David Nyiringabo, peacebuilder from the Democratic Republic of Congo

“Disarming” Part 3, with Marshall King and David Nyiringabo

~ing podcast Season 2 Episode 8
Full Episode Transcript

Season 2 Episode 8: “Disarming” Part 3, with Marshall King and David Nyiringabo was released on March 1, 2022. The audio recording is available on all major podcasting platforms. More information is available here.

Episode Description:

Welcome to the final part of a special miniseries focusing on the life and legacy of Michael “MJ” Sharp. This week’s episode includes two conversations hosted by ~ing Podcast producer Ben Wideman. We’ll begin with the final part of a conversation with Marshall King, author of the recent book, Disarmed, the life and legacy of Michael “MJ” Sharp, and then transition to talk with David Nyiringabo, a peacebuilder from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one of the first recipients of Eastern Mennonite University’s MJ Sharp scholarship

Michael “MJ” Sharp was a modern Mennonite armed with wit and intellect, but not a gun. The son of a Mennonite pastor, he demonstrated a gift for listening and persuading early in life. His efforts to approach others with acknowledgement rather than judgement gave him the ability to connect on a level very few managed. He also honed a deep commitment to peace, and after college he joined the Mennonite Mission Network and moved to Germany, where he persuaded soldiers to choose peace and free them of their violent systems. Disarmed: the Life and Legacy of Michael “MJ” Sharp is available now from Herald Press.

Jason Porterfield, Marshall King, David Nyiringabo, Ben Wideman

Ben Wideman  00:00
Welcome to Season Two of ~ing Podcast, a production of MennoMedia’s Leader Magazine. What does it mean to authentically follow Jesus? Each week ~ing Podcast invites you to join us on a journey. Join us as we talk with people of faith who are creatively thinking, growing, and being people who are reimagining and exploring what it means to enrich faith in a complex world. Over the past few weeks here at ~ing Podcast, we’ve been remembering the life and legacy of MJ Sharp, a Mennonite peacebuilder, who was kidnapped and killed on a UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Today, we’ll wrap up our conversation with Marshall King, author of the recent book Disarmed: The Life and Legacy of Michael “MJ” Sharp. And then we’ll talk with David Nyiringabo, a peace worker from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one of the first recipients of the MJ Sharp scholarship at Eastern Mennonite University. Our conversation begins now, join us as we journey together. Marshall, thanks again for being with us here on the podcast.

Marshall King  01:12
Thanks, Ben.

Ben Wideman  01:12
So we have this story, this true story of a unarmed person who worked for peace, essentially being kidnapped and eventually murdered on a UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That’s an unusual story to be reporting on. As a reporter, did you set yourself up with a different set of parameters and telling a story like this knowing the sort of the weightiness?

Marshall King  01:41
You know, I was at, I was working… still doing some newspaper work doing some communications and PR work, you know. It’s always been kind of a part time project. For the most part, I now work part time for the Community Foundation of Elkhart County, doing some storytelling and communications work for them. And so the writing of this really happened in early 2021, when I would try to do my job the first couple days of the week, and then do the book writing at the end of the week. And then did there were a couple of weeks in which I did larger chunks of writing, usually, in one case, at least holed up in a in a guest house in North Carolina. So when you’re a journalist doing an interview that goes well, is somewhat energizing, even if it’s hard content.

Ben Wideman  02:32

Marshall King  02:32
And just about every interview had this piece, like I talked about in the podcast with Patience, to where it was this golden nugget. So the interviews the relationships that developed… I mean, I I drew close to some of MJ’s family and friends and they’ve become friends. And so we were in this together in some ways, I think that work was more prolonged. I, at a certain point, referred to it more as a marathon than a sprint. And as a newspaper guy, I’m more of a sprinter when it comes to writing, but I was doing a marathon or even an ultra marathon. And, and what I also didn’t realize, while I was doing that, particularly in the final months of doing it, is the impact or the toll that it was taking physically and emotionally on me. And so I had to I’ve had to do some work just to kind of pay attention and focus a little bit more on my own health and heal up a little bit because it is it was a heavy lift.

