20. Disarmed: The Radical Life and Legacy of Michael “MJ” Sharp

In this special crossover episode with our friends at Ing Podcast by MennoMedia, we have a conversation with Marshall V. King, the author of Disarmed: The Radical Life and Legacy of Michael “MJ” Sharp. 

The book tells the story of Michael “MJ” Sharp ‘05, whose commitment to peace and peacebuilding led him to work with Mennonite Central Committee and the United Nations. Sharp spent most of his life grappling with both the concepts and realities of militarism and war, violence and peacemaking. His murder in 2017 while working with the United Nations as an armed group expert sent shockwaves around the world. He was ambushed with UN colleague Zaida Catalán of Sweden, who was also killed. The investigation into their death is ongoing; dozens were sentenced to death in late January.

The topic of Sharp’s life and legacy continues in a series of linking episodes of Mennomedia’s podcast “-ing”. Check out the series as host Ben Wideman interviews MJ’s parents Jon and Michele Sharp, his peers and fellow students at EMU, and David Nyiringabo MA ‘20, a graduate of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who was the first beneficiary of the MJ Sharp Peace and Justice Endowed Scholarship.

King was drawn to the story through “an early sense of injustice” at his murder and the sense that Sharp’s life was the story of “a modern Anabaptist …wrestling with the world.”


Guest

Profile image

Marshall V. King

Marshall V. King is an award-winning journalist based in Goshen, Indiana. For more than 20 years he worked at Elkhart Truth as a reporter and eventually as Managing editor. He is an adjunct professor of Communications at Goshen College. He is a member of Assembly Mennonite Church.


Transcript

Marshall:
You know, Menno Simons, and MJ, when you put them in the same conversation, like it’s, it’s interesting. Menno is the guy for whom we’re named, and he was a Catholic priest who left the Catholic priesthood, put his life at risk. He didn’t end up losing his life like many of the Mennonite martyrs did, but that willingness to go out there for what you believe is something that some of us do better than others, and MJ probably did it to the utmost.

Theme Music:
[Theme music begins and fades into background]

Patience:
Happy Wednesday to you! Welcome back to Peacebuilder, a Conflict Transformation Podcast by the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. My name is Patience Kamau, and this is a special crossover episode with our friends at MennoMedia’s Ing Podcast. Our guests this episode are:

Marshall:
Marshall King, I’m the author of “Disarmed: The Radical Life and Legacy of Michael “MJ” sharp.”

Ben:
I’m Ben Wideman, I’m an ordained Mennonite minister and the producer of Ing podcast, which is a podcast produced by MennoMedia.

Patience:
Marshall V. King is an award-winning journalist based in Goshen, Indiana. For more than 20 years he worked at Elkhart Truth as a reporter and eventually as Managing editor. He is an adjunct professor of Communications at Goshen College. He is a member of Assembly Mennonite Church.

Theme music:
[Theme music fades back to foreground and plays till end]

Patience:
Hi Marshall.

Marshall:
Hi Patience, it’s lovely to be here.

Patience:
Lovely to have you! Thank you so much for being on this podcast. Uh, we are here to talk about a book you recently authored and was… when was it released?

Marshall:
January 11th, 2022.

Patience:
Generally we begin this podcast by asking our guests who, most of them have some kind of tie to EMU. Could you tell us what your journey to EMU was? Uh, and when you graduated?

Marshall:
So I, uh, will start at the end. I graduated from Eastern Mennonite then, College, soon after Eastern Mennonite University in 1992. I arrived in the fall of 1988 as a young Conservative Conference Mennonite kid who had gone to a public high school in Northern Indiana and, uh, was, was, had found a place in the Shenandoah Valley after a couple visits where I felt very comfortable, uh, and arrived with some assurance that it was the right place for me to come attend college, and, uh, that indeed was true.

Patience:
And this led you to a career that you had for 22 and a half years, which then pivoted to you authoring this book. What happened in March, 2017?

