It’s a bright fall Sunday in rural Pennsylvania, and inside the Shekinah Fellowship Church, the Rev. Sam Childers — also known as the Machine Gun Preacher — rushes the stage in black, steel-toed boots.
Childers, 49, grabs a headset and starts his sermon, a toothpick wedged between his teeth. He has a bushy salt-and-pepper walrus mustache and burly arms etched with faded jailhouse tattoos.
“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.”
During one of his early trips to Africa, he notices hundreds of children, dubbed “night commuters,” trekking from their villages in Uganda to escape nighttime raids by warlord Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, a notorious group accused of mutilating, killing and conscripting children to fight. Childers tries to squeeze hundreds of the children into his tiny bedroom.
He also takes up arms and fights the LRA alongside the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the movement that governs the newly independent country of South Sudan. In so doing, he becomes such a revered hero of the Sudanese rebel group that he is granted his own militia to protect the orphanage he ends up building in the middle of Sudan’s civil war. It now houses about 130 children.
It was these young Africans who nicknamed him “The Machine Gun Preacher,” because he slept with a Bible on one side and an AK-47 assault rifle on the other. Childers thought of leaving the name behind. But God, he says, wisely advised him to copyright the name and use it to help raise more funds for the children.
Not surprisingly, Childers infuriates some humanitarian workers, who describe him as a vigilante who isn’t accountable to anyone. (The SPLA, with which he is aligned, has itself been accused of violating international laws against using children in conflict.)
“You know how there’s a comments section at the bottom of a report card? Well, mine says, ‘Doesn’t work well with others,’ ” growls Childers after a recent screening of the film in Georgetown. Many in the somewhat stunned-looking audience are former foreign aid workers: It’s hard to tell whether they think he’s totally cool or totally insane.
The next day, at a press interview at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, Childers fidgets in his seat in the swank hotel. “There’s always a lot of people against what I done or how I done it. What I say to people is if somebody abducted your child and if I said I could bring them home, what would you say? Would you say, ‘No, I don’t want to see violence,’ or would you say, ‘Do whatever it takes’?”
War historians see Childers as part of a tradition of liberation theology, as in Nicaragua, where certain priests believe that wresting the poor from unjust conditions is the most important goal, even if it sometimes requires violence.
“We don’t have an army. We don’t pick up arms. We have a different mandate,” said Charity Tooze, senior communications officer in Washington for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “But there are all kinds of different actors in conflicts, and the larger issue here is that there is proof that the children of northern Uganda are being drugged, threatened and forced to kill or be killed. And a Hollywood film reaches a whole different audience. So any attention on the issue of children being used as soldiers in Africa is positive.”
When screenwriter Jason Keller first met Childers, he thought he was a fraud. Keller ended up spending a year with Childers and traveled to his orphanage in Sudan.
“I didn’t take the project on to defend him,” Keller said. “After going to Africa, I realized that the movie was a great platform to draw attention to the atrocities that are still unfolding over there.”
Both Childers and Keller are quick to point out that the movie is not just about Sam Childers. At every screening, they use it as a point of entry to talk about the wars in Sudan’s Darfur region and in northern Uganda.
Still, the film will likely expand the “MGP brand,” as Childers describes it. The brand now includes custom-built motorcycles assembled from second-hand parts — Gerard Butler, who plays Childers in the movie, has reportedly ordered one — “My Preacher Can Beat Up Your Preacher” T-shirts and plans for a reality show about second chances.
“We will pull prostitutes off the streets, people out of the barrooms and crack houses. What reality show do you know in America that’s all about second chances?” asked Childers, who also tours churches to preach against drug and alcohol addiction.
At home in Central City, Childers spends many evenings hanging out at his bike shop, which doubles as the offices for his charity group, Angels of East Africa, which funds the orphanage. Childers’s wife, Lynn, a former stripper, answers the door of their modest A-frame house.
Lynn is the long-suffering hero of her husband’s redemption story: It was her spiritual awakening that prompted his. She’s still nonplused by the Hollywood buzz. When asked about the movie, she shrugs and says quietly, “That actress made me look real good in panties, that’s for sure.” The couple reminisce about their wild days, which they say they don’t miss.
“I can still serve God and have fun,” says Childers. “I have a blast, man, and you don’t wake up with a hangover.”