MJ Sharp – a fully engaged peacemaker
Advancing mutual understanding energized UN expert
John and Michele Sharp knew their son lived and worked in a country many people wouldn’t even consider visiting because of the potential dangers.
Of course they knew. But as Michele said, “We could not not support him, even though it was scary.”
John said, “We both knew that this was his calling, that he would live in such areas. We learned to live with it. As Michele said, asking him not to do that would be like asking him not to breathe.”
Their son, Michael J. Sharp, had an engaging personality, a knack for business and spoke several languages. He was the sort of person who could have made a name for himself in any number of careers.
But Michael, known as MJ, was not working on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley. He was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a nation where rebel militia groups and government troops have been killing each other for years.
MJ, 34, and a Swedish-Chilean colleague, Zaida Catalán, 36, were abducted and killed in March 2017 while investigating the activities of a militia group and the national army on behalf of the United Nations. Three Congolese drivers and an interpreter also were abducted and are presumed dead.
MJ grew up in Harleysville and Scottdale, Pennsylvania, and Goshen, Indiana. He graduated from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where he majored in history and minored in German.
Military Counseling Network
After college, he went to Germany, where he worked with the Military Counseling Network, a project of the German Mennonite Peace Committee. He “befriended American GIs and got to learn about military life,” John said. “He walked alongside soldiers who’d had transformative experiences on the battlefield and wanted to become COs (conscientious objectors).”
One of MJ’s co-workers in Germany was Tim Huber, now associate editor for Mennonite World Review.
Tim worked with MJ in Germany in 2006-2009. They lived in Bammental, a village outside Heidelberg.
“We did multiple things,” Tim said. “The main thrust was helping COs go through the arduous and confusing application process to be recognized as a CO.”
MJ often visited an American army base to socialize and play cards with the soldiers. As Tim puts it, “He had the ability to relate and be personable, even in that setting. He was so good at relating to other people that these sergeants would invite the Mennonite onto their base to play poker with them.”
Playing cards with the soldiers was fun, but for MJ, Tim said, it was also “a safe place to hear what they were talking about. It helped him speak their language better” – a language Tim calls “American military.”
After working and studying in Germany – he earned a master’s degree in peace studies and conflict resolution while there – MJ came home to northern Indiana for a year.
A year in Indiana
John and Michele had moved to Hesston, Kansas, but by that time, “Goshen was basically his home,” Michele said. “My parents still lived there. He was very close to my parents. He would use his grandparents’ place as his home base when he was in the U.S.”
MJ had worked part time for a software developer while in Germany, and the company wanted MJ to start selling the software in the U.S. The software was a database that doctoral students used, so MJ would travel to universities, demonstrate the application, sell it and train users
John said, “He loved the training but didn’t love the sales. He didn’t like the pressure.”
MJ started talking with people at Mennonite Central Committee because, as Michele said, “By then, he knew what his calling was – to work in reconciliation, in areas with all kinds of conflict.”
MCC first suggested an assignment for MJ in a Spanish-speaking or German-speaking region because of MJ’s fluency in those languages.
“He said, ‘No, it’s OK – I’d love to learn another language,’” Michele said. “He got an assignment in Congo and they sent him to Brussels for French language training, and he loved it.”
MJ was enthusiastic about working in Africa. “We could tell the minute that started to develop, the spark was back in his eyes,” Michele said.
With MCC in Democratic Republic of the Congo
MJ served as coordinator for MCC’s work in eastern Congo for about three years. He supported the Congolese Protestant Council of Churches and its agencies to help displaced people and victims of violence.
He also encouraged members of armed groups to lay down their guns and reintegrate into society.
MJ’s commitment to reconciliation and justice – rooted in Jesus’ example – was a driving force in his life. “Obviously, east Congo was a place to do that kind of thing,” John noted.
Other organizations were paying attention to what MJ was doing in the DRC. John said, “The State Department and the FBI had tried to reccruit him. The embassy recommended him to the UN. He was very well known by the end of the three years” with MCC.
Working for the United Nations
In 2015, MJ accepted a job with the United Nations as a member of the UN’s Group of Experts on the DRC.
John said it was kind of a natural development. “He’d become an expert on militia groups. He had built relationships with rebel leaders and knew what they were about.”
Not long before MJ was killed, he sent some materials to his father to proofread. The documents were MJ’s application to work for the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands.
“He was thinking that might be something he would do next, with his experience as an investigator,” John said.
Michele said the violence MJ had seen would take a toll on anybody, and MJ knew he might need to step back, at least for a while.
During MJ’s time in the DRC, “We had to make a conscious decision not to live in fear,” Michele said. “We wanted to celebrate that he had such a strong call to this kind of work and he was so fulfilled in it.” She added, “He knew that we supported him fully.”
MJ was infused with a special kind of energy.
Michele said, “He was polite, kind, motivated and a fully engaged person in life. He died as he lived – fully engaged.”