Serge Gasore | Psychology ('09), School of Information Technology and Computing ('11), Graduate School of Theology ('13)
One grenade tore Serge Gasore's life - and his faith - apart.
After three days packed into a tiny church with 5,000 friends, neighbors and family members, the feared assault finally came. A militia attacked the defenseless masses crushed tightly into the building.
The attack featured bullets and machetes and grenades. Seven-year-old Serge was sleeping on his grandmother's lap - the only place he could sit in the cramped assembly. She woke him, and they made their way up the teeming center aisle, boy following woman, seeking shelter at the front of the church, the altar, the place of God.
A grenade flew through a window. It landed in front of her. It exploded.
"She blasted in front of me," the ACU graduate student said, remembering the grisly events when the 1994 Rwandan genocide reached his hometown. "Blood was in my face, on my clothes, everywhere. I lost my mind."
Serge doesn't remember how he escaped the Ntarama Church, where now stands a sobering if macabre memorial to the massacre that occurred there 18 years ago. He climbed out a window, or maybe he ran out a door. But run he did.
"I can't tell you how fast I ran," the future ACU track star said. "I broke my records."
Serge survived that hellish day. His belief in God didn't.
'Something big and horrible'
Tall and lanky with a ready smile, soft manner and lightly accented English, Serge Gasore hides well the horror that imprinted itself forever on his life.
A three-time All America long-distance runner for the national champion ACU Wildcat track and field teams of 2006-07, Serge graduated in 2009 and entered the Graduate School, earning a master's degree in global information technology leadership in 2011. He plans to graduate in May 2013 with a second master's, in global service.
Every step through his nearly eight years at ACU, Serge depended on the generosity of strangers to fund the scholarships that made his life-saving - his faith-saving - education possible.
That terrifying day in Rwanda "took my faith away," he said, showing photos of the Ntarama Church memorial, which features shelf after shelf of victims' skulls and thousands of blood-stained garments hanging from the rafters. "I couldn't believe how God would let something like that happen in His church. I couldn't believe how people who went to church with you would come back and kill you."
The first seven years of his life, Serge's home village was a happy mixture of Tutsi and Hutu, the two dominant tribes in Rwanda. Serge and his family were Tutsi, but they frequently shared meals, possessions and songs with their Hutu neighbors.
Yet not all was idyllic.
The decades-old uneasiness between the minority Tutsi, who dominated the majority Hutu until a coup overthrew the Tutsi monarchy in 1959, erupted in the early 1990s, when the exiled Tutsi army invaded from Uganda, sparking a civil war.
Serge knew none of this. But he knew Tutsi schoolteachers suddenly had become rare, and their Hutu replacements were increasingly focused on the differences between the two tribes. Schoolyard violence increased.
Hutus began holding secret meetings, Serge said. And by 1994, events had clearly taken a darker turn.
"We used to see kids in our village training how to kill very fast," he said, demonstrating by running his finger along his throat where the children were trained to use their machetes for maximum blood loss.
At about 6 p.m. on April 6, 1994, the radio reported that the Rwandan president, a Hutu, had been killed when his plane was shot down as it attempted to land at the airport in Kigali, Rwanda's capital. Many observers now believe radical Hutus orchestrated the assassination to provide a spark for the violence to follow.
"When I heard the president died, I was jumping," Serge said. " 'That's good. He's been abusing our tribe a long time.' My grandmother said, 'No. There's something big and horrible that's going to happen after this.' "
Fueled by years of racist propaganda and at the instigation of state-run radio, average Hutu citizens joined the Hutu-led army and militias in fanning throughout the country, seeking to purify Rwanda of any remaining trace of the Tutsi tribe.
Unaware of these developments, Serge awoke the next morning and walked outside at 5 a.m. to make his daily 10-mile walk to get water for his family. On his way down the street, he met a neighbor.
"Where are you going?" the neighbor asked. "Are you crazy or stupid?"
