Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
Just hours before Michael J. Sharp was abducted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo two weeks ago, he was texting his neighbors and friends in Albuquerque.
He was safe. There was nothing major to worry about. He hoped to be home soon.
He and his fellow U.N. worker, Zaida Catalan, from Sweden, and their Congolese crew, including interpreter Betu Tshintela and driver Isaac Kabuayi, were making their way around heavily forested Kasai-Central province. They were out to uncover stories of violence between Congolese security forces and a local tribal militia called the Kamuina Nsapu and to monitor the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions program in the country.
But he wasn’t safe.
On Tuesday, the Congolese government confirmed that Sharp’s was among the bodies found in one of several shallow graves near where they disappeared. Sharp’s father, John Sharp of Hesston, Kan., said on Facebook on Monday night that “since no other Caucasians have been reported missing in that region, there is a high probability that these are the bodies of M.J. (Michael) and Zaida.”
“It’s now a certainty. It is the two investigators. We identified the third body in the grave with them as their Congolese interpreter,” Mende told Reuters.
Sharp’s death has sunk his Albuquerque community into grief.
“He was there to kind of investigate and understand the conflict between different groups, and that informed the Security Council of the U.N., and it was dangerous and risky work, but I still didn’t see this coming. Not quite like this,” said Andrew Gingerich, Sharp’s longtime friend. “I never quite imagined him being a victim.”
Sharp, whom friends described as living out of a suitcase for most of his adult life, had finally found a place he’d like to call home, someplace to finally stay put.
He moved into one of the units in a unique apartment complex near Carlisle and Gibson called the Plex by its tightknit community of residents and neighbors, many of whom are Mennonite like Sharp.
Steve Miller, Sharp’s friend and Plex owner, describes the Plex as “an experiment in semi-intentional community, people that want to live together, but also people who have separate lives and very busy households” made of people who value peace and cherish community.
“I think he saw something here that he really wanted, that he thought he was missing, which was the constant community. There was constant encounters here at the Plex and in the neighborhood. At the coffee shop, you see any number of friends, and the wider community also happened to have a higher concentration of Mennonites or a Mennonite background,” Miller said.
The Mennonite faith is a Christian religion based on pacifism and baptism for adults. Some of its members live in conservative communities similar to the Amish, and others live in progressive communities like that in Albuquerque, are often deeply committed to peacemaking organizations and activities.
Miller said Sharp moved to the Plex in October and jumped right into making relationships with his neighbors, attending potlucks, bonfires, parties and contributing to the shared yard and other spaces.
Within a week of his arrival, he joined housemate Anna Horner and Gingerich in a chokecherry-picking outing. Jam made from that outing will be part of a party Friday night to remember Sharp, who went by the nickname M.J.
Horner said Sharp was intensely curious and ready to root into the community.
“I think he was at a point in his life where he was really ready to put some roots down and begin cultivating adult relationships that he maybe hadn’t had the opportunity to cultivate before because of his work and his constant moving,” she said.
He didn’t share many details about his work, though he did encourage his new friends to learn more about the conflict and violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“He really wanted us to see it better, but at the same time had to hold a lot back because, I think, he saw things that were so horrible and terrible and he didn’t want to bring everyone down about it. To be on a U.N. panel of experts at 34 is pretty remarkable. He had this real gift. He was really smart,” friend and neighbor Andrew Clouse said.
Gingerich, one of Sharp’s closest friends, said he didn’t pry into Sharp’s work, instead giving his friend time to just be with his new community.
“I just really look forward, or looked forward, to him being done (traveling) and being able to unpack this (work) with him,” Gingerich said.
Instead, Plex residents and others plan to gather Friday around a bonfire to remember Sharp and share some of chokecherry jam he made.