Ben Wideman  03:32
It’s a heavy lift and a heavy book for us to to read as well. I found myself in the last couple of months reading Rachel Held Evans book, Wholehearted Faith. Rachel passed away in 2017. And, and her book was finished by colleagues, written sort of posthumously, but I was moved almost to tears in the first chapter, hearing these words kind of from the grave, and I felt very similar feelings as I navigated your incredible work too… like it was sacred space. Like it was… it was something that needed to be told, but was going to require a lot of me. So it’s not surprising to me to hear that it has also required something of you as its author to to bring us this gift. And it really does feel like that like a an offering of sorts to those who knew MJ. And I think to those who didn’t, I’m guessing as well, who, who will take the time to read it. One of the things that you talk about, fairly frequently, a thread that was constantly there in MJ’s life about about what comes next. You know, even as he was doing this peacekeeping mission, which turned out to be the final days of his life. He was still trying to clarify where he felt he was called next. And I wonder what you think that means for his legacy?

Marshall King  05:02
He longed for some of the things that are are hallmarks of, you know, kind of your average conventional Mennonite life, if you will, you know… marriage and kids. And I think that those things were ahead of him. But for a chunk of his life, he chose to focus on his this work in the world and going, going to places in the world that maybe meant that he sacrificed some of those other things. And so I think he was interested in living well, and doing the most that he could think he pushed himself hard. And yet he was human. He was, he was, he was human, he was imperfect despite all his talents. And so this wrestling with what comes next, and how does this look, and how do we do this, I think is the appropriate question always. And certainly, in an era where democracy seems to be more of a question or more at risk than at some other times, or some of the conversations that we’re having in the Mennonite Church feel fraught, in ways because of some of our differences. And so I don’t know that, you know, MJ was telling us or would tell us, “Oh, pay attention to that over there.” But, but I think, yeah, but I think if we are trying to live out our beliefs in some of those ways, perhaps we make a few different choices than maybe we had otherwise. And maybe we do do it a little more boldly than we might have.  You know, MJ was not a shrinking violet. I mean, he kind of charged into the world, and for good, you know, for good, and sometimes, to maybe seek some adrenaline that I don’t need to seek. But also, I think, addressing that question is entirely appropriate.

Ben Wideman  07:15
Well, I think it goes back to this question of, you know, the boxes that he fit into, as well, you said, he charged into the world, but held up with the very real way he was present with people. And the quotes that we have from him, like, some, you know, sometimes you can just listen. This intentional posture to, yes, both say yes to difficult things, but to know that sometimes what we’re called to is to just sit around a table and to hear people’s stories. I think that that is, is something that those of us who think we are called to save the world should be taking part in, right? To, to also remember that we’re not supposed to charge in all the time, but we are to have this posture of grace and hospitality and, and to just listen.

Marshall King  08:12
But Ben I think, too, it’s when something confronts us.

Ben Wideman  08:17

Marshall King  08:18
And demands a choice from us. Sometimes we have to avail ourselves to the hard choice.

Ben Wideman  08:25
Marshall, I just want to say how appreciative I am for your willingness to take on this project and for spending these three weeks with us on ing Podcast.

Marshall King  08:34
Thanks, Ben. It’s delightful to to have gotten to this point and to be able to talk with you about it today.

Ben Wideman  08:40
After the break, we’ll begin a conversation with David Nyiringabo, a peace worker from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one of the first recipients of the MJ Sharp Scholarship at Eastern Mennonite University. Today, I have the privilege of sitting down with David Nyiringabo. He is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University’s Conflict Transformation Program, and a recipient of the Michael “MJ” Sharp Scholarship at EMU. I think this is a really interesting part of the conversation that we’ve been having, and MJ is legacy. David, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today.

David Nyiringabo  09:26
Of course, you’re welcome. Thank you for having me on the show.

Ben Wideman  09:28
For people who don’t know you. How do you describe yourself these days?

David Nyiringabo  09:34
David Nyiringabo, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was born and raised in Eastern DRC came to the US in 2018. And I lived in Rwanda for three years. That’s where I did my undergrad in Peacebuilding and Development. And then I came to Eastern Mennonite University for the Conflict Transformation program for my masters. Umm… Fun fact about me, I speak five languages. I love comedy. I am not a pet person. People are like, Oh no, you should love this. I love pets, but I’m scared of dogs.

Ben Wideman  10:12
Those are some good fun facts. I feel like we could have a whole episode just just learning more about yourself and talking about those specific things. I’m curious about your journey to EMU’s Conflict Transformation Program. How did that happen? And what drew you to this very small college in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia?