"He got angry in a way I'd never seen," Serge said. "He said, 'Go back home right now and tell your grandmother they're killing people in the street. Tell her to get ready and move.' "
By 9 a.m., the streets of Ntarama were packed with evacuees, a single phrase on their lips: "The killers are coming."
"Everyone came toward the church," Serge said. "Their mind was like, 'Who can do anything bad to you inside the church?' "
The Ntarama Catholic Church is not large - a brick building designed to hold no more than 500 parishioners in a single service. Serge grew up a member of the congregation. He and his friends would sit on the front row, especially when visiting European preachers led the service. Sometimes they would receive presents - trinkets such as a tennis ball treated as priceless by the neighborhood kids. Yet the children would ask for one more favor - to touch the preacher's white skin.
The plain wooden backless pews sit in two rows, split by a center aisle. Pictures of the church reveal it as it would have stood any day before April 1994 - quaint, quiet and traditional - except now the altar holds several dozen skulls bearing the marks of their deaths: chips, dents, even an occasional stick or spear point protruding from the bone.
On the third day inside the church, the attack came swiftly.
"All of a sudden, what I remember, I heard people screaming and kids crying," Serge said. "People were trying as hard as they could to get to the altar. The blast of grenades coming, coming."
Among those striving for the supposedly saving shelter of the altar were Serge and his grandmother. An instant later, Serge stood alone.
"I have a very, very good memory," he said. "That’s what is haunting me now. I remember every single thing."
'Making a difference'
Fourteen years after the genocide, Serge returned home. He was a senior at ACU, and it was his first trip back since he had left for college nearly four years earlier.
The genocide still was taking its toll; the pervasive rape that had occurred alongside the murders led to an AIDS epidemic, leaving orphaned a wave of children who had not even been born when the genocide occurred.
Neither the children nor their caregivers could afford access to health care. For an American, however, the cost was incredibly cheap - just $2 per child at the time.
Struck by the opportunity to make a real difference for the next generation of Rwandans, Serge and his wife, Esperance, began giving, starting with $150, enough to provide insurance for 75 Rwandan children.
Soon, congregants at Southern Hills Church of Christ, where the Gasores are members, began asking how they could help. Together, Serge and the church now provide health insurance for as many as 1,000 children each year. To manage the money and sustain the donations, Serge began Ejo Hazaza ("The Future of Tomorrow") Foundation, which he manages.
Meanwhile, some friends in Rwanda have begun working to open a health clinic and training center for children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. Serge also helps with that project by raising money, and he might take over the clinic after he graduates.
"Something that wakes me up at night is to make a difference," he said. "Anything I do, regardless, it will be making a difference."
The difference Serge has made - and continues to make - in the lives of Rwandan children is the direct result of the difference made in his own life by the generosity of ACU’s alumni and friends.
Serge came to ACU on a track scholarship and continued his education with additional donor-funded grants. He could never have attended ACU otherwise.
"I used to think humans were created evil," he said. "That was my conclusion from the genocide. Coming to this university, it changed me."
Professors took time to work with him one-on-one to help him understand the course work as he struggled to learn English. At Southern Hills, he felt welcomed as members invited him to small groups and Bible studies. He was baptized there in 2006.
"When I got here, it was all about me," Serge said. "My second semester, I realized it wasn't. It’s about the people around me. That happens when you go to ACU."
That other-directed focus now defines Serge's life. He recounts his story, he says, not because he wants pity but because he wants others to learn from it - to ask, in his words: "In my situation, what can I do to change the world?"
As Serge does his part to change the world, he said he is keenly aware that he is not alone. Among his supporters are people he's never met - those who made his education possible.
"I don't know how I can say thank you," he said. "I will take it as a failure if I don’t contribute to other people's lives. Some people have paid money so I can be a role model and help others. I feel like I should help as much as I can.
"They helped me, someone they don't know. They've made a difference in my life, and now I'm making a difference in these kids' lives, and that was not going to happen without their donations."
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