“There are no strangers. There are no outcasts. There are no orphans of God,” sang the Sozo Children’s Choir one morning last week at Samford University’s Reid Chapel, one of eight events the university scheduled in honor of Black History Month.
Composed of 17 children from Uganda, the choir is in the midst of touring the United States for the first time, offering audiences a dual experience of worship and culture. They are performing native songs and dances in various locations across Alabama through Sunday, Feb. 21, before traveling by bus to Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and elsewhere. They will return to the Birmingham area to perform again at the end of April before flying home on May 3.
The choir, however, is a small part of a much larger vision. Sozo Children was founded in 2010, after Allen Nunnally and Jay Clark, then recent college graduates, were witness to a corrupt orphanage while serving as missionaries in Kampala, Uganda.
In an effort to save these children who were left neglected, sick and malnourished, they established a Christian-based home and hired a staff of Ugandan mothers and fathers.
“Tubatwala walungi,” the children were told. “We are taking you to a better place.”
With help from Suzanne Owens, executive director, the nonprofit became a reality with its headquarters stateside located in Birmingham and with a name that seems fitting. Found in the New Testament, “Sozo” is a Greek word meaning “to save.”
In the beginning, there were 17 children. “That’s kind of a sentimental number to us,” said pastor of spiritual development Jon Brennan after the performance. “There are 17 children in the choir to represent that number.” All of the choir members were selected through an audition, and nine of these children happen to be from the original group placed in Sozo’s first children’s home in 2010, Brennan said.
Sozo Children has since grown to serve 121 children. Last February, the organization purchased 28 acres of land, an initiative called “The Village Project.” The plan is to build a community, consisting of a worship facility, three wells, a school, a medical clinic and 15 homes, all surrounded by a perimeter fence.
The current situation is not ideal, Brennan said, because the children are living in big homes with 15 to 20 people per home. “We want them to live like a Ugandan does, so we want to really scale back the grandeur of the homes and plus, the ratio needs to change,” he said. In order to create more family-like environments, each new home will provide shelter for eight children and their caretakers.
One such caretaker is Aggie Namuyomba. She is Sozo’s child development director in Uganda, but that is simply her formal title. “She’s the mom of 121 children,” Brennan said when introducing her to the audience.
Like Brennan, Namuyomba has been involved with Sozo Children since day one. “It’s challenging sometimes,” she said, “but it’s rewarding at the end of the day when you see the transformation in the lives of the kids. That’s where I find the joy of doing this.”
Providing the children with an education is another priority of the organization, which is why a teacher from Uganda is accompanying the choir on tour. “They are being schooled this afternoon and all day tomorrow,” Brennan said. “Education is so important, and they are so far behind in their education, we didn’t want their education to suffer because they are in the choir.”
The tour, Brennan explained, is a celebration of what God has done in the children’s lives, but it is also a way to increase public awareness of the organization’s purpose and impact.
“Suddenly, it’s not just a group of people in Birmingham at a staff meeting that are praying about this. Now, you’ve got people in many different states, many different universities,” he said, all of whom are anxious to participate, whether by donating, praying, going on a mission trip or sponsoring a child.
All of the children have different histories, Namuyomba said, but they now share in a collective story, a story of hope. “This choir is all about showing people that there is a transformation that can happen once you’re with Christ,” she said. “There’s always a new story that Christ can write in your life, despite the things that you’ve gone through in the past.”