David Nyiringabo  10:32
I guess the journey all started with my passion for peace… peace work, or peacebuilding in the Congo or in the world. Wherever I find myself. I personally lost my father in a civil war. He didn’t die of natural causes, he was killed. So growing up, he… like there was this passion, growing in my heart. And I just know one thing… I didn’t want any other child to experience what I had experienced, because growing up without a father and knowing that he was killed, and he was innocent, was just like, so painful. So that led me to, you know, doing peacebuilding work. And that meant, you know, being a part of communities and studying and also being a part of different conversations on peacebuilding. So because I was so passionate about it, I did an undergrad in peacebuilding and development in Rwanda. And as I was living in Rwanda, I heard about two UN staff members that were killed in the Kasai region in the Congo. I literally heard about it like anyone else. And it was very surprising to see people that were working for the Security Council be just killed like that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, because we all know how much power the Security Council has and all of that, so we…. everyone heard about it almost. And I also heard about it like anyone else. Um, as I was approaching the end of my undergrad program, I was looking for an opportunity to continue my studies in the United States or in the UK or Germany. And it’s that time that one of my coach, I can call him a coach… that was working for MCC at that time, recommended me to CJP, the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. And as they responded, they said, “Oh, we actually have this MJ Sharp Scholarship,” I was like, MJ… this scholarship about Michael Sharp. And they said, Yes, they were… they told me about the the kind of candidates that they were looking for. And praise God, I met the criteria of receiving the MJ Sharp Scholarship. It wasn’t just a scholarship was also being a part of the story, you know, and also having the honor, and the privilege and the responsibility to be a part of MJ’s story. So that’s how it all began for me. That’s how I came, you know, to Eastern Mennonite University. And here I am.

Ben Wideman  13:26
So it sounds like you had at least heard of MJ before discovering this scholarship. I’m wondering if you met him in real life.

David Nyiringabo  13:35
I had heard about MJ, I didn’t meet him, unfortunately. So it’s after I became a part of this scholarship and the whole story that followed his death that I went back and started talking to some of my friends and some of the friends I have knew MJ, because I have friends that worked for the United Nations. And it was just surprising to know that we knew the same person, but we never, we knew like we had friends in common. Like, he wasn’t that close in my circle my network. And then after that, I got to talk to some of his friends and learn more about him what he liked, the kind of person he was, and it’s at this moment in your life when you’re like, oh, man, I want to meet him genuinely. Oh, no, he’s no longer… So all those sorts of things, I guess, is what followed after I received the scholarship.

Ben Wideman  14:32
As you were telling your story, I was struck by the something that his parents said recently, when I interviewed them… that we’re all faced with choices and people like to hold up MJ as someone who, who was willing to go out and risk things but they said really all that he did was said yes when when opportunities were presented to him. It sounds like you have that spirit as well. Hearing you know, you talk about that, the traumatic experience of losing a parent, I think you had the choice to to become active or to be almost paralyzed and to just do nothing. Can you… Can you speak about that moment in yourself and what you think, perhaps inspired you too, to take steps to be a peacebuilder?

David Nyiringabo  15:22
Yeah, sure. Yeah. Thanks for raising that question. I think pain and trauma can be very tricky.

Ben Wideman  15:30

David Nyiringabo  15:31
When when we experience a traumatic event, we are faced with many choices, it’s either we want to inflict the same pain on on others, the same person that inflicted that pain on us. And sometimes we might think that that will give us healing or some type of satisfaction. But in reality, even when you talk to people that lost their loved ones to murder, and then they saw the murderer be incarcerated or punished, they can still tell you, they were punished, but I’m not healed. You know, I, I know that, you know, in pain, but I’m not healed like that. Just that, you know? The other choice we have is, you know, doing nothing and just withdrawing from the world from everything. But still, for me, that would not give me healing, you would have been easier for me to just do something else that has nothing to do with peacebuilding. And probably, I would have earned a living or just have a nice job or career. But for me, this this was healing was more meaningful to be a part of, you know, the solution, I would say. And as I mentioned, I just don’t want my children to suffer the way I suffered. And if tomorrow we can see a Congo that is, is transformed to some extent, because we all came together and did something, I’d be proud to go in peace one day. So at the bottom, every of everything, I have to be honest, it’s my faith, believing in Jesus, who, you know, is calling us to peace. And I think prayer and just knowing that there’s a God above everything, and that things that happened to me, as a child of God are no mistakes, you know, even my pain can be used and transformed. I’ve been inspired by the idea of having my scars heal other people, not because I tried to brag, but because I believe it’s possible. So I guess, I don’t know if those are the only things that led me to choose this path. But I would say probably among the ones that I can quickly think of, those are the few things that played a role in this situation.

