The Sozo Children’s Choir (Uganda) is touring the United States for the first time this spring, bringing with them a cultural experience through songs and dances, testimonies from the children, and powerful praise and worship.
The tour’s two visits to Owensboro felt like a delayed homecoming for tour director Jon Brennan, who grew up at First Baptist Church and served on staff at BridgePointe Church before relocating to Birmingham, Alabama. Brennan now serves as pastor of spiritual development for Sozo Children.
“It’s been so awesome,” he said, about the tour. “The people have embraced us. The kids have adjusted fine. Host homes have been great. Churches have been incredibly generous. But I’ll be honest, coming to Owensboro has truly been the highlight for me, personally – both times.”
The first run of performances in Owensboro made such an impact that Owensboro Christian Church invited the Sozo Children’s Choir to their church, so the tour was routed back through Owensboro for a second run of performances in February.
The choir of 17 students, along with 10 adults for support – one of which is the principal from the school in Uganda so the students can do class work each day – flew to Birmingham, Alabama from Uganda on December 27, 2015, rested a few days, then traveled to Owensboro to kick off their tour at Goldie’s New Year’s Eve show at the RiverPark Center.
“The minute we walked out on stage, before we even sang a note, the whole place stood up and gave the kids a standing ovation. It was incredible!” Brennan recalled.
The next day, the choir had several performances in town, including drop-ins at First Baptist, Settle Memorial, and Yellow Creek Baptist. First Free Will Baptist hosted the choir that Wednesday night.
On the return trip to Owensboro, Church For All, BridgePointe, and Owensboro Christian hosted the choir.
“Owensboro stole my heart again. To be treated like that, and to have that kind of outpouring of love and support after being gone for eight years, I was overwhelmed. Even the kids noticed it, they said, ‘They love us extra here,’” Brennan said. The Daviess County grad was particularly moved by how welcoming and respectful the students at Apollo were toward the choir.
During his time in Birmingham, Brennan was one of a group of six people who began praying about starting a ministry in Uganda. The way he explains it, God lead that church to Uganda through Kenya. That process was put into motion when he took a group of students to summer camp where a Kenyan Children’s Choir was part of the entertainment one night.
“We were really struck by that performance and invited them to come back to our church in Birmingham,” Brennan explained. That choir from Kenya returned three more years. Then the church raised money and went on a mission to Kenya. While there, they visited Uganda.
It was a pivotal moment. “We had 17 students on that trip, which was back in 2010,” Brennan said. “After seeing it, we really felt God placed it on our hearts to serve in Uganda. That really was the beginning of Sozo. It’s been such a blessing to me personally to see how God has worked through this. I’ve seen it all unfold from the very beginning.”
Sozo’s vision is to disciple the children into the next generation of Christian leaders in Uganda. “We believe our calling is to raise these children here, in their own culture, so they can help their village, and ultimately their country, prosper,” Brennan explained.
The Village Project
Today, Sozo Children is headquartered in Birmingham. The ministry houses 127 kids in group homes in Uganda, and just bought 28 acres of land for “The Village Project,” an initiative designed for community transformation in a village that Sozo has been nurturing relationships with for the past three years.
The goal is to develop a neighborhood with smaller, family homes that will house eight children with a mom and dad. Future plans include building a medical clinic, installing fresh water wells, and building soccer fields for all the neighborhood children to enjoy.
Eventually, they plan to build a bigger church building. Right now, though, they’re doing just fine holding church under a tree for the women and in a small brick church for the men.
“Life in Uganda is different than America,” Brennan admits. “But it doesn’t need to be ‘fixed’; they just need a boost. It’s a beautiful country. They don’t have the luxuries we do in the States, but they also don’t take the blessings they do have for granted. They’re happy and content. It’s a joyful suffering. We have a lot to learn from Ugandans in that regard.”
Brennan says life as a missionary is no fairy tale; it’s a lot of work. In the midst of daily routines, chores and everything else that comes along with raising kids, Brennan has to raise his own salary through contributions from regular supporters. As pastor of spiritual development, Brennan serves as pastor to Sozo staff and volunteers in both Birmingham and Uganda. The children at Sozo call him “Uncle Jon.”
The choir tour is really a tool to raise awareness for Sozo Children by sharing their stories. The performances are nights of praise and worship, storytelling, and celebrating what God has already done. The secondary purpose is to raise money to help cover the trip. “Really, we hope to break even on this tour by covering our travel expenses,” Brennan said. “But if we make any money at all, it will go back to the village.”
It’s also a learning experience for the kids. The tour is meant to expand their worldviews. As Brennan put it, “Hopefully, coming to the U.S. gives these kids a little hope and a chance to see for themselves what hard work and education can do. Hopefully, it encourages them to take that idea back with them, and to realize if they work hard, they can provide for themselves and prosper. We hope they come back confident they can help make Uganda better.”
The work of Sozo Children is truly transformational – for the children involved, the volunteers and staff who interact with them, and now for people across the United States who have welcomed the Sozo touring choir into their churches and communities.
Owensboro is one of the places that has left their mark on those kids, and been impacted by them as well.
“Not everyone is called to jump on a plane to be a missionary,” Brennan explained. “If you want to come to Uganda, great! We always need the volunteers. But we truly feel like all of Owensboro is a part of this now, because the entire community has been so supportive! It’s just been overwhelming.”
For more information, visit Sozochildren.org.