Between Rally, the community band, Rockin’ the Court, the farmers markets and a number of Main Street Medina events downtown, residents have an impressive and diverse list of feel-good musical options to choose from this summer, should they feel the need for a rhythmic outing about town.
However, one concert making a tour stop here is quite different than the norms we’ve become familiar with. Depending on who you ask, this one could be considered a bit controversial.
This Friday, the Watoto Children’s Choir, a Gospel music group comprised of 18 orphans from Uganda, returns to Medina for the third time in four years. Their new show, “Signs and Wonders,” details the plights of Africa’s orphaned through high-energy song and dance. The singers and their chaperones will be again hosted by the people of Living Hope Church in Medina and Medina United Methodist Church.
Uganda has been engulfed in violent conflict between the central government and Lord’s Resistance Army since the mid-1980s. The HIV/AIDS epidemic also plays a deadly role in Ugandan life, as well as human trafficking, all of which result in an overwhelming number of orphaned and refugee children and women.
The now-mega Watoto Church was founded in Uganda by Gary Skinner in 1984. In 1994, Skinner and his wife, Marilyn, founded Watoto Child Care Ministries, an international organization that cares for thousands of orphaned Ugandan children through a network of villages that provides the kids a variety of health and educational opportunities.
Skinner – a Canadian reportedly born in Zimbabwe to missionary parents – has been accused of being staunchly anti-gay throughout the years by LGBTQ activists.
According to its website, Watotochurch.com, “Watoto Church is in favor of (Uganda’s) pro-family legislation,” which would include the 2014 Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act. That bill, which would have enforced life prison sentences for homosexuality, went into effect at the start of 2014 and was eventually annulled in August of the same year, deemed unconstitutional.
In the original version proposed in 2009, the bill called for putting homosexuals to death.
The White House in a 2014 statement called the bill’s initial passage “abhorrent” and urged the Ugandan government to repeal it, according to CNN.
Watoto Church’s website goes on to say the church “remains committed to providing help to anyone grappling with the moral and sexual issues of life.”
Ugandan laws still criminalize committing or aiding same-sex acts.
Prior to the law’s annulment, English news agency Reuters reported in March 2014 “the chorus of anti-gay voices is not restricted to Parliament. Influential pastors, who draw thousands to Sunday services, often openly denounce homosexual acts.”
The Reuters article then briefly describes a Sunday Watoto service in Kampala, Uganda, “where the message is delivered in spectacular style with smoke machines, disco lights and the throbbing beat of a Gospel choir” where “Skinner told worshippers ‘not to sexually sin against their own bodies.’” A number of other reports and blogs also accuse Skinner of homophobia.
Roger Biada, a pastor at Living Hope Church on Wooster Pike Road, who has hosted Watoto choir kids during their past visits, said he was not aware of Watoto’s alleged anti-homosexuality stance, dating back to its Medina visits in 2013 and 2015. He mentioned Marilyn Skinner also came to Living Hope in 2013 to speak on the tragic displacement of Ugandan women.
“I didn’t really research or find any of this stuff you did,” Biada said. “Probably the only thing I can say in response to that is Watoto is a Christian group and Scripture does have some things to say about homosexuality. I guess that’s where it’s coming from. Not that God loves somebody less than anyone else, he’s just saying you shouldn’t be doing that. To love equally, whether someone is homosexual or bisexual, but not necessarily condone it.”
Biada said his church became aware of the Watoto Children’s Choir through a relative of a Living Hope member who had discovered them while working on a mission trip in Uganda. Biada said he and other church members were drawn in by the choir’s dynamic performances and spiritual message.
The choir is in the thick of a six-month tour at churches throughout the U.S. They will also perform at First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Strongsville Friday, June 16.
“That was kind of a surprise to me,” Biada said. “I understand the political sensitivity of it, but it also does not diminish what (Watoto does) to restore people’s lives and teach people, not just Scripture and a relationship with Christ, but how to make a living.”
Biada added, “There is an enormous, enormous death rate with HIV and AIDS, literally millions a day from that, and that (homosexuality) is kind of one of the main ways it spreads. There’s that, too, that mixes in with it.”
Watoto’s visit to Medina comes at an interesting time politically and socially. Following The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalize same-sex marriage, Medina’s LGBTQ support group Out Support has been more publicly visible, even marching in the city’s Fourth of July parade last year, something they plan to do again this year. Out Support is also planning a local installment of The Equality March for Unity and Pride on Public Square Sunday, June 11, from 1-3 p.m.
Out Support co-founder Sandy Varndell responded to the news of Watoto’s upcoming visit.
“Clearly, I am not in support of something of that position on homosexuality. It’s an affront to humanity to have that stance on those laws that discriminate so forcefully against the homosexual community of Uganda,” Varndell said.
Varndell said Watoto seems similar to other do-good service organizations in the U.S., specifically in “the dichotomy of compassion for people.”
“You’ll find these organizations that provide a level of service to the community and on the other hand be very homophobic and anti-equality, all kinds of things that are a slap in the face to the LGBTQ community,” Varndell said. “We’re still fighting for equality in the state of Ohio. And Medina, while it has a resolution of acceptance and inclusion, there’s no legal status to it. It’s just a nice gesture on the part of the city.”
The Watoto Children’s Choir will perform at Medina United Methodist Church, 4747 Foote Road, Medina, 7 p.m. Friday night.
Admission is free, but offerings will be accepted.