It would seem unlikely that a children’s choir of African orphans singing about Jesus would find its tour of the Northwest touched by controversy, but it has.
The Watoto Children’s Choir, an outreach of the Watoto church in Uganda, is nearing the end of a seven-month tour of the West Coast and the end of a one-year commitment from its young performers.
When the choir gives four concerts this weekend at a pair of Lakewood churches, there may be protesters present.
Then again, there may not.
No one has anything but praise for the main participants — 22 Ugandans ages 7 to 14, all who lost one or both parents.
“They are probably more polite, more disciplined than our kids,” said Cathlee James, a member of the Lakebay Community Church, which hosted the choir last week. “They’re very polished onstage, they know their roles very well.
“But they’re just children when playing. They giggle and laugh a lot.”
Considered the ambassadors for the Watoto church and founded by Pastor Gary Skinner in the mid-1990s, the choir touring the Northwest today is one of four currently on the road.
“There is another in Texas, one in Canada and another in Europe. Two more will embark in the fall,” said Robert Sendegeya, a Watoto pastor. He and his wife, Mercy, travel with the choir and lead it.
Barnstorming through churches in Arizona, California and Oregon before it reached Washington this month, the choir puts on a slickly produced, 75-minute program that’s a swirl of color, music, dance and testimony.
“This group rehearsed for five months before going on the road, and we’ll be on the road for seven months,” Robert Sendegeya said. “We want our program to be professional, classy. The dance and colorful dress, hopefully, give audiences a taste of African culture.”
So, what’s the problem? What would prompt a man and two children to sit at a card table outside the Key Peninsula concert last week with a sign: “You have to teach a child to hate — Charity or Hate group?”
Skinner, the Watoto church founder, has drawn criticism because he vehemently opposes homosexuality. In a 2007 interview, he said: “We condemn all inhuman practices including homosexuality.”
What’s more, Skinner and his church strongly supported an anti-gay bill that Uganda’s president signed into law in February. It imposes prison sentences for homosexual acts and makes it a crime for people to fail to report homosexual behavior.
President Barack Obama has said such legislation is morally wrong and would complicate the United States’ relationship with Uganda.
Meanwhile, gay-rights activists have openly questioned whether church-going Americans who support the children’s choir know where their money goes.
How does all of this impact the Watoto Children’s Choir, or the millions of African children orphaned by AIDs and war?
That was a question confronting the Rev. Dan Whitmarsh before the Watoto choir sang for his congregation and other community members in Lakebay.
“It’s hard to know on this side of the ocean what’s happening on that side,” Whitmarsh said. “So I sent out some emails, made some telephone calls, searched the Internet.
He reached the Watoto United States offices in Florida.
“Over the past two or three years, their website showed 91 percent of what the choir raised went to the kids, 9 percent to overhead, and that’s about the norm,” Whitmarsh said. “So, financially, I had no concern.”
“As a Christian and a pastor I have concerns about Uganda’s civil and human rights. I don’t think people should be in fear of their lives or freedom based on sexuality.
“I expressed my concerns to the Watoto church about those draconian laws. I cannot see Jesus standing on the side of those laws.”
That said, Whitmarsh and his congregation saw no reason not to allow the children’s choir to perform, as they have frequently over the past 10 years in Lakebay.
Watoto Children’s Choirs have traveled the world since 1994, with members chosen from Watoto orphan villages.
“Staying with host families every night, it’s like a lot of culture exchanges and the sharing of a lot of love,” Mercy Sendegeya said. “These are children. They’re seeing things most Ugandan children may never see — from the Grand Canyon to Disneyland. And they are spreading their message of hope.”
Her husband agreed.
“These children sing, dance, eat and play,” he said. “Each day, they get a one-hour nap.
They’re children. When they get the chance to sing and dance, their energy is amazing. They love performing.”
Onstage, every move is choreographed, from microphone handoffs to dance steps. Each child speaks in a directed manner when giving a testimony, and each story is slightly different.
At Kent’s Riverview Community Church last Sunday, the choir gave a pair of morning concerts. Both had large audiences that spent time on their feet, happily joining in song and dance when asked.
There were no protesters.
IF YOU GO
When: Four South Sound shows remain — 7 p.m. Friday, 6 p.m. Saturday, and 9 and 10:50 a.m. Sunday.
Where: Friday at Clover Park High School in Lakewood; Saturday and Sunday at Lake City Community Church, 8810 Lawndale Ave. SW, Lakewood.
Cost: No charge, but donations are welcome.
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638