On March 28, United Nations officials discovered the bodies of EMU alumnus Michael Jesse (MJ) Sharp and his colleague Zaida Catalan in a shallow grave just outside of Kananga, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Sharp, Catalan, and their companions were kidnapped by a militia group on March 12, among them were translator Betu Tshintela, driver Isaac Kabuayi, and five other Congolese who remain unnamed.
Both Sharp and Catalan had been working through the United Nations to bring peace to the DRC, Sharp as an arms group expert and Catalan as an expert on sexual violence. In 2010, Catalan left her political work in Sweden as a Green Party lawyer to begin working in the DRC. Sharp joined the mission in 2015, after serving as Eastern Congo Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).
Sharp and Catalan worked to investigate government abuse and evidence of the use of child soldiers in militias, while promoting peaceful dialogue between various local groups.
The news of this tragedy has deeply impacted EMU and the surrounding community, leaving many with heavy hearts. Many knew Sharp personally or have ties to the Sharp family and his parents, John E. Sharp and Michele Lynn Miller Sharp of Hesston, Kansas.
Professor of Psychology Judy Mullet reflected on her connection to Sharp. “I helped to recruit him to come to EMU, and we had many conversations while he was a student here.”
When recommending Sharp as a reference to MCC, Mullet said, “He’s open-minded and sensitive to alternative perspectives. He’s not a traditional learner and works well in areas requiring creativity and resourcefulness. MJ is a thinker and a creator, consummate learner. He’s community oriented, a leader with visionary ideas.”
Before Sharp took the UN position in the Congo, he wrote to Mullet in an email: “I want to continue working in crisis regions with some international NGO, whether the UN or CPT or some other group. My experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine over the last couple years have made it clear to me that this is where I need to be. And in the next couple years, I’ll want to start on my doctorate, so I can teach after my need to work in war zones subsides.”
Professor of History Mark Metzler Sawin also knew Sharp personally. “MJ and I came to EMU the same year, in 2001, he as a student and I as a professor. I had him in several classes as he was one of our History majors.”
When asked what Sharp was passionate about, Sawin said, “Justice and pushing boundaries. For his first-year history paper he wrote a provocative paper about the Clinton/ Lewinsky sex scandal in a way that pushed ideas of what public morality meant and the responsibility of the press to report and dig into issues, but also not to sensationalize and titillate purely to pull in bigger audiences.… [He] took on tough topics in nuanced ways. That said, he did have a mischievous side. He liked to stir up controversy and play devil’s advocate in class.”
Sawin remembered Sharp’s love of challenges. “He got a speeding ticket — well deserved if I remember correctly — but spent hours reading up on how to best represent yourself in court to get out of a ticket, and very proudly won his case, having it thrown out on technicalities! He took the same sort of spirit of challenge into his life.”
After graduating from EMU, Sharp helped soldiers who decided to become conscientious objectors during their service. Sharp followed his passion to Germany, where, Sawin recalled, “he worked with such men for several years, developing good listening and negotiating skills in the process. His work in the DRC was in some ways very much the same — it was MJ being willing to work at tough issues and to ask hard questions … questions others didn’t necessarily want to deal with.”
“MJ’s life is a tragic but important example of what we do here at EMU,” Sawin said. “MJ wanted the world to be a better, more humane, and more just place, and he was willing to work in dangerous areas to do this. He certainly had no desire to be a martyr … He didn’t seek danger or want to die. But he was willing to take risks for what he believed in.”