Michael Sharp testifying at the UN. From The Mennonite. Photo provided by the Sharp family.

Perhaps you read about him or heard about him on the news? The young United Nations peace worker who was kidnapped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on March 12, 2017, and whose body, along with a colleague’s, was found in a shallow grave on March 26?

His name was Michael Jesse Sharp. He was 34 years old.

My heart has ached with the awful news of his disappearance and now throbs more for his parents John and Michele and his sisters. I remembered kidnapping and murder in my own family. It’s a pain that never goes away.

Michael, or MJ as he was known then, was in my daughter’s Bethany Christian High School class in Goshen, IN. He drove her to school for a couple months when he was old enough to drive and she wasn’t. I’m sure he attended parties at our house and that we ran into each other at school functions. I probably tried to convince him to come to Goshen College where I was president at the time. I could tell immediately that he was curious, whip smart, and mischievous. “Spark plug” was my private name for students like MJ.

My only memory of him at age 16 was that he stood in the room with a smile on his face. His eyes didn’t just scan the room. They saw things most of us did not.

Underneath that curiosity, was a passionate interest in the most controversial doctrine of the Mennonite faith–pacifism, love of enemy, and the refusal to fight in wars. At home, church, and school, MJ heard the biblical Sermon on the Mount and stories of sacrifice and suffering of the Anabaptists, his ancestors.

He persisted in trying to imagine what it means to love enemies in the 21st century, challenging previous understandings. He counseled military members seeking to become conscientious objectors in Germany and then went to one of the most war-torn places on earth, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

MJ’s father said, “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.”

A memorial service for MJ was held at Hesston (KS) Mennonite Church. I was moved, over and over again, as I participated by computer.

I am sharing this video here so that others may benefit. You may want to watch the whole service:

  • if you are or grew up Mennonite, if you know members of MJ’s families or communities around the country and the world
  • if you are interested in witnessing how Christian pacifism sustains itself in sorrow (be sure to listen to the last song)
  • if you have interest in how the UN mourns its dead
  • if you don’t know why, but you feel drawn to click below

If you have ever cried out in pain with the question, “Where were you God? #&%*!” I direct your attention to the meditation by MJ’s Aunt Doreen Miller, whose answers are more simple, complex, and profound than a theologian’s. I take that back, Aunt Doreen is a theologian. You can listen to her at the 1:59 mark.

Good-bye, dear MJ. You answered your calling. Now we must do the same.

If you watch any part of the video above, you are welcome to share your responses. I will share with his parents.

Shirley Showalter

35 Comments

  1. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on April 19, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    I listened to and watched the memorial for 3 hours.

    The whole process, waiting until Michael was found, hearing the prayer Michelle and John prayed for their son every morning, reading John’s comments on Facebook and then participating in the live-streaming of the service, made the meanings of Lent and Holy Week and Easter come alive in a new way.

    I remember John and Michelle from college days and have enjoyed hearing about their married lives and work and reading John’s sketches of history. I have two children close to Michael’s age, so I know what a tender time it is; (what time isn’t?). I am appreciating my adult children even more.

    I was moved by the depth of all the speakers and singers at the memorial. One strong impression was the song sung by friends, “The Prayer.” This song was new to me, but the gist of the song reminded me of how strongly a particular song came to me after my mother’s death, with the message of how we mortals relate to one who has gone to be with G-d. “Come and be light for our eyes; be the air we breathe, be the voice we speak! Come be the song we sing, be the path we seek.”

    May we all be moved closer to the sparks of our vocations, and may we be willing to risk everything.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 19, 2017 at 7:10 pm

      Yes, Dolores. Holy Week will never be the same for those of us who participated in any way in this service. I can imagine that your similarities in ages and stages in life made you identify strongly with John and Michele.
      Thank you for commenting on the whole service. Each and every speaker and song reached me, too. There is a special tenderness in all our hearts when we mourn the loss of a young person.
      I love you conclusion. To it I say, “Amen.”

  2. Laurie Buchanan on April 19, 2017 at 3:09 pm

    Shirley — My heart is simply breaking for MJ’s family and friends. His aunt Doreen Miller’s portion of the video clip was incredibly helpful to me; thank you so much for including it.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 19, 2017 at 7:12 pm

      Thank you, Laurie, for entering into the loss of a family you did not know. I’m glad you were blessed by Aunt Doreen’s meditation. It came from a very deep place in her, and I know she would be happy to know it was helpful to you.

  3. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on April 19, 2017 at 3:16 pm

    Thank you, Shirley for providing the link to Michael Sharp’s memorial service. I was hoping to see it some time. I was so profoundly moved by everything that was shared about him, partly because we ourselves were in the Congo for almost twenty years, some of the richest of our lives. Although we were not in a conflict situation while we were there (our years were after the 1960 rebellion and before Mobutu’s death and the resulting upheaval) we also lost a son, our premature baby Harold Mark, who remained in African soil. I so feel along with the dear folks who lost their beloved son! May Michael’s life be an inspiration to many!

