You may have heard the lesson of the young child throwing starfish back into the sea. When told there were too many and he couldn’t really make a difference, he tossed another to safety and remarked that it mattered to that one. It’s a moral tale Christians like to use to illustrate the impact ministry can have on the world if just one life is changed.
“What you do matters” is a phrase you are likely to hear if you talk to one of the ministry team members at Sozo Children. It’s a theme that serves to motivate and remind one another that God’s purpose for believers is to reach others for his Kingdom. Sozo Children is a Birmingham missions ministry that serves vulnerable children in Uganda, Africa—a nation where more than half of the population is under the age of 15 and millions of children live in generational poverty.
The ministry began 10 years ago when two missionaries in Uganda reached out to their former youth pastor, Suzanne Owens, for help when they stumbled upon an orphanage where children had been abandoned. At first, she worked with her friends to provide food and clothing for the children and had no intention of starting a ministry. It didn’t take long to see God had bigger plans. “God said you are going to start children’s homes and have missionaries,” said Owens. “And I said ‘no I’m not’ but fast forward to today and we have 28 acres of land and more than 120 children.”
The name “Sozo” comes from scripture. It is the Greek word that means “to save or rescue.” For the American and Ugandan staff at the ministry, the word is more than a name, it is a call to action. The ministry began with 17 children rescued from that failed orphanage and, ten years later, the family has grown to provide housing, nutritional care, counseling, medical care, quality education and spiritual direction to more than 120 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” providing snacks, play time and devotionals for hundreds of children twice a week. Like a lot of ministries, Sozo had to adapt and persevere through the quarantines last year. Mission teams were shut down due to travel restrictions. The Sozo Children’s Choir—a group of children served by the ministry that comes to the U.S. every two years for a choir tour—arrived in America only to have its tour cancelled due to church closures. The children sheltered in place in Birmingham for nearly six months before being allowed to return home. The tour is a major source of funding for the ministry, but God provided in ways no one could expect.
The Sozo Trading Co., an upscale thrift store supporting Sozo Children in Birmingham’s Avondale community, was closed for six weeks during the initial phase of Alabama’s shelter in place order but reopened and had its best year ever. The Sozo Children’s Choir was able to perform a live streaming concert at The Station Church in Bessemer and the ministry’s other spring fundraising event, the “Run for a Reason 5K” transformed into a virtual run with more participants than ever. In the fall, supporters of the ministry hosted an annual golf tournament to raise funds and were so pleased with the results they are planning their first spring tournament this year.
The shutdowns gave the team time to reflect and set new goals for the future. Sozo has plans to expand in Uganda by building mission team houses, more residences for children, a school and a medical facility to serve the local community. The ministry is also working toward the goal of sustainability using practical farming techniques. This will allow the families on Sozo land to be as self-sufficient as possible and provide them with more outreach and leadership opportunities in the local community. “I see it as a ripple effect,” said Owens. “If that one drop drops in the water and it ripples out, how cool is it how many Ugandans are going to be reached because of them?” Owens says the staff disciples the children teaching them they can be leaders. “They can serve others and lead others to Christ,” she said.
Sozo Children gets much of its funding through child sponsorships, available on its website. Other funding comes from donors, business and church partnerships, mission trips and grants. While Sozo plans to expand in Uganda and build new opportunities for children there—especially special needs children who are often abandoned very early in life—they want to go wherever God sends them. Eventually, Owens and her staff hope to spread Sozo into other countries and find more outreach opportunities locally in Alabama. For now, they are focused on the opportunity at hand. The opportunity to rescue, or “sozo,” one child at a time—just like the starfish in the story and trust that God will provide the opportunity to serve others because “what you do matters.”
To learn more about the work of Sozo Children, or to sponsor a child or join a mission team, visit www.sozochildren.org. †