As a 7-year-old boy living in an orphanage in Rwanda, Alex Nsengimana had lost just about everything — his home, his family, his sense of hope.
Then one day there came a small box. Alex and each child in the orphanage received one. “We were so excited to be able to receive a gift for the very first time,” he recalls.
He opened his box.
Inside, school supplies. Bouncy balls. Watercolor paints. Soaps and a toothbrush. And something else, invisible and immeasurable.
“The shoebox created new memories for us, new colors,” Alex said.
The surprise gift restored Alex’s belief in his fellow man. Now 30 years old, he is a traveling spokesman for the project that delivered him the box, Operation Christmas Child, a program of the Samaritan’s Purse International Relief organization. Alex will speak Friday as part of a fundraising concert event at Autumn Ridge Church in Rochester.
There, he’ll urge people to participate in the annual National Collection Week drive, Nov. 12-19.
The Christian rock band Light45 will perform, and 16-year-old Seth Bayles, a Mayo Clinic patient suffering from a rare autoimmune disorder, will present and perform a drum battle. Worship time will follow Alex’s presentation of his story. The event starts at 7 p.m.
The trip to Rochester is a homecoming of sorts for Alex. He lived in Winona with the family who adopted him in 2003, graduated from Cotter High School, then attended Crossroads College in Rochester, eventually receiving his degree in pastoral leadership in 2013.
His parents are dead. The grandmother who took him in, and an uncle, were killed in his presence, part of the Rwandan genocide that erupted in the mid-1990s. That led to an aunt, who was gravely ill, giving Alex to the orphanage in 1995.
“Through the night, kids would scream from fear and nightmares,” he said.
“When my grandmother got killed during the genocide, my faith was gone,” Alex said. “Why would he (God) watch when a million of his children are killed? The more I was bitter, the more I was blaming God, the more I was missing out on the miracle that he actually was saving me.”
He came to understand, where others were killed, he was spared. The men who killed his grandmother “never bothered touching us,” he said. Another time, a bullet “missed my head by an inch.”
God, he came to realize after receiving his gift, was “with me all the way. That’s when my faith started to grow.”
Alex joined a children’s choir, which toured the U.S. in 1998. In 1999, the choir performed in Winona, where Alex stayed with the family that later adopted him.
“They never forgot about us,” he said.
That is how his life of bitterness became a life driven by love. Today, Alex lives in the Blue Ridge Mountain region, in Boone, N.C., with a new wife, Amy, and a job as an intern and spokesman with Samaritan’s Purse.
And he and Amy also pack and donate their own shoebox gifts every year.
“I look forward to it every year,” he said. “It’s a privilege for me to be part of it and feel the impact we are having.”
Shoeboxes have been sent to children in 160 countries. In the Rochester area, the goal is to prepare and send nearly 12,000 boxes. The global project goal is to reach 11 million children.
“It’s a fun project that families can do,” Alex said. “Teach your kids to think of someone else, of something bigger.”
After all, you never know whose life you might turn around.