A shortened version of this article appeared in The Mennonite, in conversation with the awesome article entitled “Vincent Harding, Rebels, and MJ Sharp.” Video of MJ’s work, and scholarship created in his honor, by John and Michele Sharp, here.
One of my favorite things about my dear friend MJ Sharp (pictured in the middle) was how he did his work, especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He gave his life for peace work there, but he was not simply a martyr. He was someone giving his all to investigative work. MJ was a complex character who pushed hard for justice, utilizing creative and courageous tactics that led to positive change in some key situations. Speaking at his memorial service, the representative from the United Nations remarked, “the international community has lost one of its best investigators.”
MJ and I would often commiserate about how hard it was to do our inner work in the context of dealing with our external work: oppression-induced societal emergencies and organizational conundrums. He was about to finish up his term in the DRC and move to Albuquerque to live in a semi-intentional community. One reason he was going to do this was because it would hopefully give him the opportunity to do that hard, slow, heavy, and contemplative inner work. He never got that chance. But I still do.
I followed the footsteps of Dr. Vincent Harding to Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia to learn of my vocational calling while exploring the fullness of my identites. My work took me to Mennonite World Conference, where the words of prophets like Harding and Sider still echo. And it took me to Christian Peacemaker Teams. Now it is taking me elsewhere, but not before I take time to rest and honor MJ by doing my own work: Looking internally at those neglected areas of myself, compassionately contemplating my missteps, and reflecting on words from mentors living and ancestral.
We strive for work that fulfills our souls and meets our own needs, not because we aim to be martyrs who simply give up our lives for “the cause.” Leaders must understand the connection between their personal inventory and their personal contribution. We are acting out in the world what we personally need. Seeking to understand the forces driving our souls does not make us selfish. It helps us become more self-aware leaders, and that’s what congregations and organizations need.
Doing your own work also means understanding your identity, social location and how power pools and flows in your organization. It means thinking about how you show up, ask for allies, and be an ally to others who are newer or who are having difficulties navigating a system that you easily understand. We desperately need leaders like MJ who commit to doing personal and collective work to make organizations more welcoming to everyone.
Finally, to “do your own work” is a reminder to follow your dreams, and employ your gifts to do work that only you can do in the world. This may mean taking a risk to innovate in your field, or a keen focus on how you do your work. Make sure there is something uniquely you that you do in your job. You are not a machine. You are a beloved child of God. No one can do it like you can!
Sarah Thompson is finishing up her term as Executive Director of Christian Peacemaker Teams. She is a licensed minister in Indiana/Michigan Mennonite Conference.
Bowling with MJ on the last day I saw him, in Wichita, Kansas.