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.