Marshall:
On March seven, uh, March 12th, uh, 2017, um, a young man who was also an alum of Eastern Mennonite University, Michael J. Sharp, uh, known affectionately to, to many of his, uh, friends in the States and his family as “MJ,” um, was working as, uh, part of the UN group of experts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So he was investigating and on this day, some, uh, mass graves and, uh, the use of child soldiers and was, um, uh, misled, lied to by some folks the day before, uh, set up and, and, and essentially led to his death on, on that day, the 12th of March, uh, he was missing for several weeks before it was really known that he was dead and was found, uh, a couple weeks later. Um, and during those two weeks, I mean, at EMU, uh, in Northern Indiana and communities, um, Mennonite and, and such around the world, there were prayer vigils for him and Zaida Catalan, the Swedish woman, um, who was also missing and doing the investigation with him that day. And so, uh, it was during that time that when he went missing, it prompted local news stories in Harrisonburg and in Goshen where he had some ties and where I live and, uh, and in other places, and it also made some national and international headlines. And, and somehow I felt this, this disappearance and this loss deeply, I felt like MJ had actually gone into the world and, and done some, was doing some of the peacemaking work that we often talk about, um, that we often, you know, proclaim to believe. But, um, but MJ was actually doing it and then for a time was missing and inevitably found dead. And so from the beginning, um, just saw it as kind of a remarkable story and felt somewhat drawn to the story, and, um, and so in the weeks after his death, with his father’s permission, um, started thinking about a, telling of the story, a longer telling of the story other than just the headlines and, um, over time earned the trust of his family and dozens of other people who knew him and, um, kind of began this project.

Patience:
Mm, did you know, MJ personally yourself?

Marshall:
You know, I had met him a couple times. I was actually with him on New Year’s eve, um, two and a half months before his death. And, but I, but I didn’t, uh, I didn’t know him well, I didn’t engage him to the level that in many ways now I wish I had, um, I didn’t realize what he was doing in the world. And so MJ was pretty good at compartmentalizing, like he gave, he didn’t, you know, show up at every social gathering, talking about his work in the world. Um, he didn’t always share that, um, broadly and wear that on his sleeve. I mean, there are, there are expats that he worked with in, in the DRC who didn’t really even know that he was Mennonite or what drove his passion for peacemaking. And so I didn’t, uh, interact with him to a great deal, but I knew him somewhat. I knew his, his family and his dad a little bit. Uh, as soon as I started, I mean, one of the first lessons of, of undertaking this project was how interconnected we are. Uh, how many common, how many people we had in common, uh, how many close friends we had in common and, and even family like, uh, you know, his, his, uh, one side of his family and one side of my family are intertwined. And so we’re are actually distant cousins. Uh, us Mennonites in North America are real small tribe, and I learned that really quickly. So,

Patience:
[Chuckles] Yeah. So you, did you play your Mennonite game in your brain to try and do the connection?

Marshall:
I mean, constantly and I, and I, and I learned to just kind of grin and, and, um, you know, be, uh, not be inevitably surprise at the Mennonite connections. Um, but also, I mean, MJ, I think like myself, you know, expanded beyond the Mennonite world and wasn’t just in the Mennonite world. And so, uh, it was important and particularly in doing research for the book to, to, to get beyond that as well. I mean, I, and again, I like to say I’m, I’m in my basement, office where I wrote a lot of this manuscript and that basement office happens to be about roughly a hundred meters, 150 meters from where he lived here in Goshen, in my neighborhood for a while. Not at the same, we didn’t live here at the same time, but, but again, I can walk down the street near my house and go, oh yeah, there’s, there’s MJ’s house. Like, um, somebody else lives there now, but that that’s a, that was, that was where MJ spent his high school years. Um, the pictures of him and his Porsche, one of his Porsches over the years, uh, are, is in that driveway. And so like that, that kind, those kinds of reminders are never far away.

Patience:
Mm. Do you recall the moment or day or time when you heard that MJ was missing and what was that effect on you?

