The Eastern Mennonite University community is grieving for Michael J. Sharp, the alumnus who was reported dead in the Democratic Republic of the Congo yesterday.
In a chapel sermon today [Wednesday, March 29], fellow alumnus Kevin Ressler memorialized his friend as “a man who chose to go into dangerous places without a weapon to make safer communities for strangers, for people he did not know.”
Sharp worked for the United Nations and was investigating human rights abuses in the Central Kasai region at the time of his kidnapping, with five others, in mid-March. He had previously worked for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) as Eastern Congo coordinator.
“Many peacebuilders live with the keen awareness that their work involves taking risks,” said Daryl Byler, executive director of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP). “In this tight-knit community, we grieve the loss of every peacebuilder, whether they were trained at CJP or, as in Michael’s case, came to peacebuilding as a natural outgrowth of his faith, his Anabaptist education and his passion for social justice.”
Prayer gatherings today
Gatherings were held in Martin Chapel at noon and mid-afternoon, offering a space for alumni, faculty, staff and students to grieve and pray for Sharp, his family, friends and those involved in the violence, as well as the Congolese people who have suffered in a decades-long conflict.
The noon circle included reflections about Sharp offered by those who knew him well and those who were close to his family or Sharp’s former co-workers with MCC. Others who did not know him came to the space to grieve, touched by his life, his choices, his faith and his untimely death.
A service later this spring on campus is being planned, said Campus Pastor Brian Martin Burkholder.
A man of strong convictions and faith
A 2005 graduate who earned a degree in history and minored in German, Sharp “sought justice” in his academic work and his reporting for the student newspaper, said Professor Mark Sawin. “He was a model EMU student and a model human being. The world is a better place because he lived the kind of life that led to his death.”
Prior to his UN work, Sharp served with MCC, partnering with the Congolese Prostestant Council of Churches’ peace and reconciliation program to convince rebel fighters to put away their arms and go home. The risks were clearly apparent, as Sharp shared in a January 2015 interview with NPR when he described walking unarmed into the camps of rebels to drink tea and listen to stories of men away from home for years at time.
He shared a guiding question with MCC interviewers in 2013: “If Jesus’ example is for everyone everywhere, what does that look like in eastern Congo, where war has been the norm for 20 years?”
While his son was still missing, his father John Sharp acknowledged the risk of the work his son was involved in. “I have said on more than one occasion that we peacemakers should be willing to risk our lives as those who join the military do. Now it’s no longer theory,” he told Goshen News on March 20. Sharp, a history professor at Hesston College in Hesston, Kansas, has written extensively on Anabaptist history and witness.
Tributes to ‘M.J.’
From Kevin Ressler ‘07
Kevin Ressler, a friend of MJ Sharp’s, was scheduled to visit EMU to speak to classes and give a chapel long before the death of his friend was announced. Ressler’s sermon turned into a powerful eulogy and a call to action.
The word of God, to me, is not dried ink on parchment. It is the opportunity to participate in divinity: To take your skin and the sinews that hold your bones together, to walk into the dangerous places, to take on the mantel of justice, to put yourself in a place where you may lose your life so that someone else may live.
From high school friend Tim Nafziger
Read a poem (“expandable” as memories are shared, writes the poet) about MJ Sharp titled “Lima Bean Eulogy.”
From friend Ben Wideman ’04
Ben Wideman’s remembrance is published in The Mennonite:
Even back in college it was clear that MJ would be a person who would head out to save the world, creatively working at global solutions wherever he could and in whatever space he found himself. …His wit, wisdom, and humor were a gift to those who knew him well, and even though we only connected for a short time it feels like a gift to have those moments.
From his Albuquerque community
A March 28 Albuquerque Journal article shares thoughts from the Mennonite community where Sharp was beginning to put down roots.
“He really wanted us to see [the Congo] better, but at the same time had to hold a lot back because, I think, he saw things that were so horrible and terrible and he didn’t want to bring everyone down about it. To be on a U.N. panel of experts at 34 is pretty remarkable. He had this real gift. He was really smart,” friend and neighbor Andrew Clouse said.
From the Congolese community of Harrisonburg, Va.
Jacques Mushagasha, president of the Harrisonburg Congolese community and a 2016 graduate of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding offered his condolences:
It is with deep sadness that we have learned that Michael J. Sharp, his U.N. colleague Zaida Catalan, and Congolese interpreter Betu Tshintela have been killed by their kidnappers. On behalf of the Congolese community of Harrisonburg and on my own behalf, I would like to present my condolences to his family as well as to the entire EMU community. May the God Lord of peace and grace comfort all of us. M.J. died doing what he believed in, uncovering the truth as a means to foster justice and peacebuilding, May his sense of purpose inspire us all.
From the Congolese American Council for Peace and Development, Silver Spring, Maryland
Congolese native Fidele Lumeya, a 2000 graduate of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and head of the Congolese American Council for Peace and Development, had been in contact with those in the Congo working on Sharp’s behalf.
On behalf of the Congolese diaspora community in the United States that I represent, I am saddened this news. Michael took a most perilous mission to investigate the ongoing killings, showing deep respect for the dignity of humankind and the women and children of Central Congo. His work in the Congo is a legacy of who we are as human beings, as Mennonites and Christian disciples.
The family is interviewed Wednesday, March 29, by KAKE, an ABC affiliate in Kansas.