GOSHEN — In recognition of the work of a United Nations expert with local ties who died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo two years ago, the Goshen Brewing Company will begin selling a special brew on Thursday.
MJ Sharp, a 2001 graduate of Bethany Christian High School in Goshen, went missing on March 12, 2017, along with a fellow UN worker Zaida Catalan while investigating an arms embargo and possible human rights violations in the Kasai region of Congo.
A few weeks later, his death was confirmed.
Sharp learned about weaponry while working for the Military Counseling Network, a project of the German Mennonite Peace Committee.
When he returned to the states, his father John explained, he was supposed to open a new division of a German-based software company, but the work didn’t suit him.
“That wasn’t so important to him anymore, so he began talking with MCC,” John recalled.
He learned French and began work in eastern Congo, working with the International Criminal Court.
“What captured his fancy was working with warlords,” John said. “He learned who they were and what their goals were.”
He developed relationships with communities and made attempts to teach community leaders and warlords to convince them to demobilize and retrain children.
“Because he was the guy most familiar with militia groups U.S. state departments would come to him for information and he cooperated, except for telling them the locations of the camps.”
Later on, he was hired by the United Nations. He worked with a group of six other experts. His speciality was armed groups.
In March, he and Catalan were scheduled to meet leaders of a militia group in a province they’d never been to, and one they’d not interacted with before, but they never made it there.
A video surfaced later, that showed his death not only to his parents, but to the world.
“MJ was shot first with a shotgun, from the side so he didn’t see it coming and then Catalan was shot several times and decapitated,” John said. “The most unpleasant thing was that this video became available on the internet, on Twitter, everywhere. It was a shock. It drove our pain deeper and it stirred my anger.”
Despite the gruesomeness of his death, as his father watched the video, he was amazed at his son’s negotiations.
“(The video) showed MJ engaging with his captors all the way to his death,” he said. “He asked, ‘Why are you afraid of us? You have all the weapons.’ He was doing his work, he was following his passions. He did it as a calling.”
“We were asked if we had known this would happen in advance, if we would raise him different,” John continued. “You can’t teach your children to care for the world and then tell them they can’t go to the places that are dangerous.”
MJ’s death opened his father’s eyes to the problems in Congo and other parts of the world, and it’s been his mission since to open the eyes of others to those problems for which his son died.
“They deserve better than they’re getting and that’s why MJ died,” he said. “My mission since his death is to tell his story to advocate for nonviolent resolution and peace for the people of Congo.”
A friend developed a scholarship fund, MJ Sharp Peace & Justice Endowed Scholarship, at the Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisburg, Virginia, where MJ is a 2005 graduate.
The scholarship provided funding for students from Congo, specifically, to come to the school and get training on peace reconciliation and finding nonviolent solutions for people living in Congo and other wartorn countries.
“The violence has accomplished nothing except suffering and death,” John said.
The scholarship became a fully funded endowment in March when John and a group of his friends raised money by hiking Mount Kilimanjaro.
Today, the endowment sits at about $200,000. Each recipient will receive about $10,000 so they’re hoping it will last for many years to come, the family said.
Justin Ramer, kitchen manager at Goshen Brewing Company, played soccer with and graduated alongside MJ at Bethany, but they weren’t close until they both moved back to the area.
“He was always the smartest one in the room but he never made you feel bad; he was always very relatable,” Ramer said. “He did a good job at finding connections and being genuine with those connections.”
Ramer and the staff at the Goshen Brewing Company, in an effort to continue MJ’s legacy, have brewed up their first batch of a brand new beer they’re calling School Bell Stout.
School Bell Stout is a Blonde Stout brewed with Congolese coffee donated by the Electric Brew, cocoa nibs and maple syrup.
The first pint will be auctions off during it’s kick-off at 5 p.m. Thursday. From that first beer, 100 percent of proceeds will go toward the scholarship fund. From there, 15 percent of all School Bell Stout beer profits will go toward the fund.
“This is just a way to get the word out about him and continue to give money toward this fund,” Ramer said.
The beer won’t be on tap, but depending on demand, may be around for several weeks, although the Goshen Brewing Company is considering bringing it back on a yearly basis.