Alex Nsengimana told a rapt audience Saturday that a simple gift helped him begin to heal from unspeakable tragedy.
The Boone, North Carolina, man’s family was murdered during a 1994 genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda when he was 6.
A gift box from Operation Christmas Child showed him there were still people in the world who cared about him, he told 35 people gathered at Eastmoor United Methodist Church.
Operation Christmas Child is a program of Samaritan’s Purse. Samaritan’s Purse is a nondenominational Christian organization that provides aid to people around the world.
At the time, Nsengimana lived on a small farm at the village of Butumwa with his grandmother, uncles, brother, and older sister.
Relations between Rwanda’s Hutu and Tutsi tribes had long been tense, but broke into genocide on April 6, 1994, when an airplane carrying Rwanda’s
president was shot down as it prepared to land in the capital city of Kigali.
Within an hour, military and Hutu militia groups set up barricades and roadblocks and began slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Slaughter spread across the country for three months, spurred on by anit-Tutsi propaganda on government-owned radio stations. More than 800,000 Rwandans were killed.
The day Hutus showed up at Nsengimana’s home, he was astonished to see who they were.
“These were our neighbors,” Nsengimana said. “These were our friends.”
His grandmother and uncle were killed 100 feet from where he was. The invaders were going to burn the house, but his uncle asked them to leave it standing.
“My kids need a place to live,” his uncle said.
He, his brother, his sister, and one uncle were spared.
They left on foot, finally reaching the home of an aunt. In the spring of 1995, his aunt got sick, so he and his brother went to live in an orphanage. His sister was too old to go there, and stayed with friends.
“It was so hard to go to bed because kids would be having nightmares,” Nsengimana said of his days in the orphanage.
Shoeboxes of gifts from Operation Christmas Child were delivered to the orphanage.
When the gifts were brought, the children were told, “These gifts come from America.”
He did not recognize some of the items in his box and had to figure out what they were, but one thing about the box of gifts was more meaningful than the toys themselves.
“Because of those items, I was reminded to be a boy again,” Nsengimana said. “When you are packing those boxes, God is using you in a powerful way.”
He learned about Christianity and eventually converted.
After two years at the orphanage, Nsengimana went to Uganda to perform with the African Children’s Choir, which tours the United States and United Kingdom.
After two years with the choir, he returned to the orphanage. Three years later, in 2003, he was matched with a family in Wynona, Minnesota, where he finished growing up.
His brother now lives in Milwaukee.
Numerous churches in the county participate in Operation Christmas Child.
Bennie Booth, logistics coordinator for 22 Kansas churches, said Marion has long been a strong supporter of Operation Christmas Child.
Last year, 1,012 boxes were given through churches in Marion.
“Marion grows in donations every year,” Booth said.
Parkview Mennonite Church in Hillsboro donated 187 boxes last year and Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church donated 55 boxes.
Booth said 1,400 new churches were planted in countries that received boxes from operation Christmas Child last year.
“When a child accepts the Lord, there are 14 people who also accept the Lord,” Booth said.
Shoeboxes can contain a toy or other item that will make the child say “Wow,” personal care items, school supplies, clothing and accessories, and crafts and activity items. They can also contain a personal note from the sender.
Boxes cannot include candy, toothpaste, gum, used or damaged items, war-related items such as toy guns, knives, or military figures, food, drink mixes, liquids or lotions, medications or vitamins, breakable items, and aerosol cans.
Boxes can be dropped off at Parkview Mennonite Brethren Church through Nov. 25.
Each box costs $9 for collection, processing, shipping, and gospel materials. The $9 donation allows the donor to track where the box goes in the world.