Marshall:
I remember it really vividly. Um, I, I, I’ve done a lot of food writing in my life. I, I had a newspaper column where I, um, wrote about food for, for more than 20 years. And, and I, and I intend to kind of return to, to write about food. I hope, but, but I hit pause on it a little bit because of the book project. And in March of end of March 2017, I had actually gone to Las Vegas with, um, some local restaurant folks from Northern Indiana here in Elkhart county, because one of them was competing in a pizza competition in Las Vegas. And so I thought it’d be fun to go along kind of like, “why not? I’m a, I’m a freelance writer. I, I can go do this. I can go have fun with these guys. I can go to this pizza competition.” And so, um, we were out for dinner at a, at a steakhouse in Las Vegas, and I got a message from one of the editors at the Goshen news who knew that I was tracking the story and interested in the story and, um, and kind of helping them track the story a little bit. And I got a message saying they had found MJ’s body, um, or, or what they believed to be MJ’s body, and, and that was indeed confirmed. And so we went to a reception on a second, uh, on a, on a, on a deck kind of overlooking the Las Vegas strip after supper. And I’m with all these guys who aren’t Mennonite, and in fact, many of these guys I was with that night have kids in the military. And so, um, I was kind of, I was rattled by this death and I was feeling the death. And I talked about kind of what I had found out that night and one of them kind of, you know, points back over his shoulder to the Las Vegas strip and he says, “this isn’t real! Like, this isn’t…like your friend and like that in the world, like, that’s real, but like, what we’re looking at here, isn’t real.” And, and I remember walking back, um, to my hotel that night just angry, just angry at what had happened. And I, and I was like, oh, wow, there’s some emotion here, what is this? Um, and I think it was, it was an early sense of injustice. Um, and I, I, I mean that, I remember that night and I also remember like, like I said, being drawn to the story and feeling like MJ was a character who lived in this interesting way in the world and was doing this remarkable work, and now we have a death that in many ways is like a death where, um, you know, a military family will get the knock on the door. And as Mennonites, we don’t, that doesn’t happen to us very often. And in some ca… in some ways it happened to John and Michelle Sharp, and, and MJ’s two sisters that, um, in that in March of 2017. And so I, I just felt drawn to the story; I feel like in many ways, the telling of, of the story chose me as much as I chose it. I mean, it meant earning trust, it meant doing this with, uh, the permission of the family, but it also, um, meant kind of, I, for some reason, I feel, even though this has, this is not a food story, that’s what people that, what people would expect me to be writing my first book about, um, but, but it was this other story because I felt like it’s a modern Anabaptist tale, and it’s a way in which maybe we understand how we’re as modern men…Anabaptists wrestling with the world.

Patience:
Can you say more about, can you tell us more…for our audience more about Mennonites and Anabaptism, you have a whole chapter on it in the book. Um, just give a quick overview for people who don’t…who may not understand Mennonites and/or Anabaptism. And your own background in it, right?

Marshall:
My own background in it, right. I, uh, I’ll, I’ll use my own background as the lens and then, and then expand a little bit. I, um, all my grandparents at one point in their lives were Amish. Um, two of my grandparents, my father’s parents, um, were Amish until they died. But even as Amish people, they learned to somehow abide and literally live alongside their non-Amish children. And my father ended up being excommunicated from the Amish church as a young man and went into voluntary service in Arkansas. And my mother had grown up in Northern Indiana as a, as a Mennonite, the daughter of parents who had been Amish, but had left the Amish church before she was born. And, um, she had found her way to a different voluntary service location in Arkansas, around 1960. And so they met and, um, I ended up being born in Southern Arkansas in, in 1970, and there’s, it’s a little, uh, voluntary service unit that’s part of the Conservative Conference Mennonite church. And so Conservative Conference is, uh, one of about 40, um, well, one of dozens of Anabaptist groups with a particular, um, you know, kind of set of beliefs and, and things that they adhere to. So my mother has and continues to wear a, a prayer covering, um, you know, she, she looks Mennonite, um, in ways that perhaps, um, not everyone does. Um, and so I have, and so, you know, Conservative Conference Mennonites, um, Amish, um, Brethren, all of these are offshoots of a group of people that started really around the time of Martin Luther’s reformation, uh, reacting against the church and state, uh, at the time in Europe. And so really through Russia or through, uh, Europe, this group of people formed over a number of years, and I mean, some of their primary beliefs were it that the sword is not the way to, uh, to justice or that it, that it doesn’t, um, solve all their problems and so there’s this commitment to peace. Uh, and for, for many people that continues to and has meant kind of separation from the world, like we’re all gonna be over here doing our thing, and you all do your thing, and we just happen to, we won’t join the military, um, you know, you can’t, you can’t force us to pick up a gun, but we’re gonna, we’re gonna be over here believing our stuff and kind of the quiet and the land. But over time, I mean, particularly in the last a hundred years, Mennonites have left the farm, they’ve gone into the world, uh, to do mental health work, you know, rather than fight in a war, or they were, they became social workers or nurses or teachers, or, and so this is kind of who we, who we’ve become as Mennonites. And so, but Mennonites, I think have continued to wrestle with how to be in the world, like we do we really believe that carrying a gun is like…that complicates our lives when we call the police, or, um, when we, when you look at the international stage and armies and military are such a part of it, uh, one of the people I interviewed for the book had this, had this great line that has stuck with me, and that I say a lot, and it’s “Mennonites just don’t have a very good foreign policy.” Um, and I think that that’s true; and so it’s complicated and messy, but, but that’s what MJ was wrestling with. And MJ, MJ’s dad had been a pastor and historian, one of his best friend’s dad worked for Mennonite Board of Missions or Mennonite Mission Network for decades. And, you know, MJ’s friend and him talked about how they would, you know, they, they would try, they were trying to figure this out, but they thought that they had years to figure that out together, and then MJ’s life was cut short. So, um, you know, Menno Simons, and, and MJ, when you put them in the same conversation, like it’s, it’s interesting. Menno is the guy for whom we’re named and he was a Catholic priest who left the Catholic priesthood, put his life at risk. He didn’t end up losing his life, like many of the Mennonite martyrs did, um, but, but that willingness to go out there for what you believe is something that, um, some of us do better than others and MJ, MJ probably did it to the utmost.

