One of Uganda's biggest church communities will celebrate its 40th anniversary this month with a series of events, including a book launch by its founder, Pastor Gary Skinner and wife Marilyn, a new music album and an agribusiness institute. The celebrations by Watoto Church Ministries highlight their extensive contributions to community development and spiritual growth.

Skinner and his wife came to Uganda in the early 1980s and founded the Watoto Church Ministries in 1984. Skinner, a Canadian preacher, ministered to thousands of vulnerable women and children during the five-year National Resistance Army’s civil war that brought President Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986.

The war left thousands of people, particularly women and children, in a miserable state and lacking basic needs such as schools, homes and food. As a result, Skinner and Watoto tried to fill the gap by providing the children with school supplies and homes in the hope they could grow into responsible citizens.

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The Watoto Church’s 40-year celebrations underscore its pivotal role in Uganda's spiritual and social transformation landscape. The church has not only been a beacon of faith for many, but has also spearheaded numerous initiatives that address critical needs in the community. Until he retired last year as the Watoto Church team leader, Skinner’s vision and leadership had been instrumental in the church's growth and outreach that has been described by his flock as visionary.

The ministry has since grown to encompass not only a vibrant church community in Uganda but also significant humanitarian efforts through Watoto Childcare Ministries and innovative projects such as the Bobi Agribusiness Institute. As a result, Watoto Church is currently one of the most successful Pentecostal churches in Africa.

The Watoto Child Care Ministries, an offshoot founded in 1994, operates several schools that have educated thousands of orphaned and vulnerable children in the last 40 years. The BAI, meanwhile, has created an integrated agribusiness project, which Watoto intends to launch as it marks 40 years and aims to provide technical and business training so people can gain employment in the food sector.

Asenath Were, one of the children Watoto has educated since 2006 when she was just 8 years old who graduated recently with a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Communication at Uganda Christian University, told Religion Unplugged that Watoto’s 40-year celebrations point to God’s goodness.

“If Watoto had not taken me on 18 years ago, I would have gotten married at a very young age and without education,” Were said.  

Whereas Watoto sponsors thousands of vulnerable children with education, many remain unemployed after graduating due to the country’s high unemployment rate. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics’ National Labour Force survey released in 2022, 41 percent of the youth in Uganda (9.3 million) age 18 to 30 — including university graduates — are not working.

Skinner’s launch of the agribusiness institute is intended to solve the unemployment problem. Watoto Church said that BAI will be equipping the church’s graduates with general skills in plant and animal sciences. In addition, it will produce food for the residents in Gulu District, located in northern Uganda, where it is located, as well as international markets.

The events marking the 40 years of Watoto’s existence began on June 20 with Skinner and his wife’s new book, “Where Faith Lit the Way” at Watoto Church in Kampala. The book provides insights into the church's journey and mission. The week culminated with the official launch of BAI this past Tuesday, yet another vital step in helping Ugandans succeed in the future.

Norbert Mao, Uganda’s Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, commended the Skinners for their inspirational story and the impact it has had on so many people across the country.

“This is work that is fuelled by love, a love without measure,” he said. “I have been a witness to the transformational work over the years. This is a story worthy of telling and retelling because it changes lives.”

Yasiri J. Kasango contributed to this report.

John Semakula is a Ugandan award-winning Journalist and alumnus of the Poynter Institute in Florida based in Mukono, Uganda. Yasiri J. Kasango is a Journalism student at Uganda Christian University.