The Sozo Children’s Choir kicked off its multi-state “Miracle Tour” in April with performances in Delaware and Maryland, where the choir opened the Youth for Christ dinner featuring Tim Tebow. In May, the ministry celebrated its 12th anniversary with a concert at the historic Lyric in Birmingham featuring upbeat praise music and a special acapella worship experience.
“The show at The Lyric was exciting for all of us. Every choir tour just gets bigger and better,” said Cathy Head, chair of the Sozo board of directors. “These children have been practicing for over a year to prepare for this trip and to be able to celebrate this birthday with us in such an amazing venue was a real blessing. It’s bigger than we could have imagined when we first planned the tour last year.”
For the last year, the children have been rehearsing and performing in Uganda, Africa leading up to the American tour. Sozo Children, a Birmingham-based ministry, serving the needs of vulnerable children in Uganda, created the choir in 2016 and the current tour is the fourth time the choir has traveled to America and is the first time the choir has toured the states since being stranded in Ala. two years ago when the pandemic forced the children to shelter in place nearly 8000 miles from home. “The entire month has been a whirlwind of events for us,” said Suzanne Owens, CEO of Sozo Children. Following the performance at the historic Lyric Theater, Sozo hosted its Run For A Reason 5K through the streets of the Avondale community ending with a choir performance at Avondale Brewing.
The choir tour was originally planned for January through May but due to a series of delays in the process the tour will now last into early October. Although off to a late start, the choir has now performed in four states and to nearly 10,000 people and is busy booking dates in churches and schools wherever they are able. There is no set charge for performances, but most churches and schools take up an offering or make a donation to the ministry.
“Starting later than planned has turned into an opportunity for us,” said Owens. “Spreading the tour through the summer will allow the kids to attend Vacation Bible School (VBS) with some of the local churches during the week.” The choir has been invited to The World Games and will sing The National Anthem at a Legion soccer game as well.
The choir serves as a mission trip for the children of Sozo, who audition to join the tour every other year. Owens said this choir is special because it is the first one where children from the local community in Uganda reached out to audition. In total, five children from the local community joined the choir, and Sozo, for the first time. “We’re excited to share this worship and learning experience with our kids and let them spend quality time with children here in Alabama,” said Owens. “Growing up here, we sometimes take things like Vacation Bible School for granted but it’s a real treat for our kids.”
A former youth pastor who moved into ministry from mortgage banking, Owens says she never imagined she’d be operating a children’s home in Africa, or anywhere else. “Two of my former youth had accepted a temporary assignment as missionaries in Uganda,” said Owens. “They were going there to help build a website for a church and play in a worship band, but they found a children’s home that had been practically abandoned.”
Owens said she felt like God was leading her to intervene but the idea of opening a home for the children was out of her comfort zone at the time. “I did a lot of arguing with God,” she said laughingly. “I felt like He was telling me ‘You’re going to open a children’s home and have missionaries’ and I was saying ‘no, I’m not.’”
Eventually, Owens and the mission team got permission to take in some of the children from the home. With some help from local leaders, they agreed and rented a house, hired a local staff, and initially took in 17 of the children. That’s when they decided on a name for the ministry. The name “Sozo” comes from Scripture. It is the Greek word that means “to rescue or save” and appears more than 100 times in the New Testament.
Today, Sozo Children has grown to provide housing, nutritional care, counseling, medical care, quality education and spiritual direction to more than 125 children. But the reach goes much farther. Sozo ministers to families in the local village where it works with a local pastor to host “kids club” twice a week—providing snacks, play time and devotionals for hundreds of children who sometimes walk miles just to attend. “Children come to Sozo from some really harsh circumstances,” she said. “Some of them have been abandoned, some have lost their parents. Some of them have been abused and some have been rescued from trafficking situations.”
In Uganda, like many other parts of the world where extreme poverty is everyday life, children are often dropped off at local police stations by desperate parents who can no longer provide for them. Social workers assist in finding homes for the children with relatives or children’s homes like Sozo. “We place a lot of emphasis on sustainability,” she said. “We want to equip them to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient—to learn skills that will benefit them throughout the rest of their lives long after they graduate from their time with us.”
“The purpose of mission work is not to go there to create little Americans, so we don’t impose our western culture on them. Instead, we go there to walk alongside them and experience God together,” said Owens, adding, “We want them to be amazing leaders for Uganda and we want them to be strong leaders for Christ in their communities wherever they go in life.”
Sozo also leads short-term mission teams to Uganda where participants can interact in the work of the ministry, deliver food packs, and learn about African culture. Despite limited access to travel since the start of the pandemic, Owens is optimistic about the future of international missions. “We’ve only had two mission teams travel to Uganda since the end of 2019, but we are planning a full calendar for next year and trusting God to guide the way,” she said. Individuals can sign up to join a Sozo mission team on the Sozo Children website. Many teams are organized by churches, small groups, or even groups of college students who want to take a meaningful trip for Spring Break or during summer or Christmas breaks.
Sozo Children is funded through child sponsorships and donations and also operates Sozo Trading Co., an upscale thrift store in the Avondale community. To learn more about Sozo Children, or to sign up for a mission trip, book the choir, or sponsor a child, visit www.sozochildren.org.