“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth.” Attributed to Buddha, this was Zaida Catalan’s retweet on March 3, her last.
Catalan, a United Nations expert from Sweden, died with my son Michael J. Sharp in the Democratic Republic of Congo — the place he called “paradise.”
On March 13, the U.N. called to report M.J. and colleagues had not returned from their mission to meet with the leaders of a militia group in Kasai Central Province.
From that moment, we tethered ourselves to our devices, grasping for any bit of news. The United Nations briefed us daily, and FBI agents came to our house frequently. Our daughters and families camped out at our house for 10 days. We lived in hope that M.J.’s negotiating skills would lead to their release and return. Or that God would intervene. Or that the “better angels” of the captors’ nature would prevail.
As days passed we entertained the dreadful possibility that he might not return. And two weeks after that first phone call, we learned the two experts had been gunned down, executed. It was an awful reality to incorporate into our minds and hearts. We knew we would never be the same, but we couldn’t comprehend how we would be changed.
On the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, we — family, friends, colleagues and official representatives — gathered for a memorial service at Hesston (Kan.) Mennonite Church. We cried and we laughed as we heard stories of his humor, antics, passion, compassion and deep engagement in peacebuilding in Germany, Palestine, Iraq and Congo.
We heard from aunt Doreen that we should not think God had abandoned M.J. but that God was present in his calling, his work and, yes, also his death.
We rested in the healing embrace of our local and international communities. Friends and neighbors brought food and managed our kitchen to feed the multitudes.
In the days that followed we began considering a new normal. But any progress was harshly interrupted by the release of a video showing the shooting deaths of M.J. and Zaida. It drove our pain deeper and stirred my anger. Must we endure yet another violation of human decency by the showcasing of their brutal murders?
We did not view the video, nor do we want to, but those who did reported what they heard and saw. We gained some comfort in learning that M.J. was shot without warning and died instantly. And we learned we were right in saying, “M.J. died as he lived: fully engaged.” To the very end, he was in conversation with his captors, speaking calmly and asking questions in his attempt to understand their intentions.
In the meantime, my wife, Michele, and I attended Zaida’s funeral in Kalmar, Sweden. The Church of Sweden (evangelical Lutheran) cathedral was majestic. Ancient rituals blended with modern music. Family and friends described Zaida as a passionate activist, human rights and animal rights advocate, environmentalist, feminist, politician and a woman with a heart big enough to save the world.
We and Zaida’s mother and sister, Maria and Elizabeth Moresby, have been drawn together by the tragic death of our children. We are fellow pilgrims on a journey toward a future we cannot picture.
So many questions remain. Who is responsible for this tragedy? What was the motive? Was Buddha right in predicting that truth, like the sun and the moon, cannot long be hidden? And if the truth would be uncovered, what would be the shape of accountability and justice?
We hope for restorative justice, something the death penalty or life imprisonment cannot achieve. More violence is not the remedy for past violence. What consequence then would be in keeping with peacebuilding and conflict transformation? What could restore the peace and wellbeing of the good people of Congo, who have suffered so much for so long?
We could also muse about M.J.’s legacy, but this we leave to others. Other historians can assess the impact of his life and death.
For Michele and me, he is simply our son; for our daughters, he is simply their brother, whether or not truth can be known.
John E. Sharp teaches history at Hesston (Kan.) College.