Ugandan children's choir brings awareness about African orphans

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Anna Marie Lux
Wednesday, May 14, 2014

When 22 Ugandan children saw snow for the first time, no one had to tell them what to do. They dashed outdoors amid screeches of laughter and lifted their faces to the sky.

The experience came in February in Oklahoma for young members of the Watoto Children's Choir.

Anyone witnessing the joy would never guess these children are orphans, who have lost one or both parents to AIDS or war. Some were abandoned by struggling parents, who simply could not feed them.

On a six-month tour of the United States, the unique choir is performing at two churches in Rock County this weekend, including New Life Assembly of God in Janesville. The young ambassadors raise awareness about the plight of orphaned and vulnerable African children, organizers say.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the AIDS epidemic alone has orphaned more than 14 million children. In addition, more than 20,000 children have been forced to serve as child soldiers in Uganda.

An organization known as Watoto Child Care Ministries provides homes for about 3,000 orphans, who have access to schools, churches and medical care.

“We give as many children as possible a chance to travel with the choir on tour,” said Eugene Stutzman, executive director of Watoto ministries in the United States. “During this time, they see what is beyond the poverty that is all around them. When children see the possibilities in the United States, it inspires them to have optimism about their own country.”

More than three decades ago, missionaries Gary and Marilyn Skinner founded the Watoto Church in Kampala, the capitol of war-torn Uganda. Eventually, they began the Watoto Child Care Ministries. Later, they organized the children's choir, which tours annually. The choir's free “concerts of hope” are held in churches, community halls and schools, where people have chances to sponsor orphans.

But Gary Skinner and his church are not without critics, who say that Skinner has supported harsh anti-homosexual legislation in Uganda. Earlier this year, Uganda enacted a controversial anti-homosexuality act. Under the law, both homosexuality and outreach to homosexuals are illegal. Those found guilty of homosexuality may face life in prison. Those who “aid and abet homosexuality” also may face prison.

Stutzman provided a statement regarding Watoto funds raised in the United States:

“All concert offerings solely benefit these children as well as the continued rescue of abandoned babies and orphaned children in Africa,” he said. “At no time are donated funds ever used to influence or advocate for legislation here or anywhere else in the world.”

Pastor David Clark of Central Christian Church, Beloit, has hosted the choir several times. He said he was unaware of the Skinner criticism.

“The only thing I know about is his agenda to help hurting children,” he said.

The Watoto Ministry sponsors three children's villages, where orphans live eight to a home with a house mother.

“We are trying to heal the community to let the children live a normal life,” said Phillip Mugerwa, who leads the children's choir.

Eventually, the Watoto ministry hopes to expand into South Sudan.

Mugerwa believes God is raising a new generation of children, who will heal Uganda.

“God has rescued them,” he said. “God has given them something to look forward to. It doesn't matter where they came from. What matters is where God is taking them.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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