October 4, 2011
The Real “Machine Gun Preacher”: Unorthodox Atonement
Sam Childers, the real-life “Machine Gun Preacher” behind the Marc Forster film now in theaters, chewed his signature toothpick in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, wearing a Harley Davidson shirt, jeans, black steel-toed boots and a handlebar moustache he’s sported since his days as a smack-shooting, bar-fighting, drug-dealing biker.
In his 2009 memoir, “Another Man’s War: The True Story of One Man’s Battle To Save Children in the Sudan,” Childers describes wielding an AK-47 along with his Bible to protect or rescue children – as well as ambushing soldiers from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) “with an AK in my belt and a pistol on each hip.”
LRA guerrillas abduct children from their villages to serve as soldiers or sex slaves, Childers said; they terrorize the children into obedience by disfiguring them with machetes, burning them alive, forcing them to disembowel their mothers, or to perform acts of cannibalism, among other atrocities. “Who knows how many villagers have been killed while people sit around talking about what a big problem all this is,” Childers writes in his memoir. “But when you go out and kill some of the enemy, you’re making progress. You’re speaking the LRA’s language, and suddenly you’ve got their attention. Less talking, and more shooting would bring this whole conflict to an end a lot sooner and save who knows how many lives.”
With Yom Kippur approaching, I wanted to meet with Childers, 47, not only because of the intense concern Jews have had about genocide in the Sudan, but also because I was fascinated by his unorthodox journey toward redemption.
During our interview, he expressed both compassion for the Sudanese war orphans and a tough-as-nails intensity. He described how his religious awakening in 1992 transformed him from a ruthless criminal into a preacher who built his own church in Central City, PA before taking on charitable work in Africa. It was while witnessing indescribable carnage on a mission to the southern Sudan in 1998 that he was inspired to build an orphanage for children victimized by the LRA. And to protect them with plenty of firepower.
His methods have proved controversial – and have been criticized in at least several publications such as Christianity Today, Mother Jones and ForeignPolicy.com, which titled its story, “Machine Gun Menace.” In such articles, aide workers and others have complained about Childers’ violent tactics or suggested that he has exaggerated parts of his story – a charge he has denied. Even so, his work prompts the questio—as The New York Times put it: Can a man of God also be a man of violence?
“I would never stand up to anyone and say anything I’ve ever done was right, so I’m not here to try to say that, OK?” Childers said, bluntly, during our interview. “I believe that everyone’s got to answer for things, and I’ve got a lot to answer for. The Christ I serve would never condone violence; he was not a man of violence.”
But then Childers quotes a passage of the New Testament in which Jesus tells his disciples “the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.”
“Now why do you think he said that?” Childers asked me, with a laser-beam stare. “Do you have children?” he continued. When I replied that my husband and I have a son, he said, “Let’s say a terrorist group is getting ready to cut his lips off. You have a gun with you. What are you going to do?”
When the answer is obvious, Childers emphasized, “I want to get one thing straight with you. I’m not here to convince anybody that that’s right or wrong, so don’t try to take me there.”
I’m not the only one who has encountered both the prickly and the empathetic sides of the Machine Gun Preacher, played in the film by Gerard Butler (“300”). “Sam is a guy who often communicates through conflict,” Jason Keller, the film’s 42-year-old screenwriter, said in a telephone interview. Keller, who visited Africa with Childers and spent several weeks living with the preacher and his family at their home in Central City, PA, added: “At the end of the day, Sam is the same hustler and fighter that he was in the dark years of his life: this intimidating, sometimes violent, driven to a fault guy. It’s the same intense Sam Childers he always was, except now he’s fighting for a purpose. He is a very intense, still crazy guy doing heroic things.”
“Perhaps Sam has, in a sense, swapped his former addiction to violence and alcohol and drugs for an addiction to Africa, but he makes a world of difference there,” Robbie Brenner, one of the film’s producers, said in the film’s production notes.
I asked Childers if there’s a chance he could have substituted the adrenaline rush of drugs and crime for the rush of life as the machine gun preacher in the Sudan—in essence, swapping one addiction for another. “There could be,” he began, “but for me I’m going to say no. The devil doesn’t want you to help people. And now my entire life is about helping people.”
The preacher was protective of his story when Keller first sat down with him almost four years ago. “I was running through the process of how screenwriting works, and after about 15 minutes Sam didn’t say anything; he just stared at me across the table in this busy café,” Keller recalled. “Finally, one of the producers said, ‘Sam, do you have any questions for Jason?’ and Sam basically said, ‘Look, I don’t know you, I’ve never seen any movie that you’ve ever written, and I sure as hell am not going to trust my story to someone like you.’ I was going to storm off and never talk to this guy again, but Sam grabbed my arm, pulled me closer and smiled up at me – he can be a very charismatic guy – and he said, ‘I was just testing you, I wanted to see if you’d piss your pants. You didn’t. Sit down, and let’s talk.’ That went down in history as probably one of the most awkward meetings of my life.”
