"I was just praying to God in my heart that I would perform well," said Solomon Mutende, 10, of Uganda.
Thousands of teary-eyed United Methodists know God answered that prayer after watching Solomon and the Hope for Africa Children's Choir perform before a worldwide gathering of United Methodists.
The energetic performance on April 28 was one of the most blessed moments of the 2008 United Methodist General Conference, the church's legislative assembly meeting through May 2 at the Fort Worth Convention Center.
The appreciative crowd gave the youngsters an impromptu standing ovation after the children sang and danced to one song during a planned "celebration moment." The audience even demanded an encore.
Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher of the Illinois Area introduced the "special guests" with a video that provided a glimpse into the children's lives in Uganda before they became part of the choir.
Uganda Bishop Daniel Wandabula and his wife, Betty, have become "Mommy" and "Daddy" to the 23 "orphan and vulnerable" children in the choir organized by the United Methodist East Africa Annual Conference. Many of the children came from Internally Displaced Person's Camps established by the government during 20 years of civil war that has ravaged Uganda.
The camps are hot, miserable places where thousands of people are forced to live in mud huts crammed tightly together. Many of the children are orphans who have lost their families to violence or AIDS.
"When we saw all the children and the conditions in which they were living, we had to do something," said Betty Wandabula. "They don't deserve to suffer."
'God just blesses us'
"God just blesses us more and more," said Winifred Acibo, 11, after performing at General Conference.
"I felt they loved me," said Sandra Namuleno, 12. "I wanted to sound good so maybe my friends at Humble School and myself could get someone to sponsor us," she said of the United Methodist-supported school.
Asked how the experience felt, 11-year-old Sawiya Lakareber gave a broad smile. "I feel at peace," she said.
Bishop Michael Watson, of the South Georgia Annual (regional) Conference, was swarmed and hugged by the children after their performance. "I am the luckiest man in the world," he said.
Humble United Methodist School in Mukono was commissioned in August by Watson and members of the South Georgia conference. It was started in 2004 to serve children from war-ravaged areas and homes affected by HIV/AIDS. An outgrowth of the school is the recently launched Hope for Africa Children's Choir and Academy.
The vision for the school came through a partnership of the East Africa conference and the Ugandan church, the South Georgia conference, United Methodists from Virginia and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. After the East Africa conference purchased the land in 2001, South Georgia raised $140,000 to erect the first two buildings. Support also has come from United Methodists in Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
The South Georgia conference paid for the children and their teachers to fly to Fort Worth from Uganda. The choir will remain in the United States through July and will sing at United Methodist churches in Arkansas, Georgia, Wisconsin, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
General Conference encore
"It was overwhelming," said Tonny Mbowa, choir director, of the reaction at General Conference. "To see such audiences stand up and clap when the children walked out was so fulfilling. I just thought of all the work and all we have been through. We are so blessed."
Choir conductor Lydia Namageme was "surprised" when the conference asked the children to sing a second song.
"I never expected that," she said. "I wasn't sure what to do, but we know many songs."
The East Africa conference hopes to raise funds through the choir's U.S. tour so more children can study at Humble School or the Hope for Africa Children's Academy. A donation of $1,600 sponsors a child for one year and pays for education, food, medical care and room and board.
"But any amount will help," Namageme said.
To donate, send checks to Hope for Africa Children's Choir, United Methodist Church, East Africa Annual Conference, P.O. Box 12554, Kampala, Uganda, or e-mail [email protected]. Checks also can be sent in the United States to Rev. Bruce Stensvaard, 2006 Pleasant View Lane, Bellevue, Neb. 68005 or to the Rev. Martin Childs, 3737 North Shermon Blvd., Milwaukee, Wis. 53216.
*Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, e-mail: [email protected]
Phone calls can be made to the General Conference Newsroom in Fort Worth, Texas, at (817) 698-4405(817) 698-4405 until May 3. Afterward, call United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn., at (615) 742-5470(615) 742-5470.