Patience:
He lived “fully engaged,” is the line that I kept seeing in the book.

Marshall:
“He lived fully engaged,” that’s a line that his parents have used often and I think it’s one that, that fits.

Transition music:
[Transition music plays]

Patience:
How about the parallels between his life and yours? So MJ went out into the world and in a previous conversation, you have said that after you graduated, you went back home. How, how have you thought about those two?

Marshall:
Um, after I graduated from EMU, so during my time at EMU, I, I showed up thinking I’d be a history or social-science educator, and there was one education class and I realized that I wasn’t too interested in being a teacher. Uh, um, I, thanks to JB Landis and Omar Eby, um, I kind of, they fostered what I think that was already there, a love of words and a love of stories, and they kind of, um, fanned those flames to where, um, I realized that like writing and journalism was kind of perhaps the path for me. I didn’t have models for what I would do when I graduated from college because I, I was really a first-generation college student and wasn’t sure what I was gonna be doing. And I, I fell into the newspaper business and I was pretty good at it, and I liked it, and it was something new every day and I never got bored, and, uh, you know, turns out that, you know, when you can write pretty quickly, that’s prized in the newspaper industry, you know, cuz we have all these deadlines. So I came back to Northern Indiana and I almost left a couple times, um, but somehow stayed here and stayed in this community where I had come to when I was five or six and had been then been raised in until I graduated from high school. And so after college I came back, I, I moved briefly to Washington DC, where I had been in, uh, where, which now known as the Washington Community Scholars Program for a year, uh, during my time in college. And so, but I, I ended up back in Northern Indiana, and I ended up doing this, this community newspaper, community journalism work for more than two decades. And it wasn’t, um, that I didn’t want to go, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to do something else, it’s that I ended up having a really good gig. Um, I mean, when you get to work for a family-owned newspaper and they over time, let you write about food and, uh, you, you work your way up into management and even oversee the newsroom, like, it was a good gig. And so I think, um, I didn’t necessarily have the desire to go into the world, the same desire that MJ had. I mean, MJ loved to travel and got that honestly, but he loved to travel, he loved being out there, he had been to, you know, many countries, even by the time he graduated from EMU. And so that love of language and that love of travel is something that he was able to transition, to, to find meaningful work. And that started with an assignment in Germany, uh, with Mennonite Mission Network, helping soldiers who were stationed there, who were struggling with being asked to continue fighting when maybe they had growing, um, a growing conscience against it. And so MJ and others would work with them to even go so far as stay in trial for, um, their over their objections, and often in some cases were sentenced to, to military prison because of their objections. And so that was MJ’s work in Germany. And then, um, he got, he went to graduate school –another thing that I thought that I would do someday, but then never did. Um, Omar Eby once told me, he said, Marshall, I couldn’t imagine you in graduate school because you, you couldn’t have something along the lines Omar said that I wouldn’t have wanted to be anonymous, I needed to be known. Um, but, uh, I, I I’ve often wondered exactly what Omar meant that day, but I, I don’t know. I think he thought that, you know, this, uh, the journalism stuff actually fit me pretty well. So it’s one of, that’s one of those, you know, riddles that I’ll, I’ll always kind of wonder about, and maybe someday I’ll do graduate school and, uh, abide it happily, we’ll see. But, um, but MJ, MJ found this way into the world and, you know, he took great delight in where all he traveled and, um, I enjoy that too, but never as much, and so MJ really became a global citizen in ways that few people do let alone Mennonites.

