HESSTON, Kan. (KSNW) – It’s been more than two years since a Hesston family found out their son, Michael Sharp, had been brutally murdered in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Michael, known as MJ, did the dangerous work of peace building with the United Nations in the war-torn country.
It’s been an uphill journey of peace for his parents John and Michele.
“It was just one step, one step after the other,” John said.
Every journey has a beginning. John’s started at the bottom of the mountain.
“It was tough, and I assumed it would be,” he explained.
The trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain with a peak summit of 4,900 meters, is scenic and challenging. John and a group of MJ’s friends and former colleagues took the Lomosho Route.
“The rock fields and the boulder fields were surprising,” John said. “Climbing over and around that made it really tough going up and going down.”
John with his book bag, supplies and hiking gear, would pack all the motivation he needed.
“To honor his legacy and to check off something from his bucket list that he never got to do.”
In a video documenting the trip, that was shot and edited by Eastern Mennonite University students Riley Swartzendruber and Christy Kaufman, John looks at the camera, “We are getting close to the top, and you will be there because we will have your ashes. Plus, I know your spirit is with us.”
The hike would take several days, giving John enough time to reflect on his son, as he does every day.
GALLERY: Honoring Michael Sharp’s legacy
“He was smart. He was very polite and never tired of learning,” John remembered. “We were pleased that, with his mind, he had a kind and generous heart.”
A heart, that John said led his son to do dangerous work in a far away country.
We did not dwell on it. We did not dwell on the fears. We wanted him to be free to follow his mission.” – John Sharp, Michael’s father
Considered an expert in his field, MJ was on the front lines, sitting side by side with war lords and militia leaders.
“And asked him questions. MJ wanted to know why they were in the forests. What were their objectives? What did they hope to accomplish,” John said.
MJ and Catalan wanted to find out how the militia leaders were getting their ammunition and how they were being supported. They also wanted to persuade them to stop the fighting and to make sure children were not influenced and used by the violence.
“If you will let them go, and you release them, we have programs that will remobilize them and repatriate them,” John said.
Before going out to meet with the war lords, MJ and his colleagues would make sure the path was safe and that they would not be harmed, but on March 12, 2017, something went wrong. He and another UN worker, Zaida Catalan, were kidnapped.
Two weeks later their bodies were found. Both had been brutally shot and killed. MJ was two weeks from coming home.
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“He told us once that he had no death wish, neither was afraid to die,” John remembered. “We knew at that point that this was a calling from God. This is not something he dreamed up and decided to do. It was a calling, and it was the calling that gave him the courage, the lack of fear, to pursue that mission.”
John would go on to finish his mission on the mountain. He spread his son’s ashes at the peak and prayed with the group, while also remembering Catalan.
“It was emotional, emotional that we made it, emotional that we were doing this thing together, and now to spread his ashes on the top, lots of emotions at that moment.”
MJ and Catalan’s work would not go in vain. It is estimated that their team convinced 1,600 rebels to give up the fight, changing the lives of 23,000 family members.
“He was in many ways, an ordinary kid, ordinary guy, who had a passion for peace building that can be continued,” John said.
At the top of any mountain comes relief.
“It was exhaustion mixed with exhilaration,” John said after finishing.
But the way down is just the start of another journey.
“I would say yet another step. I do not know that closure will ever come, but it was one more way to mark his legacy,” he explained. “The work is far from finished.”
John made it his goal to make sure of that. The climb was a fundraiser to continue the work they were doing.
He was able to establish the Michael J. Sharp Peace Endowed Scholarship Fund at Eastern Mennonite University, which was MJ’S alma mater.
It will help pay for students from the Democratic Republic of Congo to come to the United States to educate them in peace building so they can then go back and apply those skills in their country.