Since 1993, more than 198 million children across the globe have received Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes filled with toys, hygiene items, school supplies and other gifts.
Alex Nsengimana, one of those children, says his journey to Christ began with such a shoebox.
“[In 1995] for the very first time in my life I got to receive a gift,” he recalled. “It was [the first time for] all of us in the orphanage. We had lost all hope, so … [receiving] a shoebox gift was such a special moment.
“We were told to line up in the yard, and they said, ‘Hey, today you’re going to get a gift.’ And they handed out these gifts. Then they said, ‘Don’t open the shoeboxes until all of them have been handed out.’
“So some of us had to hold our presents for about five long minutes,” he remembered.
Loss and gain
As a 6-year-old in Rwanda, Nsengimana had “lost everything and almost everyone” in his life.
Some 800,000 people were murdered during Rwanda’s genocide against the Tutsi, and “unfortunately, we were among the first people who were hunted down,” he said. “Our grandmother and one of our uncles would be killed. Me and my brother and my sister would run from family to family.”
Nsengimana had no idea God was keeping him alive.
Militia members with weapons accosted them, “but they never bothered doing anything to us,” he recounted. “At some points, weapons wouldn’t work when they went to pull the trigger.”
As one of 400,000 Rwandan orphans, Nsengimana ended up in an orphanage in Uganda where the children were given Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes through Samaritan’s Purse.
“It was chaos — all of us screaming in this orphanage,” he recalled. “But this time it was a different kind of screaming. We were not scared. We were not running for our lives. We were screaming because we could not contain the joy of getting a gift.”
Nsengimana remembers the moment he opened the box and saw school supplies, hygiene items and candy. A candy cane was foreign to him, and he said he ate half before realizing the plastic was supposed to come off.
“We got to [know] someone out there was thinking about us,” Nsengimana said of the gifts. “For me, a seed of hope and love in Jesus Christ was planted.”
A year later he joined the African Children’s Choir and traveled in the United States.
“I spent … 10 years of my life really angry and pointing fingers at God to the point where I actually missed out on the miracles He did,” Nsengimana lamented. “The people that came in my life that counseled me and loved on me helped me to realize God’s presence was with me from the day I was born.”
Adopted and moved
In 2003, Nsengimana was adopted and moved to the U.S.
Knowing their impact, he packed OCC shoeboxes during high school and college, eventually interning with Samaritan’s Purse. He is now a spokesperson for the ministry.
Ten years after he received one, Nsengimana delivered shoeboxes to the same orphanage where he grew up.
“It was so special to be able to see the kids who were in the orphanage being able to receive a shoebox gift and having the joy I had as a little boy,” he recalled.
“In my own journey of healing, God sent me people who would disciple me, counsel me to process all the anger I had in my life,” he said. “It was through the divine appointment of prayer and the people who loved me [that] when I was traveling with the choir, a chaperone came to me and asked me, ‘What if I saw the people who had caused me pain?’”
Nsengimana knew he had to forgive.
March 15, 2013, was the most difficult but also most freeing day of his life, he said. He met with the man who had killed his grandmother and uncle and shared his healing journey.
Afterward, the bitterness Nsengimana had been living with went away.
“That journey that launched my own healing process, my faith journey, it came from [a] stranger — from the person who packed my Operation Christmas Child shoebox gift — a person I have never met,” Nsengimana said. “I realized Operation Christmas Child is not about just the toys. The physical gift was a tangible representation of God’s love.”
‘Double of everything’: Twin girls’ story illustrates value of praying over shoeboxes
Many shoebox recipients’ prayers have been answered when someone felt led to pack something specific, Alex Nsengimana said, relating one story:
“There was an outreach that took place in South America. There were twin girls — one of them got [a box but] they ran out. It was so sad. [They told] the other twin, ‘Look we’re going to give you shoeboxes. Next year you’ll be the first one to receive a box.’
“The miracle of how God answered that prayer very specifically was that when her twin sister … opened the shoebox, you’ll never guess what was in[side] … double of every item!
“[Whoever packed that box may never know it, but] they were led by the Holy Spirit to pack two of every item. Little did they know what God [would do] when that shoebox was delivered!”
‘Represents a child’
“That’s why prayer is very important as you pack the box,” Nsengimana continued, “because that shoebox gift represents a child, a human being, a child who may be praying for shoes, and they get a pair of shoes in that shoebox gift; or praying for school supplies, and they get exactly what they need.”