Patience:
Would you say that this…writing this book, the, the process of it, which obviously took time, I imagine to build the trust and the relationships that it takes to write the kind of story that you’ve put together in this book, which is very engaging by the way…

Marshall:
Thank you!

Patience:
Yeah, did it change you in any way? Are you different now than the person you were when you started it? And in what ways?

Marshall:
I would hope so. Um, I mean, I’ve said writing this book is the second hardest and second, most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done behind marriage. And we’re just, we’re still in the early stages, I mean, that’s standing here today with the book just in the world, having spent four and a half years interviewing people and even, and I got to travel the world a little bit. I didn’t get to the Congo for a variety of reasons, but I got to Sweden and spent a day with Zaida’s sister and mother. Uh, I was in Germany where MJ had lived and worked, uh, and talked to people who knew him at that point in his life and in the states, you know, spent time with the family in Kansas and in Albuquerque with some friends because that’s where MJ was settling, um, trying to, to, uh, settle and find “home” as he, um, inevitably, I mean, I think that was the plan, and then, uh, his, you know, this last assignment with the UN changed that obviously. Yeah. I’m, I’ve learned from MJ. Um, one of the things that MJ used to say, and, and there’s a recording of it, you know, of him telling an NPR reporter, “you can always listen,” um, you can always listen to people who are, are, are, are different than you. Um, in fact, I’ll read the exact quote: “You can always listen. You can always listen to people who want a chance to talk about how they see the world.” I I’ve spent, you know, most of my life doing newspaper work, where I did learn to listen. I did learn to, if I didn’t listen, you know, I didn’t keep my job. You know, there’s only so many times you can not hear somebody correctly and misquote them before a newspaper editor will send you packing. And so I did learn that, but I don’t, I think, I think from MJ and studying, researching his, his life and then writing this book, I’ve, I’ve learned more about what that means. I’ve learned about…I mean, I, I saw it as a modern Anabaptist tale and by doing the research and, and trying to put MJ in the Mennonite-Anabaptist context, I think I understand Mennonites and Anabaptists a little bit better. Um, I certainly know more about the Congo and how it actually reaches into our lives. I mean, our, our lithium batteries and our iPhones and our, you know, there’s any number of things that we use almost on, on almost a daily basis that come from beneath the ground in the DRC. And we’re mostly, you know, oblivious to that. And so I’ve learned about that. And then I ju…that’s all separate from just the process. I mean, I utilized the skills that I’d learned in the newspaper, in my newspaper career to interview people and to put pieces together. And at one point I think I calmed my anxiety by saying, well, you know, it’s just 60 or 80 newspaper columns strung together in a book. Like that’s all the book really is; it’s just a whole bunch of newspaper columns strung together. You know, rather than writing a column in a week, I, I was like, at some point I was like, wow, this is how am I gonna do this? And, and what inevitably, that’s how it happened was writing roughly newspaper column, length chunks and, and piecing ’em together, and then going through much more editing than I’ve ever gone through in my life and to create a work that is better than your average daily newspaper. So, um, that’s a good thing.

Patience:
Yeah, I learned a lot about the DRC also through reading this; there was what I was aware of, but the details of, uh, king Leopold were very, uh, eye opening. Um…

Marshall:
If any, I, I would highly rec…and I was honored a, uh, Adam Hochschild who wrote “King Leopold’s Ghost: A story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in colonial Africa,” um, endorsed this book. And now, and that was that’s, uh, warms my heart because his book on king Leopold is an amazing read. There’s also a, a documentary or a film on, on, I believe Amazon Prime you can is where you can find it, but king Leopold’s ghost, if anyone is interested after they finish “Disarmed,” like, and you wanna keep going, read “King Leopold’s Ghost.” It’s a, it’s a stunning tale of greed and power and colonialism and the damage that white people have done to, to other people in the world.