    • Shirley Showalter on April 19, 2017 at 7:19 pm

      Elfrieda, you have a great loss in your life, and this story must have stirred deep into your memory. I know that John and Michele will understand your pain in ways that few others can. This service will live on and Michael’s story will touch many lives.

  4. Merril Smith on April 19, 2017 at 6:33 pm

    I’m so sorry for the loss of this young man. My heart goes out to you, to his family, friends, and all who knew him.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 19, 2017 at 7:20 pm

      Thank you so much, Merril. Your deep kindness is felt and appreciated.

  5. Marian Beaman on April 19, 2017 at 9:31 pm

    Shirley, I watched large portions of the service and found the words and music deeply affecting. Thank you for sharing the life and mission of a stalwart man younger than either of my children.

    Your post reminded me of Menno Simons’ reply to false accusations in 1551: “True Christians do not know vengeance. They are the children of peace. Their hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they walk in the way of peace.” Obviously MJ’s life and death bear testimony to this belief.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 20, 2017 at 8:45 am

      Marian, thank you for offering that Menno Simons quote. Did you happen to watch the portion beginning at 52:14 when his high school buddy Andy Gingerich plays and sings “True evangelical faith cannot lie sleeping. It clothes the naked, gives to the hungry food, and it shelters the destitute. . .” He and Michael used to sing this song together in high school. It was another part of the service that touched me deeply.

      • Marian Beaman on April 20, 2017 at 10:47 am

        That’s another Menno Simons quote Aunt Ruthie has posted on the wall beside her refrigerator. The quote, done in inlaid wood, calls me to service.

        MJ, Andy – may their tribe increase!

        • Shirley Showalter on April 20, 2017 at 11:45 am

          Thanks for letting me know this, Marian, and a big hug to Aunt Ruthie. The question on my mind these last few months is how a counter-cultural religious tradition can not only sustain itself but also be available, as MJ was, to the world’s pains. Words of the prophets written on the kitchen wall is definitely one way!

  6. Audrey Denecke on April 19, 2017 at 10:08 pm

    Blessed are the peacemakers. Thank you, Shirley, for sharing MJ’s life and tragic death with us. I too watched, though it was difficult to sit with the pain, large portions of the service. Yet love, hospitality, and hope were also present. I was taken deep by Doreen Miller’s words. Her love of MJ and God was fierce and invitational. She left me, with much to ponder.
    With so many sabers rattling around the world, and discord active on many levels, I/we have countless opportunities to “be” peace.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 20, 2017 at 8:50 am

      Fierce is the perfect word for that sermon, Audrey. You remind me of one of my favorite quotes about aging. I’ll bet you know it too. “When you truly possess all you have been and done, you are fierce with reality.” Florida Scott-Maxwell. MJ was fierce from the start. His aunt embodied the fierceness of both of them and the fierceness of faith in the jaws of death.

      There is no greater tribute to this life lost than to desire to “be” peace. I know you will find your ways to do so, Audrey.

      • Audrey Denecke on April 20, 2017 at 11:16 am

        Thank you so much, Shirley. Yes, I absolutely love Florida Scott Maxwell’s writings and that quote!
        It has my intention to “be” peace for decades now. And, yet I can get hooked and pulled away. We can’t all be missionaries or have MJ’s courage in the face of extreme violence. But, as Pema Chodron has written, we can start where we are. We can practice peace each day.
        On the back of her book, Practicing Peace in Times of War, is this quote: “If we want there to be peace in the world, we have to be brave enough to soften what is rigid in our hearts, to find the soft spot and stay with it. We have to have that kind of courage and take that kind of responsibility. That’s the true practice of peace.” May we all be re-inspired by MJ’s life to practice peace.

        • Shirley Showalter on April 21, 2017 at 1:45 pm

          Lovely. Thank you.

  7. Richard Gilbert on April 20, 2017 at 8:42 am

    Thank you for this, Shirley. I did wonder, have wondered, about him and the other worker who was murdered. This deepens my sense of what the world lost.

  8. Joan on April 20, 2017 at 10:11 am

    Such a tragic loss for the entire world. I cannot imagine the pain his family must carry.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 20, 2017 at 10:24 am

      Thank you for sharing your own heart, wide open to this loss, Joan. Everyone touched by MJ’s life adds meaning to it.

  9. June on April 20, 2017 at 10:58 am

    Dear Shirley, thank you for sharing MJ’s service. What a tragic end to a young man’s life. My heartfelt sympathy. In a time of lent where it is traditional to ‘give up’ something, MJ had his life taken from him. Thank you for sharing. I too listened to the whole service.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 20, 2017 at 1:01 pm

      June, thank you for giving your time to help grieve a life you never knew and to think about the meaning of such a service on Holy Saturday. May we live in resurrection hope.

