By Martha Huebert
We believe in working for peace, not war. We try to live in harmony with our families, our friends, and our neighbors. But very few go out seeking violent places and trying to bring the peace of Jesus to people even there. Michael “MJ” Sharp was one of those who did.
Marshall V. King writes MJ’s story in his book Disarmed: The Radical Life and Legacy of Michael ‘MJ’ Sharp. King is a member of the Mennonite Church. Like MJ, he grew up mainly in rural communities in Indiana. He casually knew MJ but was not a close friend. It was from his church that King heard that MJ had gone missing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in March 2017. The congregation joined in prayer for his safe return and that of his colleague, Zaida Catalán, who was from Sweden, and several African co-workers. They had been on a United Nations mission to get aid to people living in remote areas of the DRC. A few days later, the awful word came that they had been killed–MJ and Zaida shot and she also decapitated. The fate of the others remains unknown, but they are presumed to be dead also.
In speaking about his book, the author noted that MJ Sharp was not a martyr. He did not die for a cause. He was murdered. He did not sacrifice himself, but did give himself in service to others. He was not interested in any material gains or increased notoriety for himself.
Prior to his work in the DRC, MJ had spent several years in Germany in the small town of Bammenthal. While there, he lived in the communal-living Wohngemeinschaft community founded by my sister-in-law and brother-in-law Hiltrud and Wolfgang Krauss decades before. MJ’s work focused upon assisting and encouraging conscientious objection. While there, he befriended some US soldiers who had been in Iraq and were tired and fed up with war. He gave them good advice and stood by them in court when sentenced to jail time for “desertion.” In one case, he helped a young man escape being taken back to serve in Iraq.
While living there, MJ also befriended my nephew, Benjamin, who recently wrote about him: “MJ was a fun and genuine person who quickly became like an older brother to me. He helped many and did amazing things, even heroic things, but to me he was always someone who’d listen to my worries and be up for another round of board games. And that’s amazing in its own way.” Indeed, MJ’s primary tool for peacemaking was his genuine presence. Having a natural facility for languages, he picked up German, French, and some Swahili. When asked about his work, he would say, “You can always listen.”
After MJ’s term of service in Germany, he spent a few years in the United States. He went to work in the DRC in 2012 under the auspices of Mennonite Central Committee, and later directly for the United Nations. He settled near the town of Bukavu on Lake Kivu, where he began learning French. Many dirt roads were impassable in the rainy seasons, so he often went on foot into small villages, where he sat and listened to people–not caring with which group they were affiliated. There were many factions all vying for more power in local government and killing each other, even recruiting children to do so. MJ was a listener, a peacemaker, interested in helping the poor, trying to get child soldiers released to go home, providing needed goods without regard for political or tribal alliances. He got along with everyone.
I recommend this book to anyone, whether pacifist or not. King wrote the book out of a desire to provide “a lens through which we can look at modern Anabaptists,” those who are actively making peace a reality in our world. Understanding those who embody this call, we may come to see how this approach might just save us all from total destruction.
–– Martha Huebert is a member of Middlebury Church of the Brethren in Indiana.
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