Patience:
Mm-hm, mm-hm, just reading it. I mean, I only got a, a snippet of it, and I think I may be one of those who’s interested in reading the books you just talked about, but I remember noting in my head that was 44 years of that kind of absolute cruelty and unabashed greed. And it was just shocking to actually just reflect on it.

Marshall:
Yeah. I, it, and actually it’s, uh, I mean, in, in Hochschild’s book, he raises the question of whether the roughly 10 million people, Congolese, who were killed…I, I mean, Congolese, we, you know, I’m not sure they were called that then as such, but, um, roughly 10 million people killed by this Belgian king, roughly half the population of, of that area at the time. Um, you know, was this genocide?

Patience:
10 million killed and so many more maimed.

Marshall:
Yeah, exactly. So was this genocide and, and, and Hochschild, like plays that out in his book and, and kind of says, well, technically it may not have been genocide because it’s not like he was trying to wipe out this group of people. It was, it was just a byproduct of his greed and how he was doing what he was doing. And it’s like that that’s just chilling at any level. Um, and so, um…

Patience:
He may not have been trying to wipe them out, but he…they was certainly very disposable!

Marshall:
Yeah! And the DRC, I, I is, you know, I mean, one of the other works that, uh, I, I don’t think I read it in school. Um, but “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad is another book that, you know, like if we know something about the Congo, we might know it from “Heart of Darkness.” Like, it’s one of those things that many people have read, and it’s, it’s, it’s all about that colonial, colonialism and that era. Um, and so what we have done to people and the DRC because of greed, because of bad leadership, because of dictators and like, it continues to be a place that’s just not, uh, not easy to live in, not easy to survive in. And yet, uh, MJ went to this place, loved the DRC called it paradise and, um, planted seeds of peace in this, in this place that continue to take root and, um, continues to, to be part of his legacy.

Patience:
In talking to his friends and his family and people who knew him well and loved him. Why did he choose the DRC?

Marshall:
I think mean it was a little bit, it was a little bit random maybe? He was in Goshen, uh, after Germany and was trying to figure out what to do next. Uh, he had, he had tried something, it didn’t quite work out, wasn’t working out, he needed to get back out into the world. MCC was adding a position in the Eastern DRC and approached, uh, Sarah Nahar who had known MJ in high school, and she said, I, this, I can’t do this, but I know a guy and recommended, recommended MJ and MJ met with the country reps, Tim and Suzanne Lindt, and, and was offered the job. And they had qualms because MJ didn’t know French, uh, he had just come from Germany, which is about as stark contrast to the DRC, as you can find. I mean, if there is a country that loves order and democracy more than Germany, I’m, I’m not, I mean, I, I don’t know of one necessarily. I mean, it’s a highly ordered country. Um, I mean, the day I arrived in Germany to do interviews for the book was a day that a thunderstorm had disrupted the train schedule and I’m riding trains between airports to get to Bummenthal and the mere disruption of the train schedule, the stress was just so evident on people’s faces and I’m like…”they’re trains.” And the trains running late in Germany was like this like massively stressful thing to people. And MJ had gone from that place to the DRC, which is just chaos. MJ relished the opportunity to, to learn a new language, to go to a new place and to, um, do this work, which was food relief and distribution, and, um, kind of working to get to know armed groups. And it wasn’t very long until he was urging the, the men that he worked with in the church program that, uh, was tied together with MCC to, to go meet with leaders of armed groups. And, um, he would do the laborious travel in the DRC to go do that and came to relish that work and really became the expert on one of those groups, the FDLR. So that was then what, um, propelled him in many ways out of MCC and into the UN.

Patience:
Again, just related, in conversations with his friends and coworkers and just all people who loved and cared for him, even though him ending up in DRC, like you said, was somewhat accidental, but then at some point it’s clear that he chose to be there. How do you think DRC changed him, in your conversations with people and in your writing the book, do you think it changed him?