Ben Wideman  17:50
I spent several years as a campus minister here at Penn State University, and one of the things I appreciated about that space was the opportunity to engage when injustice happened, you know, I could go to peace march or a protest or open forum or something like that and feel like you said, like, I was part of the solution in whatever very small way. I’m now primarily a stay at home parent. And I can sense in myself some helplessness when I feel big things are out there. And I’m doing very little, besides, you know, caring for my children. And so I empathize a lot with that, that desire, and I wonder about what are our spirit, our soul, the requirement to be active and like you said, how that shapes the healing process, perhaps that’s what it means to join the Spirit’s movement in the world… to take a step, whatever that kind of step looks like, to be part of some some part of that, that movement in our world. I’m struck too with, with your your calling back to the Congo. And that’s something that I have continued to hear as I’ve interviewed people – let’s not forget about the Congo, it’s easy to lift MJ up as a hero or a martyr. And to forget that there is still a country here with with a lot of beauty and a lot of challenges. And, and that MJ would want us to continue to remember the context that he worked this this land that he called a paradise, but was also you know, complicated enough that it led to his death. And I sense that call in you still desire to be connecting back to this homeland of yours. Is that true?

David Nyiringabo  19:47
Yeah, that is true. You know, no matter where I go, I will always feel like I’m not from here. I can change my home. It’s my home. I might get citizenship in another country. I might get permanent residents in another place. But I still know that the Congo is my home. And and there’s all this, that desire to go home to go to the place where you grew up, remember your childhood, those, that village life, and we’re coming of age and all those things and the desire deep down is making it a place where everyone can feel safe, you know, where people can travel from point A to point B, and not worry about being kidnapped, or, you know, where people can celebrate and face without being worried that you know, there’s going to be gunshots or anything like that. It’s, it’s a very big context, when we talk about going back to Congo or doing something in the Congo, it can be very disappointing, like really, because as you come in, the government by itself will disappoint you, because they will bring your visa fees like so high. Even if they say it’s $500, they will use to pay extra money in corruption, for example. So let’s say you are not Congolese, and you want to help, that’s already disappointing, because you’re like, I’m coming here to help, but you cannot. So there’s all these things that are set up for you to almost not even try. You know what I mean? People that are trying to do something, they disappear.

Ben Wideman  21:15

David Nyiringabo  21:15
People that are trying to change things, they disappear. So I think it requires a strategy requires learning how to work in the underground, it requires knowing what you are doing and why you are doing it, I think the why you are doing it is more important. Because unless you know that you will not stay a day in the Congo because you will not have electricity, you will not have you know, safe water to drink everywhere you go, you will not feel safe everywhere. So it’s it’s complicated. Complex. Yeah, but it’s possible. I see this situation is like a big thing. But there’s an entry point to even the most complex of contexts.

Ben Wideman  21:55
We have a long history too, of the way that especially western missionaries have gone into places and messed things up. And I’m, I’m, I’m touched by a posture that MJ seemed to have of being willing to go in and just simply listen to be present and to, to try and navigate spaces by hearing what people were saying. Not assuming that he is someone with some support, some education, some wealth, you know, I arrived with all the answers, but to come in with a posture of receptivity. And and hopefully that’s part of the equation as well, if if people want to want to help in the Congo, as well.

David Nyiringabo  22:37
Yeah, I agree. I agree.

Ben Wideman  22:40
I’m curious, David, as you think about being a recipient of this scholarship, what is your hope for for people moving forward? Whether that’s a piece of MJ’s legacy moving forward, or a call to peacebuilding? How do you what is your hope for the future?