  10. Elaine Mansfield on April 20, 2017 at 11:16 am

    What a heart-breaker, Shirley. Thank you for sharing your connection to this beautiful soul. I read about him in passing, but now I know via you what an incredible man he was. This life is unbearably painful and gloriously inspiring at the same time. Thank you for sharing the video. Because my hearing is so compromised and because my son and his partner are here which means I want to save hearing time for them, I didn’t listen to the video. (I miss a lot in my almost silent world, but I’m grateful for reading and seeing images. I try to think of this as focusing me rather than limiting me. So far, that’s usually true.) Thanks again, Shirley.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 20, 2017 at 1:04 pm

      As one who knows so much about loss, pain, death, and grief, Elaine, your words have special resonance. I understand completely the choices you are making with your hearing time. Thank you for sharing this post on Twitter so that others may find it and be inspired.

      Hope your time with your son and his partner is especially blessed in the beauty of springtime by your lake and with your animals.

  11. Jon Shenk on April 20, 2017 at 11:58 am

    Thank you so much, Shirley. What a moving service – and what a gift to be able to participate in this way: gracias de nuevo
    MJ’s story has been so evocative for me, taking me back to my work with Witness for Peace in Nicaragua, after graduating from Goshen in 1987.
    Doreen’s “Where was God…” is a knockout – and solid ruminatin’ sustenance to keep me going for a while, as I reflect on how I can continue to practice a Sermon-on-the-Mount-inspired daily work `.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 20, 2017 at 1:07 pm

      Jon, you are another “spark plug for peace.” Thank you for leaving this comment. I know that John and Michele and perhaps Doreen also will enjoy the thought of you ruminatin’ and inspired to travel on down the peace path.

  12. Tina Barbour on April 20, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Shirley, I am so sorry about Michael. I heard the news story of the bodies being found. But this post and Aunt Doreen’s meditation showed us so much more of who Michael was. I am unable to watch the whole video right now, but I did listen to her meditation. How blessed she was and how blessed Michael was to share the spiritual bond they had. Prayers for his family and friends.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 20, 2017 at 5:20 pm

      Tina, thank you for sharing this sorrow and for taking time to get to know Michael. Your heart is so open to the world and to others. I’m glad you could watch the sermon. I think “Aunt” Doreen has become an auntie to many others.

  13. Lisa Enqvist on April 20, 2017 at 2:28 pm

    Thank you for sharing this sad but beautiful story. I watched mainly Aunt Doreen’s speech. Very, very true. God was there in the deepest darkness – just as He was there in the darkest hours on the cross bearing even this family’s dark moments. He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.

    This reminds me of another young man whose story ended in a similar way – though it certainly did not end there. His life still bears fruit today.
    He wrote in his diary before he died:
    “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep
    to gain that which he cannot lose.”
    Jim Elliot, 1927-1956, missionary to Auca Indians in Ecuador

    • Shirley Showalter on April 20, 2017 at 5:27 pm

      It takes a missionary to recall another young man whose life was lost in service to his calling. Thank you, Lisa, for reminding us of this powerful quote. I remember how much my mother admired Jim Eliot and his wife Elizabeth for how they, too, lived and died. I am sure these words will find a home with John, Michele, and their family.

  14. Gerry Godshall Fix on April 20, 2017 at 6:22 pm

    I watched the service, and I was very touched. My heart goes out to the family. I wish I had known him. I’m very sorry about this loss. My father and Michelle’s father were both Mennonite pastors, in the same area–LaVale and Pinto, MD. I remember Michelle as a young girl–she is a little younger than I am. Our parents were good friends. Our fathers enjoyed a sense of humor together, among other things. May you feel Gpd’s arms around you and all of your family. Peace and comfort.

  15. Gerry Godshall Fix on April 20, 2017 at 6:24 pm

    I watched the service, and I was very touched. My heart goes out to the family. I wish I had known him. I’m very sorry about this loss. My father and Michelle’s father were both Mennonite pastors, in the same area–LaVale and Pinto, MD. I remember Michelle as a young girl–she is a little younger than I am. Our parents were good friends. Our fathers enjoyed a sense of humor together, among other things. May you feel God’s arms around you and all of your family. Peace and comfort.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 21, 2017 at 1:50 pm

      Thank you, Gerry. I am glad for this connection and remembrance. Is Michele’s father the grandpa with the chihuahua hunting dog? Sense of humor, I think, must be well distributed in the whole family — and in yours. How would peacekeepers and ministers live without it? One of the things that makes this service so special is how irreverent and unorthodox MJ could be without ever losing kindness and always finding laughter. The holiest and the most profane among us are not necessarily unconnected. Thank you for your condolence.

  16. June Alspaugh on April 20, 2017 at 8:07 pm

    Dearest Shirley, my deepest sympathies to all. I too listened to the whole service. What a tragedy to have such a young life taken is such a horrible situation.
    I agree that this season of lent, will never be quite the same. Philippians 1:21 For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
    The song, The Prayer, brought chills.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 21, 2017 at 8:09 am

      Thank you, June. You have sent me back to the video again to hear the song. This service is so rich that it’s almost impossible to take in all its riches with just one viewing. Thank you for offering these historic words of consolation and hope.

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