HESSTON — A man with Hesston ties has been kidnapped in the Congo, where he has spent the past several years working for the peaceful resolution of conflict.
Michael Sharp, the son of Hesston professor John Sharp and medical worker Michele Miller Sharp, was one of two United Nations officials, one American and one Swedish, has been kidnapped along with four Congolese in the country's Kasai Central province. The Congo's government announced the kidnappings Monday.
Miller Sharp told The Kansan Tuesday morning she did not know if her son was alive, but she hopes for a peaceful resolution to the situation.
“My concern is that all means will be used if he and the others are still alive, that they will work at peaceful means to address this problem if they are still alive,” Miler Sharp said. “It would be very ironic for all the things that (Michael) has worked for in his young life if this were to end in violent means. It would be so contrary to how he has worked.”
For several years Sharp operated with a home base in Hesston, though for the past few months he has home based from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Sharp and Zahida Katalan of Sweden were abducted with three Congolese drivers and a translator while traveling by motorcycle through the region, government spokesman Lambert Mende said.
It was not clear when the kidnapping occurred on a bridge near the village of Ngombe, Mende said, adding that the kidnappers have not yet been identified.
Judicial authorities in the province have opened an investigation and are working with the U.N. mission in Congo to free the people held.
Congo is home to multiple militias competing for stakes in the vast Central African nation's rich mineral resources.
Sharp was working with those militias. First entering the region as a mission worker for Mennonite Central Committee, Sharp helped negotiate the release of child soldiers during a three-year term with MCC. After that term, he joined the United Nations team and worked with the generals of the militias.
“He saw that as a peaceful means,” Miller Sharp said. “It was his success with MCC that attracted the U.N. to him. … He began to build relationships and met with several militia generals, and built a trust with them over the years.”
Miller Sharp said her son and his team were due back in New York shortly to write reports, and his second 18-month term with the U.N. was nearly over when the kidnapping occurred.
A 34-year-old graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, Michael Sharp entered voluntary service after college. His first service was in Germany, assisting with military counseling and support. He finished a graduate degree in International Relations and Peace Studies.
He later went into missions with MCC before joining the U.N. He served as Eastern DR Congo program coordinator for MCC from 2012 to 2015.
“He is gifted in languages,” Miler Sharp said. “He is gifted in, in a low-key way, building relationships. He cares enough to understand the history of conflict. He understands the cultures and always educates himself fully before he becomes involved with people. It is a very big challenge for him, but he strives to understand culture … He works to build trusting relationships and that takes time. You do not do that overnight. It is in those trusting relationships that you are able to facilitate change.”
Charles Bambara, spokesman for the U.N. mission in Congo, known as MONUSCO, confirmed with the Associated Press that two experts from the mission have disappeared in the country — but would not comment further.
"The United Nations and MONUSCO are doing all that is possible at this moment to locate the two experts," he said.
The U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa said in a statement that it was aware of the reports of a missing U.S. citizen.
"Out of respect for the family during this difficult time, we have no further comment," it said, referring questions to the U.N. press office.
The U.S. Department of State was monitoring the situation, according to a statement sent by the embassy.
"The U.S. Department of State has no higher priority than the protection of U.S. citizens overseas. When a U.S. citizen is missing, we work closely with local authorities and cooperate fully in their search efforts," the statement said.
Hesston College issued the following statement in support of the Sharp family:
"The Hesston College community is heavy-hearted at the news of the kidnapping of Michael J. (MJ) Sharp and five others while on a peacekeeping mission with the U.N. in the Democratic Republic of Congo. MJ is the son of Hesston College history and Bible instructor, John Sharp. Our prayers are with John, Michele and their family as they await more news in this uncertain time, and especially with MJ, his colleagues and those seeking their safe return."
— The Associated Press contributed to this report