David Nyiringabo  23:00
I think my hope for the future is at different levels. But as we are talking about MJ and his work and his legacy, I think it’s it’s what you said earlier, as we talk about MJ, let’s not forget about the Congo, or as we talk about the pain that people that are going to Congo to help can experience let’s not forget about the Congo. And that also goes with the idea of, you know, whatever it is that we are trying to do in a context, that’s not probably our home context is all is someone that has already started doing something. And it’s about finding that person. As you said, MJ listened, sitting down with them, listening to them, and seeing how you can help them or how you can work together to bring about change. I would say the the hope for the future is that we can find a way of… I don’t know, people working together, being engaged because what happens in the Congo, what we don’t realize is the interconnectedness of us as human beings.  Like if I tell you we are interconnected right now, you’ll be like I’m in Pennsylvania, you’re in Virginia. But that if we look at it from a physical perspective, probably not directly but from a spiritual perspective and nature perspective, we are interconnected. Let’s use COVID. Someone got COVID in China somewhere in a small village I’ve never been or probably ever will be. And here we are. There’s a pandemic worldwide. We share the air we share many things and there’s so many ways we are interconnected. So if we forget about his small corner of the world, and it’s on the other continent, look, here we are in the United States. MJ his family was affected his friends. His entire network was affected all over the world but where did this happen somewhere in Eastern Africa in the Congo. So what happens to the Congo is affecting Africa, for example, because the Congo has natural resources we have so much that can feed the entire continent, if everything like if there’s just peace and stability, and so on. So I think that, you know, even as the world we are interconnected, we are connected to the world, the electronics, we are using the minerals that are in our electronics, all of that is connected to the Congo, and not only the Congo, many other places in the world that have these, you know, minerals and raw materials that we use to build electronics and other things. So maybe just being so mindful of how interconnected we are. And remembering that in our hard work, I guess, I hope that’s, it sounds like, abstract. It’s not tangible, but I think it’s deep.

Ben Wideman  24:51
Yeah. Yeah. And I think it just takes a minute for us to pause to remind ourselves of that interconnectedness. I mean, I think I saw an interview with you, where you talked about laughing, singing and dancing, being a part of the solution to, to, you know, the injustice in a lot of parts of the world. And those are also things that are hard to actually describe. And yet we all laugh, right, we all know that these thing happen. But… but trying to figure out the mechanics of why it’s sometimes really hard to, to name, but it again, it connects us across division and connects us across distances. These things that are sort of out there in the air that, that make us feel like we are a part of one humanity. Well, thank you for that word, it brings me a lot of hope and joy to hear that from you.

David Nyiringabo  26:54
Yeah, just a word of gratitude to everyone that is listening. And that has probably been helping not only the Congo, but other places in the world that are suffering. You know, it’s, I’m here in the United States, I can wake up and know that I’m somehow safe. Because somebody somewhere gave a small amount of money to add to a scholarship. You know, even if it didn’t pay for all of my tuition, but it contributed significantly. So just a word of gratitude to the people out there that are trying to help no matter how small the contribution can be. It’s, it’s still important. So just thank you, for you who are trying to make this world a better place. It’s a dream. But it comes true. 

Ben Wideman  27:43
Are there ways that people can follow the work that you’re doing as a piece builder in the world, a social media platform or something that you would direct people to if they want to follow your journey?

David Nyiringabo  27:52
I have a Facebook page called David Talks. I tried to host like podcasts, video based podcast conversations with friends around different topics that I like like peacework or just living in a community, and things like that. I think that’s one way to stay in touch with me, but also on my Facebook, David Nyiringabo. I also tried to stay active on social media. But I haven’t been doing most of the David Talks lately, because of just how life has been so crazy. But I think those are the few few ways to stay in touch.

Ben Wideman  28:36
Thank you so much again for being with us here on ink podcast. Pisco with you as you continue this work.

David Nyiringabo  28:43
Sure, thank you.

Ben Wideman  28:44
The new book, Disarmed: The Life and Legacy of Michael “MJ” Sharp, is available now, wherever you order books.  Next week on ~ing Podcast, we move into the season of Lent. We’ll be talking with Jason Porterfield, author of the new book, Fight like Jesus: How Jesus Waged Peace Throughout Holy Week.

Jason Porterfield  29:05
When I started writing this book, I never could have imagined just how divided our country would become… how divided the United States would become… the vitriol on the enmity… they are endemic now. But yet, as I’ve talked with people who’ve read the book thus far, a number of them, the majority of them not from a peace church tradition, I’ve been really encouraged to see them grappling with the content of this book.

Ben Wideman  29:34
As always, we’d like to thank our guests and all who support ~ing Podcast. Thank you for joining us on the journey. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a review on your favorite podcasting app. And if you have something to share, send us a message at [email protected] or by leaving us a voicemail. ~ing Podcast is hosted by Reverend Allison Maus and Reverend Dr. Dennis Edwards, and produced by me, Ben Wideman. Views and opinions expressed on ~ing Podcast are those of our hosts and guests, and may not represent that of Leader Magazine or MennoMedia. ~ing Podcast is a production of MennoMedia, a nonprofit publisher that creates thoughtful Anabaptist resources to enrich faith in a complex world. To find out more, visit us online at MennoMedia.org.