“True religion that God our father accepts as pure and holy is one that takes care of the orphans and widows.’’ (James 1: 27, KJV). According to Watoto Church founder Pastor Gary Skinner, this biblical teaching completely changed the way his church viewed its role in the community. It formed the basis for founding the Watoto Child Care ministry. Watoto is a Kiswahili word meaning “children”. Today the ministry is re-known for its choir that is made up of colorfully costumed children who travel all over the world, and use music, dance and drama to share their stories of renewed hope in life. Watoto children’s choir has performed at famous locations such as the White House and Buckingham Palace.
The same teaching has also inspired similar models like the Living Hope Ministry that aims at economically empowering, and restoring dignity to vulnerable women and widows. “I realized that these women (most of whom are HIV positive) needed a hand-up, not a hand-out.” Marilyn Skinner. Living Hope trains these women in livelihood skills such as baking, weaving, tailoring and crafts making. In this way they are empowered to raise their household incomes and take care of their families. These models of community outreach have translated the church’s vision of caring for community into reality. But why is such special focus given to vulnerable women and children?
For over two decades Northern Uganda was devoid of holistic peace due to hostilities between the Uganda People’s Defense Forces and the guerilla rebels led by Joseph Kony. At the peak of the insurgency locals were confined in densely populated Internally Displaced Peoples’ camps. The war, coupled with the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS pandemic around the country nearly obliterated the family institution leaving many orphaned and widowed.
Watoto’s model of child care is unique because it is not an orphanage in the traditional sense. Real homes are built and children are placed in families. Each home is made of up to eight children who are placed under the care of a widowed mother who also brings two of her biological children. Through this family setting the children are given holistic care by providing of the basic needs of love and belonging, food, clothing, education, psycho-social support, and shelter.
In addition to other community facilities, a cluster of about nine homes make up a village. Currently there are three children’s villages in Gulu, Suubi and Bbira. The idea of a village was birthed from the African saying that it takes a whole village to raise a child. For the past 20 years this model of child care been rescuing the most vulnerable children; raising them into future leaders, with the ultimate goal of rebuilding the nation.
Watoto church plans to replicate this model in other fragile states like the Republic of South Sudan. In Uganda, over 3000 children have benefited from this ministry in the last 20 years. Many of these children have the same testimony_ Watoto changed my story. Whose story are you changing?
By Benard Acellam