Marshall:
Yeah, it, it, it clearly did. He loved the DRC and its people, he loved the challenges of his work. He loved wrestling with, uh, you know, in his, in his role with the UN, he was part of the state. He was part of an entity that had an army and depending on his actions or his reports, those would potentially result in actions against other people, military actions against other people. And, and he often held firm to try to protect people, even from those military actions, if he could. And, and sometimes even with U.S. officials, like there were conversations where he would kind of not give them everything they necessarily wanted, um, because it might result in some sort of military action. And so, um, I mean he clearly learned and, um, and loved this work. Um, there were threads, you know, he was an editor of the Weathervane when he was at Eastern Mennonite University and did some really good investigative journalism. And, and there are threads of that investigative work and writing, you know, even when he was a UN investigator. So, um, but he clearly learned how to navigate this culture and do what was helpful and needed in many cases, but also somehow abide that, um, you know, international relief work is often messy and nonlinear and difficult. The one thing, the one thing I, I, I think I can say with a pretty amount of, with a pretty fair amount of assurance is that MJ loved his work in the DRC, but he was also wrestling with what came next, because he was, he had seen some horrible things. He had been under a, a lot of stress, and I think he was trying to figure out what to do next that maybe didn’t involve being in the, in the DRC as, as, uh, directly as he had been. A lot of expats are there for a time and then they need to, uh, they need to move on. They need to, to work elsewhere, they need to go somewhere else. And so, um, it’s not that, that love for that place and that work is gone. It’s that, um, you know, it, it morphs or it shifts, or you, you find a, a spot from which you can do some of these things perhaps a little differently. And so I think MJ was, was wrestling…I know he was wrestling with what came next and what that might be, and I think that he wanted to make sure that he didn’t just shrivel up and, um, you know, not, not have some of the engagement with life and surroundings that he would’ve been the DRC.

Transition music:
[Transition music plays]

Patience:
You’ve touched on this a little bit. Um, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about how he held the tension of working for an organization that was militarized and being from the background, an Anabaptist background that he came from that was very actively, historically wanting to be separate from that. How do you think he navigated that?

Marshall:
With, uh, with a lot of, I mean, I think it was, it was a, it was a, it was a constant wrestlingI think. He enjoyed many aspects of his work for the UN, and there were many aspects of the work for the UN that, that were incredibly taxing or even difficult for him. I mean, it is a massive institution and institutions are often bent on preserving themselves and protecting themselves sometimes even at the cost of the individual and, and the investigation into his death, uh, at least one of them done by, you know, someone that the UN brought on to do it was, was more about victim-blaming than actually finding the truth of what happened. And so, um, I have some reasons to hope that there will be some justice or at least a calling of account in MJ and Zaida’s deaths, even perhaps more than anyone expected, but, you know, the person we really needed to investigate MJ and Zaida’s death was MJ. Um, and, um, I mean, he, he had this immense skillset to do this kind of work; he was smart, he was savvy, he could listen to people, he was charming and he could navigate so many things in the DRC. And so I think he did that with the UN, I also don’t think, you know, a lot of the people who do this UN Group of Investigators job, they either find a way to do it over the long-term that is sustainable, or they fly at it hard and they move on pretty quickly. And I think MJ was probably in that latter group and so I don’t think he would’ve taken another term on the group, and I think he would’ve been elsewhere trying to do something. I think it’s fascinating because I think MJ, at least thought about, “could I work for the CIA?” “Could I work for the FBI?” You know?

Patience:
Did he?

Marshall:
I, I think I’m not, I, I’m not sure I can prove that, but I know that he was working at whether he would go work for the International Criminal Court. And so if there was a Mennonite who could have worked for the CIA or FBI was probably MJ, um, I, I’m pretty sure it at least crossed his mind, but, but Patience, in the most direct answer to your question, after a spell of talking here about it, how MJ navigated working for the UN, he wrestled with it. And he found occasional folks who could help him, he found his folks who could help him do that and there weren’t very many, but there are a few other Mennonites who are doing this, this complicated work in the world where maybe they do work for the state as well, or they, and so there were at least a couple of those where he could spend a weekend, hanging out with those folks and just talk and just, and, and process and so I know that he did that and while the work was lonely at times, it, that wrestling was also something that he did find a couple other people to do that with. And that’s, you know, we all hope for that, right?

Patience:
Yeah, yeah, indeed we do. Um, is there anything else you would like to mention about MJ about the book that we haven’t covered yet?

