Watoto’s Pr. Garry Skinner on the Making of Uganda’s Most Youthful, Contemporary Church

Pastor Garry Skinner, founder of Watoto church with his wife Marylin Skinner

At the helm of Idi Amin’s regime often referred to as a ‘reign of terror’ in Uganda, visit the oppressive and violent statusquo had far reaching effects not only on the politics but also socio-economic aspect of the country. Religion was not isolated and neither was it spared. Archbishop Janan Luwum had earlier in 1977 been murdered by the intolerant dictator. It is amid such a tense and insecure period when a white evangelical couple Pastor Garry Skinner and his wife Marylin arrived in Uganda on a mission to establish a Pentecostal church that would appeal to young people with hope of shaping them into agents of change.

Garry Skinner’s father had been in engaged in mission in rural areas of Africa.

Chimpreports had an in-depth interview with Pr. Skinner during his recent visit to Uganda on how he undertook this vision as well as plans ahead.

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There were no English churches, stomach Kampala city was dominated by Luganda speaking churches whose culture was typically traditional and lacked contemporary leadership, approved music, thinking and preaching style, he says. This was the gap this dedicated stranger had seen. From Zambia, this couple’s mission had been to bridge a gap and “to help young people understand they’re created with destiny, dignity, purpose and can grow up to be influential figures to cause change.”

“I was pastoring in Lusaka in Zambia 1982 when God spoke to me to establish a church in Kampala. I knew Jesus was commissioning me to establish this youth targeting church. To motivate, mentor and challenge young people to inspire Uganda.”

Watoto church as it is popularly known today, started as Kampala Pentecostal Church located in the heart of the city in a dilapidated structure that was formerly a cinema hall. However, years later the church started a project to look after orphaned children came to be named Watoto children.

“We got to a time where God led us to care for children (orphans) and in the next 15 years our Watoto children started having trips world over and people began to visit our church here to see what we were doing and build homes, work with us. We majorly came to be identified with Watoto the orphan project than Kampala Pentecostal Church which led us to eventually rebrand to Watoto church,” he tells me.

He explains that the idea of Pentecostalism had begun losing popularity. Most people perceived it as people who rolled on the floor making weird noises.

An insider view of the beautiful and spacious Watoto church in the Kampala city centre. Its design and the auditorium explain its history as a cinema hall.

An insider view of the beautiful and spacious Watoto church in the Kampala city centre. Its design and the auditorium explain its history as a cinema hall.

Changing the dynamics

After opening its doors to the believers, the church began to attract several young people. “We however cautioned them not to begin judging their parents and consider them to be unspiritual. We made them understand that being Pentecostal wasn’t just a spiritual experience but rather being a better human being, better student, child at home.” And subsequently, Pr. Skinner slowly started to receive appreciation from parents for the values the church had imparted to their kids in comparison to others.

In spite of the fruits that were starting to manifest, the vision bearer still believed this wasn’t all that God needed him to do. “Leadership is about hearing from God so as to find a direction. I again felt God clearly say to me ‘I want you to look after my children,” Pr. Skinner says adding; “I instantly knew He meant orphans because Uganda had started to register a huge number of orphans as a result of war and HIV/AIDS.” Quoting from the Bible, he borrows a verse -James 1:27which reads ‘Pure and undefiled religion before God is this; to visit orphans and widows in their trouble and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.’

“It wasn’t just my spiritual work and preaching his word that impressed God. It wasn’t just about rescuing an orphan but raising a leader and consequently rebuilding a nation. As a church we are not here only to lead people to salvation but loving and serving to make the community a better place.”

The Watoto orphanage started with one kid who is now 21 and has finished university. One by one, the church kept picking and assisting more needy kids until over 4,000 children that are currently on the program. The church supports the kids in every aspect through sponsors from around the world.

Inside one of the children's villages

Inside one of the children’s villages

Pr. Skinner says the funds from the sponsors are used to provide clothings, shelter, education and food. Watoto’s 3 children’s villages create safe, loving environments with the vision to rescue a child, raise a leader and rebuild a nation. As opposed to the traditional orphanages, these villages are real homes built to cater for children who have lost their family or are vulnerable for many reasons. Each Watoto family consists of a mother who takes care of up to 8 children (2 years-old and above).

“They will always be part of Watoto until they finally get an independent mind,” Pr. Skinner adds.

Does Watoto target only young people?

There’s no doubt that 34 years down the road, Watoto is the church that appeals to most youth in Kampala. About 90% of its congregation is under 30. When you attend the church services, you can’t help but notice the casual attire that dominates coupled with a flock so taken up by the contemporary music from Hillsong, Don Moen, Chris Tomlin and the like accompanied by superb lighting, live band and a choir whose vocal prowess is unquestioned.

