This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Remembering MJ

Michael Sharp speaks at the UN Security Council in August 2016. Photo provided by the Sharp family.

I was a student at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, during the era when Texas Hold’em Poker became an obsession. It seemed like everywhere you looked people were not just playing the game, but watching it on ESPN, playing online, enjoying movies about card-counting casino heists, reading about it in magazine or writing books on how to dominate the game.

Our small Mennonite campus was not immune from the poker craze. In fact I had enough friends serious about playing and getting better that my roommates and I established a weekly Texas Hold‘em game night around our kitchen table. Our friend MJ Sharp had the best set of poker chips and after several weeks of bringing them with him each time, they ended up having a permanent home at our house.

These gatherings were about playing a game we were all trying to master and I’m sure part of the enjoyment came from the slightly-rebellious feelings that Mennonite college students got from playing a gambling game that many of our home congregations would have frowned upon.

But for us it was about far more than that. These weekly gatherings were a way to build community and connection, to wrestle with what was happening in the world and how we might make it a better place, to dream about what life would be like after college and to spend a moment savoring our shared experiences.

We had a core group of “regulars”, but the table was always open to anyone who wanted to join in for the next hand.

Like many college traditions, this one came to an end as people graduated and left town. MJ left the country and his poker chips remained in my possession as I moved on to grad school to begin my time at seminary. I held on to them despite never taking them out of the case, thinking that someday they would make it back to their owner. More recently they’ve started being used for a totally different purpose: my young children discovered them and began using them as play money for their games and imaginary worlds.

My kids have been using MJ’s poker chips more and more, prompting me to frequently think back to those times around the kitchen table, as well as my friend MJ, wondering if he’d mind that his quality poker set has become a children’s toy.

It wasn’t surprising that there never seemed to be a way to get them back to him: even back in college it was clear that MJ would be a person who would head out to save the world, creatively working at global solutions wherever he could and in whatever space he found himself.

His wit, wisdom, and humor were a gift to those who knew him well, and even though we only connected for a short time it feels like a gift to have those moments.

As news unfolds around the kidnapping of MJ’s U.N. Team and his death, I’m left with poker chips, a handful of memories and last week’s painful and beautiful quote from MJ’s father, John Sharp, “I have said on more than one occasion that we peacemakers should be willing to risk our lives as those who join the military do. Now it’s no longer theory.”

It is also a reminder of my relative comfort and security. Though I get up each day to work at challenging faith-based peace and social justice work on a college campus, others find themselves in contexts where the stakes are much higher.

May we all strive to live out our lives like MJ, working for peace wherever we are called.

Ben Wideman is the Campus Pastor for 3rd Way Collective, a ministry of University Mennonite Church at Penn State. He blogs regularly for The Mennonite online. 

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!