A Ugandan Pastor With Global Reach

Gary Skinner oversees multimillion-dollar enterprise at center of battle against homosexuality

In 2007, Uganda’s highest court struck down a law that made adultery a crime. Religious leaders took to their pulpits the next Sunday, which was Easter, to denounce the ruling. Gary Skinner, the founder and pastor at Watoto Church, was among them.

“We condemn all inhuman practices including homosexuality, prostitution which people are pushing for their legalisation,” the Monitor, a Ugandan news outlet, reported Skinner saying.

While not alone, Watoto is at the forefront of the anti-gay movement in Uganda.

Stephen Langa, an elder at Watoto and the head of the Family Life Network, produced a March conference on homosexuality in Uganda, and at least two of the sessions were held at the church. He then pressed the government “to enact stringent laws against the practice,” an article in New Vision, a Ugandan newspaper, paraphrased him saying.

David Bahati, a member of Uganda’s Parliament, has since introduced legislation that would punish gay men and lesbians with the death penalty or life in prison in some cases, though the government has suggested the harshest provision could be removed. The bill requires doctors, priests, and others to report homosexuals to police.

Skinner has said nothing about the bill or at least nothing that has been reported in Uganda’s press. But the pastor has influence in Uganda.

Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, attended a wedding at Watoto, and other Ugandan political leaders have appeared there. When President George W. Bush briefly visited Uganda in 2003, he and Museveni were serenaded by a Watoto children’s choir. The church has also had visits from noted gospel performers and sports stars.

Skinner has commented on Ugandan politics. In 2000, the Monitor reported that Skinner had “continuously railed” against the election of Nasser Sebaggala, a “non-believer,” as Kampala’s mayor. In 2006, he was among a group of religious leaders who said that revenues from Uganda’s newly discovered oil reserves should be shared fairly.

The 25-year-old church, originally named the Kampala Pentecostal Church, appears to be one of the larger religious institutions in Uganda, according to figures made public in 2007, when the government required certain denominations to open up their books.

Watoto reported revenues of roughly $2.6 million in 2006, though it spent about $2.8 million. A separate childcare ministry operated by Watoto reported revenues of $3.6 million and spending at $2.2 million. Of the dozen churches discussed in a 2007 New Vision story on the disclosures, Watoto had the highest revenues, with the second-ranked church showing income of $780,000. A 2008 report in New Vision put the total 2006 Watoto revenues at $8.3 million and said they had climbed to $13.4 million in 2008.

Gay City News converted the 2006 and 2008 figures from Ugandan shillings to US dollars at the 2009 exchange rate.

Skinner, who is white, was born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in 1952. His father and grandfather were missionaries. He moved to Canada in his teens and eventually became a pastor in rural churches there.

Multiple news reports say that Skinner, along with his wife Marilyn, moved to Uganda in 1983 to found a church. They were assisted by the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, where the Skinners are still listed as missionaries.

“I literally heard the Lord say these words to me: Kampala downtown an English only speaking church. I will touch the city and the nation,” Saturday Vision quoted Skinner saying in a 2009 story.

Their first church was in a rundown movie theater in Kampala. Today, Watoto owns a radio station, lists six church locations on its website, reports thousands of attendees at it services, and owns two villages, where it houses an estimated 1,500 orphans. An equivalent institution in the US would be called a mega-church.

The separately incorporated Watoto Child Care Ministry is a registered charity in the US that reported $2.8 million in gross receipts in 2006 that climbed to $5.1 million in 2008. The Watoto orphans audition to join choirs run by the ministry. To support the orphanage, it appears that multiple choirs perform around the world and sell recordings of their music.

Skinner has connections in Uganda and around the globe. A 2008 New Vision story noted that Skinner raised 30 million Ugandan shillings, or roughly $15,000, at a single fundraiser from companies operating in Uganda, including British Airways and a local Toyota franchise.

In 2007, Skinner was a featured speaker at an annual conference produced by the Hillsong Church, an Australian Pentecostal mega-church. Keynote speakers that year included T.D. Jakes, who heads the Potter's House mega-church in Dallas, and Ed Young, senior pastor at the Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas.

At the time, the Australian press was raising questions about how Hillsong raised and spent its cash. Watoto was the beneficiary of those questions. To allay the concerns raised by the media, Hillsong promised to donate ten percent of all cash raised by the time the conference started to Watoto. Skinner walked away with a check for $700,000, according to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Skinner has not responded to emails from Gay City News seeking comment. Reverend Murray Cornelius, assistant superintendent for international missions at the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

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