TRAVERSE CITY — Hope is not normally associated with orphaned children.
But it is the message the acclaimed Watoto Children's Choir will deliver in its first visit to Traverse City. The choir of Ugandan orphans will perform a pair of concerts May 17 at First Congregational Church as part of a six-month We Will Go tour of the United States.
"In the concert, we bring a message of hope," director David Atukunda said from on the road during the U.S. tour that began in January. "We share our stories and we share how much God has been good to us; how much change and transformation we've gone through.
"The children share their stories (from) before they were rescued and brought to Watoto, the kind of life they were going through and the kind of life they lead now."
The choir is comprised of 17 children ages 6 to 13 who have been orphaned in the East African country by death or abandonment. The choir is accompanied by 11 adults, some of whom have also been part of the Watoto Child Care Ministries.
"We're here to inspire people," Atukunda said.
"It is inspirational to meet them in person," said Kelsie Nussel, communications coordinator for the Watoto Child Care Ministry headquartered in Tampa, Florida. "They have so much joy and it just radiates with their performance and when you talk to them afterward."
Originally a single 7:30 p.m. performance was scheduled at the church. A second 5:30 p.m. concert was added when the 600 free tickets were quickly accounted for the later show.
The concerts are part of the Mel Larimer Concert Series at First Congregational. Sanctuary Choir Director Russ Larimer said the group's modern form of singing and dancing is a departure from the usual music for the series, but one he is eagerly anticipating.
"It's a great way to open up our minds to other cultures," he said.
Russ Larimer said he hasn't seen the children perform in person, but First Congregational Lead Pastor Chad Oyer has and recommended them highly.
"He had some experience with Watoto from another church," Larimer said. "It's totally different from anything we've ever done before. It should be exciting.
"It's definitely a message of hope. I know that's the way the music is ... That's the way music has been throughout history."
The Watoto Church founded its Child Care Ministry in 1994 to advocate for the millions of orphaned and vulnerable children and women in Uganda. According to a release, the ministries currently care for more than 3,000 children living in family settings "who have been rescued after losing one or both parents to live in one of three Watoto villages."
Atukunda said the choir typically performs eight songs during the nearly hour 1½-hour concert. He said there are also videos that talk about the orphaned children as well as highlighting the ministry's Neighbourhood program which aims to transform some of the disadvantaged women of Uganda.
"The message we are telling people is, 'Whatever you might be going through in life, it's not the end of life.'" Atukunda said. "Your story and your testimony, by you sharing what you've gone through, will transform someone's life.
"Every story can be uplifting and inspirational to someone else. We're here sharing our story, don't be afraid to go out in the world, share your story and be a blessing to someone. The theme of the production we're doing is called 'We Will Go' and that's basically what we're doing. Inspiring someone about the goodness of Jesus."
The Watoto Children's Choir doesn't charge for the performance. The tour group does accept donations and sells merchandise as well as some items made by the women in the Neighbourhood program.
"The choir only asks that (hosts) take a love offering," Nussel said.
The U.S. tour is the 98th by the Watoto Children's Choir. Nussel said two other choir groups heading to Australia and the United Kingdom/Canada allowed the ministry to hit a major milestone.
"We have just sent out our 100th choir," she said. "In 25 years there have been 100 choirs to come out of Uganda. It's a big accomplishment to have 100 go out so far."
First Congregational and the Mel Larimer Concert Series are the sponsors for the Watoto Children's Choir's first trip to Traverse City.
"First Congregational Church is happy to host it," Russ Larimer said. "It's certainly a worthy message."
More information on the Watoto ministries is available at www.watoto.com.