Marshall:
Well, I’m, I’m immensely grateful and humbled to have gotten, to tell this story and to do my own wrestling with his life. And, um, getting just about every interview I did, there was a moment in the interview where I just marveled at something wise that someone said, or some observation or some piece that MJ had taught them. And that, um, being in the presence of that over and over again, was an immense. And I tried to, to pack the book with as many of those as I could. Um, you know, there’s a story in the book told to me by Surge Lungule a, a Congolese man who was with MJ on a day when they encountered a bus that was being robbed by some, some armed men and MJ hops out of the vehicle and, and tells the men to leave, tells…shoos, the men off. And, and he gets back in the vehicle and like…Surge is like, “what are you, what are you, what are you doing?” And MJ’s like, you know, like, I mean, he had two, he had two comments, you know, that were almost prophetic, like, but he talked about, um, why he did it. And the, and just kind of matter of fact, like explained it, the little small bit of bravery, and it’s this remarkable anecdote that I keep thinking about and how, you know, it was this, one of those things that, what does bravery look like? Like that’s obviously bravery, but sometimes bravery might mean having the guts to talk to our neighbor rather than just muttering about the political signs in their yard, or, um, talk or, or having the, the, the willingness to call something racist that one of your relatives just spouted at the Thanksgiving dinner table, or, um, just being able to say, you know, I’m Mennonite, it’s complicated, I don’t have a good foreign policy, but I’m trying to figure out what it means to live in this world in a way in which we solve our problems peaceably rather than with violence. And so I think that’s what I really hope that, that people maybe come away with if they read the book and, um, I’m grateful for this opportunity to talk about it and I look forward to some of the other opportunities. Uh, I mean, I’ll be on campus, um, at EMU, uh, and it’ll be fun to, to talk in some of those settings. And, um, there’s a number of events over the course of January and February, and, and hopefully beyond in which we’re able to, to kind of not glorify, not, um, you know, deify MJ, but, but say, you know, this guy lived an amazing life and died a tragic death. Um, what might he have taught us or what can he teach us?

Patience:
I’m grateful too, for this conversation. And, um, it will continue because this is a special episode of Peacebuilder; it is a crossover episode with the Ing podcast, and that’s why Ben Wideman is here with us. So, yeah. Ben, tell us a little bit about where people can find the second portion of this conversation.

Ben:
Well, it’s been a joy to sort of be a fly on the wall and listen to the two of you have this, uh, sort of starter part of the conversation. Um, Ing podcast as a podcast started, uh, early in the pandemic in 2020, um, by MennoMedia, the publishing house for Mennonite Church, USA and Mennonite Church, Canada. And, um, we’re excited to be hosting a continued conversation about MJ’s life and legacy. Um, and it began with the conversation about this crossover episode, so, um, today’s conversation is really the first part in, um, in a series, uh, which will continue over at Ing podcast available just about anywhere you listen to podcasts. And, um, I’ll be starting by talking specifically to Marshall about the book and, um, we’ll move from there to interviews with, uh, MJ’s parents, some of his peers, including folks who went to Eastern Mennonite University with him and, um, kind of interestingly, uh, Patience, you got me connected with, uh, David [Nyiringabo], a student who was awarded, uh, the MJ Sharp scholarship at EMU. And, uh…

Patience:
That’s right.

Ben:
We’ll get to sort of get some sense about a legacy even beyond, uh, the story in the book. So I’m excited for that, and I hope that you, uh, join us as we continue the conversation there.

Patience:
Indeed. Thank you very much. Both of you. Uh, this has been a joy and pleasure.

Marshall:
Thank you. Likewise Patience.

Patience:
Marshall is the author of “Disarmed: The Radical Life and Legacy of Michael ‘MJ’ Sharp.” Following the tragic death of MJ in March 2017, EMU worked with his family and close friends to establish the Michael J. Sharp Peace and Justice endowment scholarship here at the Center for Justice a Peacebuilding to help Congolese students attend CJP. If you would like to support this scholarship, please visit emu.edu/mjsharp. Or, you can call the Development Office at +1 800-368-3383.

Outro music:
[Outro music begins and fades into background]

Patience:
All the music you hear on this podcast has been composed by the one and only Luke Litwiller. Our audio-mixing engineer extraordinaire is Stephen Angello.
Transcription support was generously provided by Navy Widyani.
And I am the podcast executive producer, audio-recording engineer, editor, and host Patience Kamau.

As you are able, please remember to subscribe, rate and review this podcast so that other peacebuilders may find it. Thank you so much for listening, and join us again next time.

Outro music:
[Outro music fades back into foreground and plays till end]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.