What began as a small mission church in Uganda has become home to thousands of children orphaned and women widowed by years of conflict in the African nation.
Watoto Church was founded in 1980 in Uganda by Gary and Marilyn Skinner. The couple began working with orphans and widows a few years later. After establishing a network of churches throughout the nation — a network that now has 20,000 members — they started a program that places widows with orphans and provides them a safe place to live, medical care, education and emotional support.
“The church would take a widow and give her a family and a house, and soon one house became a village,” Charlotte Scales said.
Charlotte and Shay Huntzicker are members of the First Community Church, 2007 E. 15th St. in Joplin.
The women took a trip to Uganda not long ago and visited many of the villages sponsored by Watoto Church. Charlotte sponsors a widow, and Shay sponsors two orphans. On their trip, Charlotte was able to meet the woman she sponsors, and Shay was able to meet the children she sponsors. The meetings, Charlotte and Shay said, were understandably emotional.
According to Watoto Church, the goal of the widows and orphans program is: “Rescue. Raise. Rebuild.”
The hope is that by rescuing the women and children from a lifetime of poverty and abuse, and raising them to become citizens who not only survive but also contribute to their country, they will able to help rebuild their nation.
Among other things, the church provides the children an opportunity to visit other countries and experience different cultures. They do that through the Watoto Church Children’s Choir. Every child in the program is given one chance to be a part of the choir and spend six months touring another country. Each year, Watoto choirs tour around the world. This Sunday, a choir will perform at the First Community Church in Joplin.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the children, and it does so much for their confidence,” Shay said.
The children rehearse for six months before embarking on their tour. Once the tour starts, a choir usually performs six days a week and squeezes in two performances on Sundays.
“They usually try to take a weeklong break in the middle of the tour,” Charlotte said.
Choir members stay with host families and often stay with a different family every night. When the children aren’t performing, they are in school or exploring whatever location they happen to be in at the time.
When asked if even children who can’t sing join the choir, both Shay and Charlotte said with a laugh that they didn’t think there are any children with the church who can’t sing. They did say it’s possible that some children are encouraged not to sing as loudly as others.
Watoto Church in Uganda is not without some controversy. Some people associated with the church have been accused of playing a role in developing that country’s anti-gay legislation, criminalizing homosexual behavior. The law, which has been criticized by other nations, is considered to be one of the harshest in the world. The new law enacted last month includes long prison terms for gay and lesbian activity.
Craig Tally, pastor of the First Community Church, said he has spoken with Watoto Church leaders and has been told that the church had no involvement in the anti-gay legalization.
“I have no reservations about the church choir being at our church,” Tally said.
In a statement, Eugene Stutzman, executive director of the Watoto USA Office, said the sole purpose of the choir is to draw attention to the plight of orphans and widows in Uganda. He said any money raised on the choir’s tour is used to continue helping those women and children.
The Watoto Church Children’s Choir will perform at numerous churches in the area beginning Thursday, and it will perform at 10 a.m. Sunday at the First Community Church. The choir has a number of other performances scheduled in the area. A list of appearances in the area is available on the church website at www.watoto.com.
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