When the children at the Real Life Church of Santa Clarita sing "He's got the whole world in his hands," they're not just singing about God, they are singing a theme that resonates throughout the church- taking care of others.
For the last five years the church has been extending its hands to help children in Uganda who have been orphaned because of war and the AIDS pandemic.
Like many of the countries in Africa, Uganda struggles to cope with the increasing number of AIDS victims. The diseases claims lives at an alarming rate, and according to Brandon Beard, a Real Life Church pastor who heads their efforts in Uganda, more than 2 million children are left orphaned.
In addition to those affected by the sweeping AIDS tide, the country is gripped by political unrest, with a civil war raging in the north and droves of refugees flooding in from surrounding countries. More than 1.8 billion people have been displaced as a result.
Many of the children left orphaned face difficult challenges and until recently, risked capture by the Lords Resistance Army to be forced into servitude. To escape the grasps of the LRA, many children would "night commute," leaving their homes to move to urban centers where they are safer.
These facts about Uganda have moved the congregation at Real Life Church to take action.
The church has been raising money to build a new facility here in Santa Clarita, and from that money they have donated seven to ten percent to help these children. While Beard doesn't want to give the exact number he estimates that they have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Their efforts don't stop with a simple donation either, they partner with Children of the Nations, a non-profit group, and organize trips to Uganda to help build much needed facilities.
The trips last around two weeks and the volunteers have helped build orphanages in north and south Uganda, dig wells and help with other needs.
"On our last visit we helped build a children's village, which is a place where children who are the head of their households are cared for," said Beard.
That village is now home to more than 30 children who receive basic necessities like a watertight structure, three meals a day, access to fresh water and adult guidance.
"You see the conditions and the harshness that these kids have to deal with daily, and when you drive into the village, it's night and day," said Paul Dowler, a Real Life Church member who recently returned from a trip to Uganda. "It's not extravagant by any means, but to give hope to these kids is pretty cool."
The trips to Uganda are no fly-by-night affair. According to Beard there are months of preparation as well as a host of training courses like cultural, historical and political courses volunteers must take.
A challenge to the volunteers is the allocation of materials; because some building materials are scarce in the country, it forces them to take a majority of the supplies they need in their luggage.
When the congregation is not planning trips to Uganda they are continuing to help at home. In addition to donating more than $3,000 a month to Children of the Nations towards their efforts in Uganda, they also put together smile packs and hygiene packs. These packs contain daily necessities like soap, medical supplies, toothbrushes and toothpaste.
"We brought them 900 bars of soap last time we went there," said Beard.
When traveling to a third-world country to offer assistance, one may think that it is the volunteer who do the teaching but that is not always the case.
"A lot of people go on these trips and think that we are going to help, and we do that, but the reality is that we go to Uganda and realize that the people there are much more fulfilled, the have a lot more joy," said Beard. "They're happy with family and food, and we learn from them probably a lot more than they learn from us."
"Africa will change your life," said Dowler. "Life is very present there, the good and the bad. Most people live day to day and it's about survival, and so people are completely and utterly genuine."
Beard and the Real Life Church are already planning another trip to Uganda, where they hope to start development on a school for the children.
"These kids now have a huge opportunity to change their community, to change their city and to possibly their country," said Dowler. "A lot of the boys want to be doctors or lawyers and who knows, maybe one day they will change to whole face of the country."
Real Life Church not only helps foreign countries like Uganda, but they also help nationally as well as donating to charities here in Santa Clarita.
"We give in thirds, here locally like to Single Mothers Outreach and the Special Olympics. We give nationally like different organizations that help the poor and needy, and then we do things internationally," said Beard. "Our philosophy is to contribute to a smaller amount of organizations so that we are able to do more, not just financially but to build relationships with them."
For those interested in helping the children in Uganda they can donate to the Children of the Nations organization by clicking here . Real Life Church also collects goods for the smile and hygiene packages, which can be dropped off at the church. For more information call 661-775-7401.
Images provided by Brandon Beard.