fred Hollows, whose medical work among the Aboriginal communities in Australia uncovered the intricate relationship between poverty and inadequate healthcare. In Kenya, Wangari Maathai’s re-forestation project revealed the many ways in which poverty can have an adverse effect on the environment. In Iran, Nader Khalili bore witness to the way poverty turns natural phenomena, like earthquakes, into mass-scale disasters. In Brazil, Dom Helder Camara exposed the link between poverty and state terror. And in Yemen, Tawakkol Karman’s courage unmasked the connection between corruption at the highest levels of government and crushing poverty among the people.

It is important to recognize that what makes poverty so devastating, in addition to its various physical manifestations, is “the daily assaults on human dignity that accompany [it]” (“Human Rights”). Mama Maggie, referring to the thousands of children living in Cairo’s garbage slums, says that even though they “are hungry for bread,” the children “are also hungry for love and acceptance. They are naked [because they have no] clothes, but they are also naked [because they have no] dignity and hope.” Similar words were spoken by Mother Teresa, who said that “poverty doesn’t only consist of being hungry for bread, but rather it is a tremendous hunger for human dignity” (93). [2] The women and men mentioned above were heroes in the fight against poverty first and foremost because they chose to see the people around them as human beings with intrinsic value and worth. They gave these people back their dignity, where poverty, among other things, had stripped them of it.

Human Rights Day has come and gone. But we have the opportunity, through our day-to-day choices, to become the champions of human dignity – to say, in our actions as well as our words, that all people have worth. The beggar in downtown Jerusalem taught me that the greatest gift we can give each other is the gift of acceptance. It might seem like a small step, but in choosing to affirm human dignity – to accept people because they are people – we inadvertently declare war on one of the most consistent violators of human freedom. “Let us really treat each other as brothers and sisters,” said Dom Helder Camara. “Let us liberate, in the highest and most profound sense of the word, all the human beings who live round about us” (qtd. in McDonagh 41).

As the year comes to a close, I challenge each of us to take a moment to look around and see where poverty is obscuring the face of a fellow human being, remembering that people are “hungry not only for bread but hungry for love, hungry to be wanted” (Mother Teresa 93). Poverty comes in many guises. The question is, do we know our poor? Those round about us who are in need of bread, or of better healthcare, of justice, or of friendship? “Know the poorest of the poor among your neighbors,” says Mother Teresa, “in your neighborhoods, in your town, in your city, perhaps in your own family. When you know them, that will lead you to love them. And love will impel you to serve them” (102).

A small step, yes. But just imagine, if every one of us took it, what a beautiful world this would be.


[1] “Human Rights Dimension of Poverty.” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.
[2] Mother Teresa. No Greater Love. New York: MJF Books, 1989.
[3] McDonagh, Francis. “Brazilian Archbishop’s Vision Still Challenges Church.” National Catholic Reporter, 1 Oct. 2004. EBSCO. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

1 thought on “Starved for Dignity”

  1. Elie, thank you for sharing this remarkable story. I, too, was touched, and feel challenged to be more intentional about doing something about the stark poverty around me in South Africa. It often feels like the problem is so big, that anything I do will be so insignificant. But, like you say, it is simply about giving love to someone, even just through a simple touch … that is something I can do!

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