Some people we meet invoke an instant connection. We experience a sense of having known them forever and being jealous of their current or future relationships because of their potential as amazing life-long companions. Of course, we don’t tell these people about the connection we feel, because that would make us creepy.
For me, moments in the presence of such a person hold greater detail and richness than other memories. One person in particular is foremost in my mind today. I remember watching him dance at his sister’s wedding with a carefree exuberance that single female eyes – and some married eyes – followed. He interacted with everyone and embraced friends and new acquaintances with a complete lack of self-consciousness. Love seemed to exude from him.
MJ and I had a relationship hard to diagram – my husband’s brother’s wife’s brother – but easy to execute. He was someone who occasionally showed up at family gatherings, and when he was there I made a point to engage. He was fun to talk to and had fascinating things to share: his work with the UN and Mennonite Church in the Congo meant his life stories went far beyond my limited range of experiences.
With almost perfect clarity I recall one private moment between us. A conversation between MJ, my daughter, and me. My then first grader was explaining to MJ, in great detail, the amazing wonders of her class guinea pig Bert. The pig sat in a cage on the floor right next to her desk. It was her first year at a new school and she struggled with reading and friends, so Bert was a bright spot in her days. MJ patiently asked her questions, listened to her answers, and then shared that he had a whole pen of guinea pigs behind his house in Africa. Oh the wonder of a whole pen of pigs. They compared and contrasted her pet pig and his pen of pigs. He told her about the babies and she listened in rapture at the thought of little piggies. When she wandered away, having exhausted her six year old capacity for conversation, he leaned over to me and explained in quiet tones that his guinea pigs were for eating. They were a sure source of protein in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and were better than rabbits, because they both didn’t over populate and tasted pretty good.
What made this conversation memorable? First that he, as an adult, was willing to spend time talking with a kid. Not talking at a kid, but he got down on her level and had an engaging conversation with her. He brought my horribly shy child out of her shell and fascinated her with this African world he lived in by sharing a common bond. He didn’t break their bond by telling her why he had his pigs, but waited until she’d left before telling me. Until that moment I’d been secondary in the conversation, but in his own way MJ had been drawing me in by building trust with my daughter, who I adore. Then he explained the realities of his world to me in an engaging and thought-provoking manner. Throughout our conversation I wasn’t shocked or offended, but impressed with his ability to tailor a story to his audience and maximize understanding by finding common ground.
From this encounter I understood how he did his job in Africa. I could envision him building ties between warring factions, and encouraging diplomacy. I could see him gaining trust by sharing stories.
I share my own story today because MJ is no longer with us. Two weeks ago his family heard he had been kidnapped with a UN colleague and their interpreter. Monday they learned that Caucasian bodies had been found, and we now know that MJ died. Personally I mourn the family events where he won’t be present and the conversations we won’t have. But my loss is so small when compared to his family and friends. MJ wasn’t my brother, but I love his sister. MJ wasn’t my son, but I adore his parents. MJ was someone I really liked and was looking forward to seeing at inevitable family events over the years.
So often I gloss over news stories with a reaction of, “can you imagine?” Now I can imagine. This time I know a glimmer of what was lost. I compose this today because his family deserves prayers, and I don’t pray, but I do write.
I honor MJ by remembering the light he brought into my life.
I mourn for the nieces and nephews who won’t know or remember the hugs of their uncle.
I hope that he did not suffer at the end.
I grieve for his parents, his sisters, his family and his friends for their unimaginable loss.
If you are interested in knowing more about MJ (his full name is Michael Sharp) I’ve included some links below. I hope his too-short life shines a light on the issues he was dedicated to. Personally I wish I would have told him what a great guy he was, how much I liked him, and how inspirational his calling was. My heart goes out to those who were close to him.
A prayer for MJ from his parents: http://www.kake.com/story/35028097/kansas-parents-of-slain-un-worker-talk-to-kake
NPR has been covering MJ’s work since 2016 as part of their Goats and Soda feature: http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2017/03/29/521962848/remembering-michael-sharp-he-risked-his-life-to-make-peace
The Washington Post explains the longstanding challenges in the Congo: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/03/29/courageous-but-not-reckless-the-tragedy-of-an-american-u-n-worker-slain-in-congo/
NY Times article on MJ’s role in the Congo and his last trip: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/28/world/africa/missing-un-experts-congo.html?_r=0