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Watoto Children's Choir shares love of Jesus, story of survival

The children of the Watoto Children’s Choir dance and beat drums during one of the many Christian musical selections played Saturday at Northridge Baptist church.(Justin Harned/Republic)1 / 3
The 64th Watoto Children’s Choir sing and dance on stage at the Northridge Baptist Church Saturday evening as they tour the U.S. for six months, making June their final month on tour. (Justin Harned/Republic) 2 / 3
Comfort Asianzu, singer and caregiver of the Watoto Children’s Choir, performs at the Northridge Baptist Church on Saturday evening as the choir wraps up its tour at the end of the month. (Justin Harned/Republic) 3 / 3

The Watoto Children's Choir has traveled further than most to get where they are today, physically and mentally.

Watoto is a holistic care program located west of Kampala, Uganda, Africa, in Watoto villages that was initiated as a response to the overwhelming number of orphaned children and vulnerable women in Uganda. Marilyn and Gary Skinner founded Watoto Church in 1984 in Uganda. They started Watoto Child Care Ministries in 1994, according to the group's website, in response to the dangerous situations and circumstances of Africa's millions of children orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS. Watoto Church is a cell-based community church with more than 20,000 people gathering each weekend to celebrate Christ.

The Watoto Children's Choir, founded by Marilyn, and began touring the world annually in 1994 as an advocate for the 14 million African children currently orphaned by the effect of AIDS. Children in the Watoto Choir have lost either one or both parents to difficult circumstances or abandonment.

"We care about these children holistically from the time they come in," team leader of the children's choir Phillip Mugerwa said. "We care for their food, clothing, education to make sure that every child grows up to be a responsible citizen."

The 64th Watoto Choir visited the Northridge Baptist Church Saturday evening in Mitchell, a small representation of 3,000 children. The group consists of 22 children and 10 adults that will travel for six months. Three to five choirs travel through the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand simultaneously. The choir has performed before presidents and royalty in the White House, Buckingham Palace and many other national parliaments.

"For the children, this is an experience of a lifetime," Mugerwa said. "It's a chance for them to see a different world, a different culture and experience it. As we travel we share the love of Jesus with everybody."

The choir hopes to share two messages as it travels -- the love of Jesus and what Jesus has done for everyone, and to help people understand the plight of children in Uganda and Africa, said Mugerwa. A typical day for the children traveling around the U.S. is setting up at a church or venue they will perform at early in the day, then some food and fun in the city, and they will come back to pray and perform.

It's been an exciting trip for the kids. Eleven-year-old choir singer Rebecca Kampi talked about all the fun she was having in America participating in the culture and festivities throughout the country such as water parks, roller coasters and riding a skateboard.

"I love the people and the food," Kampi said jubilantly. "I've experienced many things, I love the place, it's really beautiful. We went to the Mall of America and it's really large and big."

For most of the kids, it's a learning experience. It is a chance for them to ride on a train or airplane for the first time in their lives. Children of the Watoto Choir are looking for a "sense of belonging," said Mugerwa, not as a kind of therapy, but a love that they need to feel as human beings. Most of the kids do not know where they come from. Mugerwa elaborated on how the tour across America provides the kids with a sense of direction, knowing that God has a plan for them.

"When you take a child who has lost both of their parents mysteriously and they don't know what happened," Mugerwa said. "They are always questioning where they came from because they were abandoned. And when you take a child like that and you travel with them, you are bound to see so many things happen. To a moment of despair, to a moment of confusion, to a moment of ultimate joy in discovering themselves and who they are in Jesus."

In 2012, the first attempt to replicate the Watoto church outside of Kampala, is a church in the process of being built in Juba, in southern Sudan. Another Watoto church is located in Gulu, north of Kampala -- established in 2007.

The Watoto model supports physical care, medical care including HIV/AIDS treatment, education, trauma counselling and spiritual discipleship. Watoto is described as a church first and then the ministry of the church is the children. Two adults have graduated from Watoto to return and give back.

"They reached out to us actually," said Ben Payne, pastor at Northridge Baptist Church. "Hosting an event like this helps people in Mitchell realize they can be a part of something bigger. To have them here is a treat."

Watoto also supports as many as 2,000 women living with AIDS, giving them help and allowing them to generate income on their own, helping them care for their own children through Watoto's Living Hope program.

The Watoto Children's Choir will perform Tuesday, June 10 at the First Christian Reformed Church in Sioux Falls, time to be determined.

"They're full of life," Payne said. "These kids just have the love of Jesus flowing out from them and anyone who was here got to see evidence of that, tangible evidence. They're giving, they're just giving of their hearts and of themselves, and we're blessed to receive it and we want to give back to them as much as we can, too."