BRADENTON -- The African village where Mercy was born and soon became orphaned is a world away from Westside Christian Church on 15th Avenue West in Bradenton.
The 10-year-old Mercy, who goes by just one name, found a way Sunday to bridge the distance as she told her life story in gripping fashion to an estimated 300 who attended two performances of The Watoto Children's Choir.
The choir is on a tour through Florida, which began Dec. 6 in Palm Beach Gardens and is to end Feb. 1 in Jacksonville.
Watoto was started about 20 years ago by the Rev. Gary Skinner to provide care, nurturing and children's villages to orphaned African children.
The organization, which now is helping 3,000 children, also hopes to raise orphaned children into leaders capable of rebuilding their country, according to Edwinsmith Kigozi, a team leader with Uganda-based Watoto, which translates from Swahili as "children."
Mercy delivered charismatic storytelling in clear English, sang with passion and hugged many in the audience at the end.
Her story symbolizes the plight of Africa's children, including an estimated 14 million homeless, according to Kigozi.
A few years ago, Mercy's life was turned upside down. She became orphaned after losing her family one after another to sickness, she said.
Most parents of the children in the choir have died because of HIV/AIDS, war or poverty, Kigozi said.
Mercy was accepted into the Watoto family where every child has lost either one or both parents. In Mercy's case, her entire family is gone.
"I used to be sad," Mercy told the audiences during the choir's 16th performance on the tour called "Beautiful Africa: A New Generation." "I felt no one knew me. My best dream was that I would someday have a loving family where I belonged."
Mercy said she has found a family in Watoto where she became a Christian. She credits her newfound peace to her faith.
She said she loves to pray and becomes rapt in her prayers on stage, as do many of the 28 choir members during the choir numbers.
"Despite what I have been through, I feel joy, not sadness," she said.
After the show, Mercy also said she loved Florida's mild breezes, which remind her of Uganda.
The Rev. Tim Boyd of Westside Christian was nearly speechless after the performance.
"This is incredible," Boyd said after the highly drilled choir concluded the show, which combines high-energy dance, drumming, vibrant costumes and soulful singing.
The choir members never ceased smiling and seemed to give every ounce of themselves they had to tell their story.
"The dancing is a celebration of what God has done in our lives," Kigozi said when asked why the children seem so excited during each performance.
Boyd and his wife, Mindy Boyd, adopted a Ugandan boy named Silas and got to tour the Watoto Children's Villages. Boyd contacted the tour and brought it to Bradenton.
"They are doing life-changing work," Boyd said of the choir.
"We do not have room for any more but we still take babies," Kigozi said. "We need to have sponsorships for more children."
After the shows, audience members purchased CDs, DVDs, jewelry and clothing to support Watoto's mission.
Bradenton's Kelly Petrosino attended the choir show with her daughter, Kenley Petrosino, 6 and made a purchase at the end.
"It was way more vibrant than I expected," Petrosino said.
In one number, the children confidently told the audience: "God Knows My Name." In another they tenderly sing "Afaayo," which translates to "Jesus Cares."
The choir will perform at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at Sunnyside Village Retirement Community, 5201 Bahia Vista St., Sarasota, and at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Church of Hope, 1560 Wendall Kent Rd., Sarasota.
Information: Go to watoto.com.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-525-3377 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.