Ozarks getting visit from Ugandan children's choir

Sunday, February 1, 2004

SPRINGFIELD, Kan. -- The voices of 18 children changed Brent and Teresa Smith's life. Five years ago, the Smiths heard the Watoto Children's Choir -- 18 Ugandan orphans -- sing praises to God and tell stories of how their lives were transformed by a ministry called Watoto. Since then, the Smiths have worked to support and promote the ministry.

For the next five weeks, people in southwest Missouri will have several opportunities to hear those voices and, perhaps, experience a change in their own lives.

"They bring so much joy and they are so uplifting," Brent Smith said of the choir's performances.

The smiling faces of these children, all dressed in colorful African costumes as they sing and dance, is one face of Uganda.

Another is a country ravaged by a generation of oppression, war, rebellion and AIDS. Many people remember the oppressive regime of Idi Amin in the 1970s when his military government killed more than 100,000 Ugandans. But a deadlier killer struck the country in the early 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic began in southern Uganda.

Today, more than 1.7 million Ugandan children -- more than 5 percent of the population -- have been orphaned by the epidemic, and an estimated 40 percent of newborn babies are HIV-positive.

That is the Uganda Gary Skinner came to in 1979. Born and raised in Africa, the son of missionaries, Skinner thought he was simply being called to start a new church in Kampala.

"Then there was this huge need that began to rise," said Skinner, who's traveling in British Columbia with another Watoto choir. "Kids were being orphaned, and the Lord told me to look after those kids.

"It is really revolutionizing these kids' lives," he said of the ministry and the tours. "It will also change the lives of the people who attend the concerts."

Suzanne Epperly of Nixa helped to bring the choir to her church, Wesley United Methodist in Springfield. She had seen a choir in 2002 when it last came to the Ozarks.

The children's enthusiasm and testimonies touched her, she said. So when she heard that they were coming back, Epperly signed on to be one of the host homes.

"They just came out with the most enthusiasm and energy," she said. "These children are expressing and discipling for Christ."

Tabatha Ogden heard the choir when she was a student at Sparta High School. After hearing about the ministry, she volunteered to go on a mission building trip for two weeks.

Ready to graduate from high school last May, Ogden had no idea where she wanted to go to college or what she wanted to do. So she went to Uganda again.

She has been with Watoto since last summer, turning 19 on the road, and has been traveling with the choir since October. She will return home after the choir leaves for Uganda on March 3.

Now, Ogden knows that she wants to go into international studies and eventually work at an embassy, maybe in Uganda.

"I was praying about it and I gave it over to God," she said in a phone interview from Kansas City. "God led me this way."

The real blessing of Watoto is more than the ministry's work with the children of Uganda, Teresa Smith said.

"You go over there and you think you're going to help those kids, but you are the one that receives the blessing."

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