When everyone was fleeing Uganda due to the war and terror in Milton Obote’s second regime, a young man in his early 30s with his wife and three children came to Uganda with a hope of establishing an English-speaking church in downtown Kampala.
This was Gary Skinner and his wife Marilyn, the founders of Watoto Church. “We felt God’s call to come to Uganda and establish an English-speaking church in down town Kampala. Then, I didn’t know much about Uganda. I began to investigate about it and we came in 1983,” says Gary.
Marilyn says this has been her biggest sacrifice in ministry so far as she painfully separated from her family, friends and children to an unknown land.
“I had to say goodbye to my long-time friends and entire family and because of the political instability at the time, we sent our three children to boarding school in Kenya. They were as young as four, six and eight years,” she narrates.
She, however, says life is that way and at times they have had to let their obedience override their convenience.
The Skinners recall their first time in Uganda then, as a war ravaged country characterised by gunfire every night, inadequate food, social services and the people seemed hopeless as they wandered the streets in tattered clothes.
“It was a difficult experience. If it wasn’t God, I wouldn’t have stayed in Uganda. I remember being put at gun point twice at home but the gun couldn’t shoot. Also, around the same time we were put at gun point and our first two cars stolen,” Gary recalls with a frown.
Due to their resilience, Gary and Marilyn Skinner started a church at Imperial Hotel, now Grand Imperial Hotel.
After two years, the church had expanded, so they moved to the current church premises that served as a cinema and a torture chamber during Obote’s regime. When the National Resistance Army marched to Kampala, most of the people fled and that was the opportune time for the couple.
Given the growing numbers, Pastor Gary realised he could not pastor the entire congregation in one sitting. In 1997, he came up with the idea of cell meetings (of small groups of people fellowshipping at home). Through these constant meetings, people would continue living a godly life without necessarily being at church.
Prossy Nambatya, a member who joined in 2008, says the cells are the eyes and ears of the church in the community. “We meet in cell groups every Wednesday over tea during which we openly talk about our struggles and encourage each other. It is a family where people genuinely care about me and go out of their way to ensure that I’m fine,” says Nambatya.
Why the many youths
Watoto Church is popular for her majority youth. The Skinners say, the secret to keeping the young people is having exciting church services.
“We don’t change the biblical message but the method of delivering it. We keep the preaching relevant and since the young people need someone to look up to we act like mum and dad to them.
Stephen Mugi, Bugolobi region II community pastor, says the church has some youth activities such as Morph, which is a less serious version of cell groups.
“In morph, the youth meet on various days for a youth overnight, mars overnight, praise rally and discuss different life-related topics like addictions,” he says.
Watoto Church is also famous for events such as the annual Christmas Cantata whose educative themes differ from year to year. Also, they organise Heaven’s Gates Hell’s Flames shows after every four years to teach people about the rapture by reminding them that God and Satan are real.
Mugi, who has been a member since 1996, says the show normally appeals to people and they turn to Christ as it shows the consequences of sin.
Today, the church has more than 23,000 people who attend one of the weekend services on Saturdays and Sundays. Watoto has 10 branches in Kampala, Gulu and Juba- South Sudan. Different pastors share the same sermons during the different services in all the branches.
“Even the church choir rotates in all the branches so that the feel in all the churches is the same,” says Pastor Edward Mwesigye of Watoto South.
Child care ministries
In 1994, Gary and Marilyn Skinner founded Watoto Child Care Ministries, an international organisation formed as a compassionate response to the cry of Africa’s millions of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Currently, they are caring for more than 2,600 Ugandan children in Watoto Villages.
Here, every child is raised in a family setting rather than an institution. The church’s vision is that these children will be raised to become future leaders of Uganda and Africa.
The Watoto Children’s Choir tours the world annually as advocates of the 14 million African children currently orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Concerts of Hope are held in churches, community halls and schools celebrating their story of hope.
The children’s lively singing and dancing inspires audiences as they witness first-hand the hope and joy the children have found in Jesus Christ. The choir has performed before presidents and royalty in the White House, Buckingham Palace and many other national parliaments.
On Pentecostal Churches
Gary admits to the fact that there’s an impression that Pentecostal churches use people to gain wealth and reminds church leaders not to put on a show as they are not here to be famous and get wealthy, but serve the Lord.
“Don’t manipulate situations to perform miracles and never change the biblical message, use contemporary methods such as, appealing style of worship to pass it on,” he says.
To deal with money wrangles, Pastor Gary says the church has a team that deals with money and everyone is transparent and accountable.
Though initially sent by the Pentecostal Church in Canada as missionaries, the Skinners say they now feel like citizens because they have lived longer in Uganda more than anywhere else.
Amazed with the way the country has improved, Marilyn advises Christians that; “Never underestimate the power of Jesus Christ because when he shows up everything else changes.”
Much as they have accomplished their initial goal of planting an English speaking church in Uganda, the Skinners are not yet satisfied. They still yearn to reach out to more people in Uganda to experience the love of God.
Today the church is crowning off its 30 years celebration with Watoto Choir featuring guest speakers, Brian & Bobbie Houston from Hillsong Church at Watoto Church West, Kyengera starting at 10a.m.
Pastor Gary Skinner and his wife Marilyn Skinner, the founders of Watoto Church came to Uganda in 1983.
Pastor Gary says, they grew up in Zambia and had been serving there until God called him to Uganda to plant an English-speaking church. Married with three children and eight grandchildren, the couple celebrated 40 years in marriage on June 2.
Though they have not yet succeeded in obtaining citizenship, the couple says Uganda has become home to them as they have lived the better part of their lives (30 years) within.
Marilyn is passionate about influencing people’s lives. her favourite moments have been seeing lives transformed, especially children in the childcare ministry, child soldiers getting rehabilitated, vulnerable women returning to dignity and seeing Uganda transform into a God-fearing country.
Likewise, Gary’s happiest moments have been seeing young people he has nurtured transform into leaders with integrity and great skills especially the nine young pastors who manage the other nine Church branches.
Much as they have faced some challenges like living in a relatively poor country, the Skinners believe that a challenge is an opportunity to make the right choice and have no regret in the choices they have made.
The Skinners take a day off once a week to rest and take a holiday once a year to visit their eight grandchildren. Marilyn says, “We believe that in order to be an effective leader you have to live a balanced life.”
How the childcare ministry works
Touched by the escalation of child headed households, Pastor Gary Skinner of Watoto church in Uganda started the Watoto Child Care Ministry.
Having started in 1994, the children’s ministry is organised in form of villages and currently has 2,900 beneficiaries strewn around the ministry homes in Bbira, Suubi and Gulu.
It targets children between the ages of 0-12 years who are picked from babies’ homes, police referral, government resettlement centres and district probation officers. The first child to join is now at University.
Arora Majugo, the executive director of Watoto Child Care Ministries, said the mission of the ministry is to raise the next generation of Ugandan leaders by pursuing excellence in academics and practical skills, integrity in conduct and moral value.
“After picking the child, Watoto obtains a care order from the police for each child to ensure that it is legal.”
Once adopted, the children are placed in one of the 350 homes under the care of a mother who is supposed to be a widow, separated or a divorcee.
The homes are run like normal homes with farms.
The villages are organised in clusters and each cluster is made up of nine homes. In each village there are institutions of learning, from kindergarten to high school. A technical school was recently set up in Suubi to cater for the older children who are picked and cannot go through the formal education.