A life in pursuit of peace
U.N. worker's risky Congo assignment was last act in life's peacemaking mission
Helping people lay down weapons was a thread running through much of Michael J. Sharp’s life.
From work with U.S. military personnel in Germany seeking conscientious objection discharges to developing trust with Rwandan refugees and Congolese rebel militias, Sharp sought peace and justice through building relationships.
After beginning an investigative trip March 12 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sharp, 34, a Mennonite serving with the United Nations, died pursuing his work of peace.
The U.N. confirmed March 28 that two bodies found outside Kananga were those of Sharp and fellow U.N. worker Zaida Catalan of Sweden.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement that Sharp and Catalan died seeking to understand the causes of insecurity in the DRC in order to bring peace to its people. They had been missing since March 12 after being abducted along with four Congolese people while investigating an arms embargo and possible human rights violations near Kananga.
The U.N. reports their Congolese companions — interpreter Betu Tshintela, driver Isaac Kabuayi and two unidentified drivers — have not been located.
“We will honor their memory by continuing to support the invaluable work of the Group of Experts [Sharp coordinated] and the whole U.N. family in the DRC,” he said.
“It is our hope that the cause of their deaths will be determined following a more thorough examination. I trust that the Congolese authorities will conduct a full investigation into this incident. The United Nations will also conduct an inquiry. In case of criminal acts, the United Nations will do everything possible to ensure that justice is done.”
Sharp’s father, Hesston (Kan.) College Bible and history faculty member John Sharp, said his son clearly picked up the theology and practice of peacemaking from home, church and school.
“Creative peacebuilding and nonviolent conflict resolution became his passion and his calling,” he said. “He dedicated his life to living Jesus’ call to love even enemies, discovering that they too were members of the human family and loved by God.”
Michael Sharp was intrigued by the complexity of conflict and culture and the challenge of finding ways to work gently and compassionately.
“About meeting militia commanders, he said, ‘You can always listen,’ ” Sharp recounted. “When learning their narrative, he said, ‘You begin to understand their motives and dreams. And then you can appeal to them on that basis.’ This was MJ’s creative faith in action.”
The Washington Post reported former U.S. ambassador to Congo Jim Swan wrote to John and Michele Miller Sharp, “After all the predatory foreigners who have passed through the Congo over the past few centuries, Michael was someone who genuinely cared, who wanted to understand and learn, and who sought to reach those most difficult to access — not only physically, but psychologically. It’s really sad and — for what it’s worth, unfair — that he was the one taken.”
Fidele Lumeya of Congo, a 2000 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, had been in contact with people working on Sharp’s behalf in Congo. He is head of the Congolese American Council for Peace and Development in Silver Spring, Md.
“On behalf of the Congolese diaspora community in the United States that I represent, I am saddened by this news,” he said in a statement. “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.”
Sharp came to EMU from Goshen, Ind., and earned a bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in German in 2005. He earned a master’s degree in peace studies and conflict resolution in 2010 from Philipp University of Marburg, Germany.
He had served with the U.N. since April 2015. Prior to that, Sharp was Eastern Congo coordinator from 2012 to 2015 with Mennonite Central Committee.
Working at emergency response and peace and reconciliation, Sharp supported the Congolese Protestant Council of Churches to help displaced people and encourage armed groups to demobilize and reintegrate into society.
“Places of intense conflict are also places where creative solutions are born and put to the test,” he said 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? I get to work on the front line of Congolese ingenuity and faithfulness in response to violence and hardship.”
A 2014 MCC news release described his work to bring civilian Rwandan refugees home in a peaceful way by helping facilitators build trust with refugees distrustful of Congolese organizations.
“It’s dangerous work,” Sharp said. As facilitators travel to meet with refugees, “They’re at the mercy of the armed group who controls that area.”
National Public Radio featured Sharp in 2015, describing how he and his colleagues would walk, unarmed, every few weeks to the base of rebels known as the FDLR (Forces Démocratiques de Liberation du Rwanda). They would drink tea and listen to their stories, building rapport.
“The more we interact [with them] the more they trust us to turn themselves in to us,” Sharp said, noting the program had helped persuade roughly 1,600 fighters to lay down their weapons.
Christian Peacemaker Teams executive director Sarah Thompson was friends with Sharp since being classmates at Bethany Christian High School and attending Waterford Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind.
She said it confused her to hear people say Sharp was fearless.
“I felt he just had a strong sense of duty and commitment, probably fueled by Menno life, intrigue about complex situations, and didn’t mind the edge of danger,” she said. “Which means, if all of us travel along what makes us truly come alive, who knows where we’ll be? Not necessarily in the DRC, but definitely standing in our own God-given power and brilliance.”
Earlier in his career, he worked with a different set of fighters. From 2005 to 2008, he was a Mennonite Mission Network worker with the German Mennonite Peace Committee’s Military Counseling Network in Bammental, Germany.
He helped U.S. service members pursue conscientious objector status during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He helped with other inquiries about military regulations and challenges seeking acknowledgment of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“MJ impressed on me this need to build relationship with others,” Benjamin Krauss, a German student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., told MWR.
As a teen, Krauss lived in an intentional community and attended Bammental Mennonite Church with Sharp while he worked at MCN.
“I think he saw the deep similarities between his work with helping U.S. soldiers get a way out through MCN and the work he was doing with MCC in helping rebels and child soldiers get a way out,” he said. “I learned from him that soldiers are among those who suffer the most from war and that pacifism doesn’t mean anything if we don’t dare to take the same risks and also relate to soldiers as human beings and potential allies in the struggle for peace with justice.”
Those relationships are what Sharp carried with him into graduate work and on into his work with MCC and the U.N. He expounded on getting to know service members at the end of his term in MCN newsletter Sound Off.
“They were transformed by their experiences in war, and their stories couldn’t help but change me,” he wrote in 2008. “It is my job to keep these stories alive, because in the end, we can lose track of statistics, the number of people displaced, traumatized and maimed; but the stories of the individuals will stay with me no matter where in the world I end up next.”
Survivors include parents John and Michele Miller Sharp of Hesston; and two sisters, Erin Sharp (Alex Levene) of Denver and Laura (Nick Enzinna) Sharp of North Newton, Kan.
He was preceded in death by grandparents Mahlon D. Miller of Goshen Ind., and Jesse and Amelia (Peachey) Sharp of Belleville, Pa.
A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. April 15 at Hesston Mennonite Church.
Eastern Mennonite University and Mennonite Central Committee contributed to this article.
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