Into the heart of Africa

MJ Sharp wasn’t like other white people the Congolese had known

Michael Sharp visits with Elizabeth Namavu and children in Mubimbi Camp, home to displaced people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2013. — Jana Ašenbrennerová/MCC Michael Sharp visits with Elizabeth Namavu and children in Mubimbi Camp, home to displaced people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2013. — Jana Ašenbrennerová/MCC

An excerpt from Disarmed: The Radical Life and Legacy of Michael “MJ” Sharp, published this month by Herald Press.

Leaving behind the life he knew in Europe and the United States, MJ Sharp arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo in August 2012. He didn’t come to conquer, as had the white explorers of old. He came to aid and assist, to learn and listen.

He was part of a team of 11 Mennonite Central Committee workers in the Rwanda/Burundi region, but he was a thousand miles from the nearest MCCer in Congo. The massive country is nearly double the size of Western Europe and over one-fourth the size of the overall area of the United States. Since the 1960s, the country’s infrastructure has not been maintained, and no highways run from Kinshasa, the capital in the west, to the eastern side of Congo. The DRC doesn’t have many paved roads, something MJ would often joke about, and something that other expatriates, or expats as they’re called, often note when they’re talking about travel.

He survived his first infection or parasite with a few days in bed and antibiotics. Yet, emotionally, he was healthier than he’d been in years as he faced a new challenge.

One of the first things he did after arriving in Congo was buy a motorcycle. He got a small cycle with a 125cc engine manufactured in China that he could ride for hours on almost any terrain. While some expats demanded to move about in Land Cruisers or with escorts, MJ avoided that mindset. He preferred to ride.

MJ settled in Bukavu, on the southern end of Lake Kivu. He found an apartment that was part of a compound with four residences and hired staff members, including gardeners, night watchmen and at times a house cleaner for the residences. One of the reasons MJ picked the spot was because he hoped to raise his own food. The owner approved of his planting a garden and building hutches for animals, including chickens, guinea pigs, and rabbits. The question was whether it would go better than his attempt at worm farming in the college dorm.

Part of his job with MCC was to be a point person for agricultural training in eastern Congo, yet the larger focus was on peacemaking and working with internally displaced people.

In an MCC publication, he described his assignment this way: “As coordinator for MCC’s work in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, I support the Congolese Protestant Council of Churches and its agencies that work in emergency response and for peace and reconciliation in the region. Their projects respond to the needs of displaced people, support victims of violence and encourage armed groups to demobilize and reintegrate into society.”

About a third of the time, he worked in Bukavu from his home and an office there. The rest of the time he traveled in the North Kivu and South Kivu provinces to visit partners, projects and camps for internally displaced people. He often worked with Emmanuel Billay or Moise Butimbushi, who trained him as a colleague in the Program of Peace and Reconciliation. That program with the Protestant Council of Churches sprouted from a response to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the two subsequent civil wars.

The three men often traveled together, walking for miles. MJ carried a walking stick and traveled with both an open mind and a willingness to engage rather than expect special treatment.

Some expats ask for special food, or sometimes those hosting them make what they think an expat would want: milk, bread, sugar and French fries with mayonnaise.

MJ would give such offerings to others and instead eat what the locals were eating: fish and fufu, a daily staple made with cassava flour or corn flour. He was also fond of sombe, made from boiled and pounded cassava leaves.

If Emmanuel and Moise had to sleep on the ground, so would MJ.

If they were hot and sweaty as they walked and they came to a river, the men would swim together, MJ assuring them that doing so wouldn’t get them in trouble with their bosses.

He would wear the same clothes for days on end if needed. As his French skills improved, he also worked at learning Swahili, which was spoken among some in eastern Congo. He was embarrassed at times that his Swahili wasn’t perfect, yet he would ask Emmanuel and Moise for words that were important to a particular village as they approached it to do their work. MJ’s small efforts at language went a long way in gaining trust and building relationships with those he encountered.

“When you go into the village and the white person greets you, it just makes you happy,” said Moise.

MJ was a white North American, so it was unexpected that he would willingly choose to forgo the comforts of home. Yet he insisted, and that humility impressed the Congolese and earned their respect. He wasn’t like the other white people the Congolese had known.

“He was very open. And totally engaged in his work. He was kind, showed affection and love. He listened very well and a lot. He wanted to know the truth,” said Emmanuel, adding that MJ wanted to feel the truth, not just know it.

MJ didn’t go to the DRC to evangelize, as had so many white people before him. Rather, MCC works with and supports the Congolese Mennonites. Their churches operate programs to help internally displaced people. And some of those national churches then evangelize, sharing the gospel and trying to get people to repent and give their heart to Christ, said Mulanda “Jimmy” Juma, peacebuilding coordinator for MCC in southern Africa. But MCC itself doesn’t engage in evangelism. “MCC doesn’t allow that,” he said. “It’s not an opportunity to preach.”

MJ showed love for others and modeled the life of Christ. His actions demonstrated his faith through love, compassion and trust. Some of the Congolese Mennonite groups saw their numbers grow because of their relief work. “The evangelization was not done through preaching. It was done through action,” said Jimmy.

In an MCC publication in the fall of 2013, MJ put his work into context: “Places of intense conflict are also places where creative solutions are born and put to the test. If Jesus’ example is for everyone everywhere, what does that look like in eastern Congo, where war has been the norm for 20 years? I get to work on the front line of Congolese ingenuity and faithfulness in response to violence and hardship.”

Marshall V. King, a freelance writer based in Goshen, Ind., is the author of Disarmed: The Radical Life and Legacy of Michael “MJ” Sharp.

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