At the Beverly Hilton, Childers told me that even when he was in utero, pastors prophesized that he would become a preacher. “By the time I was 18, my mother thought they were all liars,” he joked. “But even when I was running with the worst of them, my Bible was always in my duffle bag along with my sawed-off shotgun.”
By the time Childers was in his early teens, he said, “I was selling drugs to school teachers, and sleeping with school teachers.” He became a junkie and, “because I carried a gun everywhere, bar fights turned into knife fights, which turned into gun fights, he said. Robbing other drug dealers provided some easy (and not so easy) money: One heist began, Childers said, when “I announced our arrival by busting their door in with a baseball bat.”
At one point when Sam and his wife, Lynn, were living in a filthy trailer park in Florida, he said, “I was in a bad bar fight, which turned out to be a shootout, and I almost got killed. That night I told my wife, ‘We’re moving back to Pennsylvania, because someone is going to kill me [if we stay here]. I ain’t got a problem with dying, but I have a problem with what I’m dying for.’”
Immediately after moving back to Central City, PA, Lynn – who had given up stripping several years earlier – began attending a pentecostal (Assemblies of God) church with Childers’ mother. “Lynn pestered me for years about going with her, but even though I was raised in the church, and I knew the right way, I was running from it,” Childers said.
He had, however, given up the harder drugs and was in the process of building a construction business when, one hot night in June 1992, Lynn finally talked him into accompanying her to a revival where the guest evangelist happened to be from South Africa. “I sat in the back row, and wouldn’t go up to the altar,” Childers recalled. “The preacher came back and said to me, ‘What is your problem? The power of God is all over you’—and I broke. I gave my heart to God right there in the back row of that church.
“The next night, they were in revival, so I went back to the church and sat right up front, because all through the day I was just craving what I had felt the night before. I already had made the commitment, so I was ready to go full blast. The preacher started prophesizing over me at the altar, but the more he prophesied, the madder I got.”
Specifically, the pastor predicted that Childers would accompany him to Africa during a time of war, a claim Childers found outlandish. “ I was so angry, I [thought], ‘I’m going to beat the snot out of this guy after church,’” Childers said. “I literally waited for him to come outside and then I started cursing at him, saying, ‘Don’t tell me I’m going to Africa’—and I mean I’m using some choice words and I’m cussing at this preacher. But all he did was smile at me and he said, ‘We’ll see.’
It took six years, but Childers – by then a successful contractor—finally did agree to travel to Africa in 1998 to help with construction in remote villages. He was devastated by the scars of civil war he found in the southern Sudan: “One day we were in the bush – radical Islamists had planted land mines all over the area, like they have in so many other places in the Sudan – and among the mangled corpses, we came across the body of a child,” Childers said. “From the waist down there was nothing; I couldn’t tell if it had been a boy or a girl. The body was a few days old, and you could see that it was starting to decay in the heat. I started to cry; I couldn’t understand how we could allow something like this to happen. And I said, ‘God, I’ll do anything I can to help these people.’
“When I got back home, all I could remember was people starving and going without water,” Childers continued. “Three months later, I remember sitting down at my kitchen table and just crying because there was food on the table; at that time I was making pretty decent money. And I just started selling everything I had to go back to Africa.
“First I started supporting and helping government soldiers from southern Sudan pull land mines out, and I did that for about a year; then I ran a mobile [medical] clinic for more than a year, and then I wanted to start the orphanage.
We had gone riding outside of [the town of] Nimule one day and I just stopped in the middle of nowhere and started walking around. God spoke to me inside my heart and said, ‘This is where I want you to build the children’s home for the war orphans.’”
I asked Childers what it feels like to hear God: “It’s almost like when your conscience speaks to you,” he said, adding, “in my case, I know it’s God because it’s always something I don’t want to do.”
During frequent trips to the Sudan, Childers spent long periods away from Lynn and their young daughter, Paige, and sometimes used all the family’s income on his charities. “I had a car repossessed, I almost lost my home, my marriage, and most everything I owned at one time,” he said. In his book, he describes his angst when Paige (now an adult) asked why he loved the African children more than her.
When I asked Childers about this, however, he said,“I believe you’re asking questions that are irrelevant. I’m just going to say that everything in my life is done because of God. If you can’t accept that, the interview is over.”
I change the subject to how Childers’ memoir differs from the film; one notable change is that the movie leaves out a number of the preacher’s personal experiences of faith. Why not show more of that in the film? “You need to ask whether we intended this movie to be faith-based or for the secular world,” Childers said. “If they would have included all the God [references], it would have made this a Christian movie…I could care less if a Christian person likes the movie; I’m here for the ones who need to know God.”
There is another reason, as well: The message of the film, Childers said, “is that there are still people dying in the Sudan; there are hundreds of thousands of children being killed all over the [country.] In one area of Darfur, 6,000 children are dying each month….So I use my platform to tell the world that this is still going on.”