“How many of y’uns feel like you have been in a storm this week?” the bad-boy Bible-banger roars from a scrubbed-steel pulpit adorned with a cross made of old nails. “The bills are just too much. You can’t pay ’em. The bank is callin’. You’re two weeks late. Come on, have you been there? It’s a horrible thing. The first thing you start saying is: ‘God, where are you?’ ”
He tugs the churchgoers in with his unorthodox mix of old-school religious fervor and tough-guy bombast — this is a preacher you don’t want to cross.
“You don’t have to say a fancy prayer. God knows I don’t. I am just a hillbilly, like you,” he booms.
Childers sees his life in terms of redemption: Call him the Patron Saint of Second Chances, the man with the power and personal history to reach the troubled and the lost. He’s been there himself. He was once a self-described sociopath, a drug-dealing thug, in and out of jail. But after the born-again biker found Jesus in 1992, he cleaned himself up, became a minister — and got a second chance at a new identity when he took a missionary trip to build homes in Uganda in 1998.
It’s a wild story, but one that rings true enough to a generation of lost souls and reforming addicts to have been made into a film tracing how one man’s life and ministry end up stretching from this small town carved out of the forest in Central City to the African bush.
And, like his ministry, the movie raises unsettling questions. Is Childers a model to be followed, a redeemed ex-con who simply goes too far when he turns vigilante? Or is he a bad boy doing good by any means necessary?
Never one to shy away from action, he heard about the war unfolding in northern Uganda and decided to go see for himself.
“Some people think when you are a Christian you have to be some wimpy thing,” he says now. “But the Old Testament is filled with warriors. I don’t have nothing on them.”
As he tells it, the evangelical preacher picked up a gun after seeing the dead body of a child blown apart by a land mine. Locked and loaded, Childers transformed into an “African Rambo or something,” as a stunned Sudanese fighter proclaims in “Machine Gun Preacher,” the movie based on Childers’s 2009 memoir, “Another Man’s War.”
Both movie and book go like this: Childers is the “tough, mean” son of a God-fearing ironworker from Grand Forks, N.D. By the seventh grade, he is a hoodlum doing LSD and going to school stoned. He writes that his father sees in him “the sort of focus that can be a great tool for achieving success. It can also be a great tool for immorality, mischief and high impact hell-raising.”
His father’s words prove insightful — Childers was never someone who could have been “a little bit Christian” or “a little bit involved in Africa.”