You wouldn’t want to cross Sam Childers. Many have done so and are no longer here to tell the tale. And many more are alive because of Childers’ humanitarian efforts. Refugees – most of them children – in the war-ravaged terrain of South Sudan and northern Uganda have been spared enslavement, death or worse at the hands of Joseph Kony’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army thanks to Childers’ peculiar brand of evangelical Christian charity and vigilantism. He is ordained as a minister and accused of being a mercenary. It doesn’t bother him in the least. “I wish I could get paid as a mercenary because they make a lot of money!” says Childers, his handlebar moustache riding up his face as he bursts into a massive grin.
He’s like a real-life Rambo loose in East Africa, haring around the bush with a heavily-armed militia to rescue survivors of the LRA’s horrific attacks (usually involving the rape, mutilation and murder of parents in order to recruit their offspring as child soldiers). He’s also a man who turned his own wild, hedonistic life around after finding God in 1992. A decade later, on the Sudanese-Ugandan border, Childers constructed Shekinah Fellowship Children’s Village, a place he describes in his book, Another Man’s War, as “a 40-acre island of safety and calm in the middle of a hellish civil war”. Since it was built, he claims to have rescued close to 1,000 refugees, most of them children.
Now his story has been turned into a Hollywood movie starring Gerard Butler. Machine Gun Preacher is an account of Childers’ journey from violent reprobate to born-again child saviour. Butler’s casting is certainly creative licence because, sitting opposite me in a Toronto hotel suite, Childers looks more like the biker version of Paul Giamatti. Indeed, the events are so astonishing you can’t help wondering how much they’ve been embellished. “The entire movie is based on my book and is based on the truth,” he declares in no uncertain terms. “Certain things, like the action scenes, were amped up because Hollywood’s Hollywood.”
Where the film flinches, according to Childers, is in its depiction of his “sinner” past, of the drugs, sex and crimes that once ruled his life. “There was a lot worse than what they show in the movie,” he says. Raised in North Dakota and Minnesota, Childers smoked his first joint at 11. By 15 he was injecting heroin and on a slippery slope towards dealing, addiction, robberies, bar fights and firing sawed-off shotguns at police while trying to escape arrest. And all despite growing up in what he calls “a good Christian family”. So was it a bad crowd that led him into rampant delinquency? “No, I was the bad crowd! Nobody influenced me – I was always the ringleader, even at 11 years old.”
Some of his tales make your hair curl. One episode, illustrated in the film, happened when he and a friend picked up a hitchhiker after a night out. The hitchhiker pulled a knife on his friend at the wheel and Childers, despite being thoroughly “messed up”, had the wits to slam his foot down on his friend’s, sending the car speeding over 100mph. He wrestled the knife away, jumping in the back seat and stabbing their assailant several times before dumping him on the side of the road. Convinced that he’d killed him, Childers fled the state and laid low for a year, before finding out later that his victim had survived.
“It just goes to show that God looks out for us even when we’re not serving him,” he nods, sagely. “Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Nothing. Heaven or Hell cannot separate us from God’s love.” Childers is fond of speaking in biblical pronouncements and explaining everything through the prism of his devotion.
He found God during a revival at his wife’s Assemblies of God congregation, eventually setting up his own ministry. Childers made his first trip to Uganda in 1998 for a roofing job, witnessed the body of a child blown up by a landmine and committed himself from that day forward to do anything he could to save children. Several trips to Africa later he was selling up his profitable construction business and making the plight of the tormented populations in southern Sudan and northern Uganda his full-time mission – putting a huge strain on his own home life with wife, Lynn, and their daughter, Paige. The family nearly lost their house and for a while had to wear handouts.
Having a film made about your life, says Childers, is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it draws attention – and financial support, particularly from conservative Christians in America who love the notion of Childers saving their religious brethren from the “radical Muslims” of northern Sudan (even though Kony and the LRA are ostensibly Christians). On the other, it’s bringing enhanced scrutiny, with doubts expressed about the veracity of his tales of anti-LRA derring-do. (It probably doesn’t help that he describes “a mighty army of giant angels” saving him from one LRA ambush: “You can believe it or not,” he writes, “but that’s what happened.”)
It’s why he’s planning to bring out his own documentary next year – to counter the doubters (Google his name and the words ‘fraud’ and ‘liar’ crop up with alarming frequency). “All the doubts, all the questions, are going to be answered in that documentary.” So why doesn’t he start answering them now? “Wait for the documentary,” he says firmly. It’s clear that Childers doesn’t like to be questioned too closely.
But not everyone is buying into the Christian Rambo image he’s propagated, or the way he claims personal instruction from God as justification for his violent actions. “God gave me the wisdom to recognise the need to use a gun to do his work in Africa,” writes Childers, whose entire ethos is predicated on biblical notions of an eye for an eye. He sees no contradiction in having to kill in order to save, even if some of those he’s killing might once have been those he tried to rescue – children stolen from parents murdered before their eyes, before being brainwashed into killers.
Many of the NGOs and aid agencies operating in the area, unsurprisingly, deplore his methods. Even though the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest nation on July 9, 2011, finally prising itself away from the oppressive north, Childers still gets angry about the country’s ills, ranting about northern Sudan’s “radical Islamic” leader, Omar al-Bashir – “a dictator who’s a murderer”.
“Everything is being caused by Bashir [he pronounces it ‘Bersheer’]. He’s the one that’s financing the rebel groups, he’s the one that has war crimes charges against him...”
If he wasn’t saving children in Africa, Childers would make the perfect televangelist. His story is undeniably extraordinary, but he’s a man as steeped in contradictions as he is haunted by the horrors that he has witnessed. Perhaps it’s no surprise to find his skin so thin. “Some people think I’m a radical Christian but I don’t think I am; I’m more of a freedom fighter.” Wouldn’t holy warrior be more appropriate? “So, that’s the last question – we’re done here.”