And this contemporary taste extends to other Watoto productions like the famous Christmas Cantata, Heavens Gates and Hell’s Flames and Campus Kara that invest a lot of creativity and time to please the choosy flock.  I ask him whether the common perception that Watoto is a place for just youth is correct. “Yes we target young people but we have people in their 40s that are young at heart. I am 63, am not young. But I love this church – I like the music, the smoke, the lights and everything,” he confesses.

Christmas cantata production at Watoto church

Christmas cantata production at Watoto church

He notes that for one to change the future of a country like Uganda ranked as the youngest nation in the world, it requires changing the youth since the old leaders are stuck in their ways.

“Young people want to go to church but not when it’s boring. Same way to serve a stake. You can serve it ice cold from a fridge and it’s still a stake or you can put it on a grill with some salt and it’s tasty. I hope that’s what Watoto church is.”

Why Watoto cell groups?

Among other reasons why Watoto is unique is its model of reaching out to its community of youth through various cell groups usually comprised of 10-15 members. These cell groups meet weekly in different localities to discuss about an array of topics centered on Christian values.

“These groups help them engage in meaningful discussion and to be mentored. The cell groups act as the smallest platform where everyone can participate equally and also a point of contact between the church and the community. In these cells, every individual finds a place they belong, contribute and serve the society.”

Youths engage in a city cleaning exercise

Youths engage in a city cleaning exercise

He is satisfied that these small clusters have lived up to the church’s objectives with several success stories. At some point, each cell group had to adopt an HIV positive family, love them and care for them. “We have stories of people who were abandoned, close to death, and the cells picked them up. They gave them assistance in addition to bringing them to church. They are now transformed, healthy and found work to do through Watoto’s cell groups.”

Occasionally these cells engage in voluntary community work like visiting orphanages, cleaning slums what you ordinarily wouldn’t expect of most well-schooled and urban youth.

Hope for a youth led transformation?

It’s no news that Uganda’s efforts to develop have been frustrated by especially corrupt and negligent leaders who haven’t set the best example for the flock waiting to step in their shoes. I put it to Pr. Skinner on whether he is confident that Watoto’s orientation offers hope for Uganda’s future. “When young people begin to occupy leadership, they’ll appreciate the fact that corruption will only destroy their nation and they’ll choose to lead well and be generous.”

“We should love, pray and encourage our leaders. To criticize them publicly, on the pulpit or in the press is not the best way to get out of this. I don’t think many people understand how difficult it is to be a leader and certainly once you’re a leader, everybody wants to occupy your position,” he tells me.

The church and politics

President Museveni has previously told church leaders to stay away from politics because it isn’t their place. Watoto’s founder largely concurs with the notion. The role of the church, he says is to provide a moral foundation upon which the country is to be built. “The church is there to create a foundation of love which is a basic core that solves every problem in society. We are not to become politicians but we should be there to question politicians whether their corrupt practices really pass the test of love.”

Women in church leadership

For the first time in Uganda, a woman bishop was ordained in 2015. This passed as a landmark given the long debate preceding this event that seemed to suggest women’s role in church was in the background. “Nobody ever empowered women more than Jesus. There’s aplace for women in church. In the Bible, Paul first refers to Priscilla, a woman as a deacon before he calls on her husband Aquila. Men are not better than women and vice versa.”

“Women have a huge gift to bring to the church. All leadership shouldn’t be the final authority. It should have mutual accountability to others. When any leader holds a position of service, he should be neither dictatorial nor authoritative. Should we have a woman that is a pastor? Yes. At Watoto our deacons’ team is led by a woman.”

Where is Watoto Church going next?

“We are not stuck in one place we need to grow. We want to multiply our campuses (churches) from 10 to 36 in Kampala city so we can be able to take the church closer to the communities where people live. We have been building children’s villages but because the orphans’ situation has since changed, we need to provide for them along with their parents within their communities.”

The famous Watoto children's choir performing while on a UK tour

The famous Watoto children’s choir performing while on a UK tour

Pr. Skinner is concerned with the growing poverty levels amid similar rates of unemployment coupled with poor quality education and housing. In the near future, this is what Watoto will work towards addressing. He makes note

“Many people are poor and we need to empower them to have a steady income. The biggest challenge is education for kids so we shall start to plant schools not only for our own children but also the needy ones in these communities. We also want to help men start businesses that will create jobs for poor women where they can have steady income to look after their kids.”

The church will work out ways of improving housing standards especially for the women dwelling in slums. He says Watoto will either work with slum communities to completely upgrade these slums or establish new low income housing projects for these women to live in and pay off their mortgage in installments from the jobs they will have got.

“Health care is another aspect we want to tackle. We aren’t doing anything new. The church has in the past actively taken the initiative of building schools, orphanages, clinics and hospitals. As a contemporary church, we must take on this responsibility too. Government has tried to take over some of these facilities but am not sure they are doing a good job. Ours is not about just building places of worship where people go to pray but building a people who live in a community and transform it every day.”


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