IN A dingy room above a pub in Finchley, I am talking to Sam Childers, the man whose story was featured in the Hollywood film Machine Gun Preacher. He lounges in leather boots, scuffed jeans, and a Harley Davidson jacket; a toothpick juts out from beneath his moustache.
He grew up in a Christian home, but in his early teens began drinking and smoking, and soon became addicted to heroin and cocaine. By the age of 18, he was selling “trunk loads” of drugs across the United States, and became a gun-for-hire for other dealers.
It all started to change, he says, after a particularly brutal bar-fight in Florida. “People got shot, people got stabbed, I almost got killed. That night, on the way home, I made up my mind: ‘I’m done living this life.’”
He moved back to his home in Pennsylvania, where his wife, Lynn, a former stripper, had started going to church. One Sunday, she persuaded Childers to go with her. A missionary from Africa was preaching, and he ended his sermon with an altar-call. “I wanted to get up, but I couldn’t move,” Childers says. “It was like I was chained to my seat. So he just came walking right back to me, and I gave my life to the Lord that night, sitting in the back row of an old-fashioned Assemblies of God church.”
At first, the drug-dealing biker tried to change his image: he switched his jeans and leather jackets for a suit and tie. But, one day, while dressing for church, he says, he heard God say: “What are you doing?” So he changed back into his jeans and T-shirt, and “Ever since then, wherever I go, I’m Sam Childers — I don’t try to put on nothing.”
THE film Machine Gun Preacher, made in 2011, and starring Gerard Butler as Childers, depicts the latter’s life after a trip to Sudan in the 1990s changed everything. Stumbling across the body of a child who had been killed by a landmine, Childers decided to do “whatever it took” to help the victims of a war being waged between various rebel groups and armies in southern Sudan and northern Uganda.
Returning to the States, Sam sold his camper van, fishing boat, gun collection, and motorcycles — what he calls the “comforts of man”. He took the money he raised back with him to Sudan, and opened an orphanage to look after children caught up in the conflict.
But this was no ordinary mission field. Childers says, with some understatement, that he started “running into a lot of problems” with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA was a violent rebel group from northern Uganda, led by Joseph Kony, who was infamous for kidnapping children and brutalising them into serving as his guerrillas.
”I was in an ambush where people were being killed around me,” Childers says. “I had a choice to run, but I knew what I should have done, which is pick up a firearm, and that’s what I did.” Arming himself with an AK-47 and a pistol or two, Childers joined forces with the local Sudanese militia, and began fighting back.
This was the story that Hollywood seized on: the American missionary arming himself to rescue children from LRA camps, an assault rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other.
Childers is philosophical about the success of the film, which had moderate reviews and grossed just £2.3 million worldwide. The movie exaggerated some parts of his tale, he says, but “that’s Hollywood”.
”The movie is 100 per cent based on the truth, but then they put a twist to it. At first, there was a lot of things I wasn’t happy with, [but] the movie was not about what I thought about it, it was what worked.
”I believe it done what God wanted it to do. Most religious people don’t like it. But it’s the perfect movie for Kingdom-building.”
A GOOGLE search for “Sam Childers” reveals page after page of news stories. “FBI raids Machine Gun Preacher’s home,” CBN.com says. “Machine Gun Preacher under heavy fire,” Christianity Today reports. “The Machine Gun Preacher: Saint or scoundrel?” asks the investigative magazine Mother Jones.
There are stories of disgruntled employees’ stealing from the charity, and accusations that the orphans often went unfed, and lacked medical treatment. A long profile in Vanity Fair by a reporter from the New York Times is perhaps the most damning.
Before the film made Childers famous, the reporter joined him in South Sudan, accompanying him as he chased Kony and the LRA through the bush. Armed with a shotgun he called “the widow-maker”, Childers led a band of armed men who called themselves “God’s assassins”.
From inside his orphanage compound, Childers traded weapons and ammunition with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), at that time the armed wing of the political movement fighting for freedom from Sudan’s government. The President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, sponsors the LRA in retaliation for the Ugandan regime’s support for the SPLA.
Childers maintains his own company of soldiers, and leads them across the region in a hunt for Kony and his rebels, who burn villages and abduct children wherever they go.
The reporter spoke with foreign-aid workers in the area, who saw Childers as a “vigilante” and quoted him speaking with enthusiasm of the “Wild West” aspect of his mission work, where he can “solve things the old-fashioned way”, one hand on his pistol.
”THERE’s a lot of trash on the internet on me, which says I talk about killing ten men in a day. None of that is true; it’s not from me,” he says. The Vanity Fair article “really exaggerated” his story.
He denies that the children under his care have ever gone without food or medicine, pointing out that a reporter from Christianity Today went to check the allegations for himself, and found no evidence of malnourished or neglected orphans. “We live in a world that gets excited over bad press,” is his explanation for the way his ministry has attracted so much attention.
He has a story to tell about turning bad press into good. In the early 2000s, a missionary returned to the US from Sudan, full of critical stories about Childers’s work. One news report of the allegations was headlined “Machine Gun Preacher”, coining the phrase.
”I sat at the kitchen table reading this, and I started crying,” Childers says. “But I could hear the voice of God saying ‘Claim that name; that is your name.’ So I claimed that name, Machine Gun Preacher.” Now the brand sells clothes and motorcycle gear, besides prompting the Hollywood film.
WHEN asked what really happens when he drives into the Sudanese bush, he becomes reticent. “I have been on news all over the world, and I have never talked about violence ever, and I won’t talk about it today,” he says. He will only boast about anything that “glorifies Jesus Christ”, and his potentially bloody exploits do not.
When pressed, he says: “Imagine if you had a child; imagine if that child was kidnapped today. They are going to rape her or him, they are going to start cutting the arms and legs off, and torturing that child. And if I said to you: ‘I can bring that child home. . .’” There is a pause. “That’s what I do: I rescue children.”
Childers believes in the right of law-abiding citizens to carry guns, and this applies to Christians as much as police officers or soldiers. “Maybe the movie and some stories will make me out to be a crazy guy with a gun. [But] just because you carry a weapon does not mean you are not a believer.”
IN 2013, he became the first American to win the Mother Teresa International Award for Social Justice. He is particularly proud of this award, and comes back to it several times during our conversation. At one point, he draws a comparison between himself and the famous missionary, noting how she attracted controversy and criticism despite her good works. The Indian foundation which grants the award watched him closely for years before deciding he was worthy of the honour, Childers says.
The contrast between how he speaks of his successes, yet rebuffs questions on the violent nature of his ministry, is striking. At times, Childers veers towards self-aggrandisement, speaking with pride of his track record of bringing irreligious bikers into church, and persuading teenagers to abandon drugs — and of his $250 leather boots.
Although he is never boastful about his machine-gun-wielding exploits, on his website there are pictures of Childers posing in the Sudanese jungle wearing sunglasses, a pistol on his hip, and an AK-47 in his hand.
CHILDERS ends our conversation by telling me how he hopes to expand his ministry — which now spans three African nations — by giving his orphans business training, and by boosting a feeding programme, which he also runs, from some 6000 meals a day to 15,000. His mother recently asked why he did not hand over his orphanages and training schemes, and return home. His reply was: “I see what you don’t see. I see the faces of the children. That’s why I can’t quit. I have a lot to do. . .
”As far as people criticising and stuff — keep it up. Matthew 5 says if you are persecuted for his sake, you shall be blessed. I don’t want people to stop saying bad stuff. As long as I am persecuted for his sake, and not for stupidity, I’m all for it.”