Group hikes Mt. Kilimanjaro in honor of EMU grad killed in Africa

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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — On March 12, a group of hikers reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Photo courtesy of John Sharp

It was the second anniversary of the death of Michael Sharp, an Eastern Mennonite University graduate, who was known as MJ.

"These people did not all know MJ," John Sharp, MJ's father, said, "but they were inspired by his story. As one hiker said to me, 'If I can help carry a father's grief, then I'm in.'"

MJ was in the Democratic Republic of Congo investigating human rights abuses with his United Nations colleague, Zaida Catalan. They were killed in 2017.

One of John Sharp's friends brought up the idea of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

"Well, I said, 'MJ had this on his bucket list. Why don't we do it for him?'" Sharp said.

At the beginning of March, 12 hikers set out from across the U.S. and two other countries for the Michael J. Sharp Dream Hike, meeting in Tanzania.

Their goals were to reach the summit and raise $120,000 for the scholarship in MJ's name at EMU.

"So we were united around this mission," Sharp said, "and I think that just gave us a sense of purpose we might not have had otherwise."

Two EMU seniors, Riley Swartzendruber and Christy Kauffman, were along on the hike, taking photos and videos. They are a part of a group of EMU students working on a documentary about the life and legacy of MJ.

"This climb was kind of a continuation of discovering a story, honestly," Kauffman said, "because we've been living with this story for a year and a half, working on the documentary."

"Knowing that I get to be a part of this story, like even play such a small part," Swartzendruber said, "and knowing that my work and Christy's work is a part of that and is helping get the story out there as well is a really cool experience to have."

On the seventh day, the hikers reached the summit — the highest point in Africa, which is more than 19,000 feet above sea level.

"Also thinking about how 11 out of 12 of us on the hike actually summited," Swartzendruber said, "which was another incredible experience where I'm like, 'there's no way MJ hasn't been with us this whole time.'"

But it wasn't just about getting to the top.

"The fact that you're summiting with these people, with this reason," Kauffman said, "it makes it a lot more meaningful than if you were to just do it, to do it."

Making it to the peak was never a guarantee, but 11 of the 12 hikers made it to the summit.

"So getting there was a huge relief," Sharp said. "It was also emotional. I felt numerous times MJ's presence and have no doubt he was there with us."

At the summit, the group held a small ceremony, to remember MJ, Zaida, and Glen Lapp, an aid worker from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who was killed in an ambush in Afghanistan. They spread MJ's and Glen's ashes.

"The ashes, which we hoped would multiply into many peacemakers," Sharp said, "who would join the mission, who would do the kind of work MJ and Zaida and Glen Lapp were doing."

The group wants this kind of work to continue. So far, they have raised more than $115,000 for the Michael J. Sharp Peace & Justice Endowed Scholarship at EMU. They are still accepting contributions online. Money from that scholarship will be given to students at EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding to continue the peace building work MJ was doing.

"It's one of the delights of this whole story for us," Sharp said. "In the midst of the grief and sadness, our loss of MJ, having moments of joy like this are wonderful."

Swartzendruber and Kauffman hope the documentary will inspire others to work for peace.

"I think there's a perception people have of peacemakers and peacebuilders that is we're very passive," Swartzendruber said, "but this is a pretty clear story that says otherwise."

After MJ's death, much of the conversation has been about why it happened. But the students' documentary wants to change the dialogue.

"We're trying to tell a little bit of a different story in telling why these people were doing this work and telling about how these people went into this work and risked their lives," Kauffman said, "instead of looking at who did what and whose fault it was."

Those believed to responsible for the deaths of MJ and Zaida are on trial in the Congo.

"We hope for some form of shalom justice or restorative justice," Sharp said, "that goes far beyond legal justice, which really does not resolve the conflicts."

Sharp says he will continue to tell the story of his son's life, mission and death. He says he hopes more people will accept the challenge of making peace wherever they are.

"There is a lot more work to be done," Sharp said, "and again, I think, the best hope for peace in the world is through nonviolent intervention, doing the kind of work MJ was doing."