Sam Childers, the subject of the new movie “Machine Gun Preacher,” doesn’t exactly fit in at the swanky Georgetown hotel in which we had our interview. Clad in black leather, sporting biker mustache, and gnawing on a toothpick, he looked like an extra from the biker drama “Sons of Anarchy,” only tougher. Despite his appearance, however, he wouldn’t necessarily fit in at your neighborhood biker bar either because his talk centers on Biblical passages and God’s requirements of His people.
Sam Childers is the real-life Machine Gun Preacher, played by Gerard Butler in the film. Once a drug abuser and criminal thug, he gave his life to Jesus, as he says, and was born again. On a church trip to Africa in the late 90s, he ditched the group and traveled into the civil war zone in Sudan. The brutality he saw there would change his life.
Childers built an orphanage in the war zone, hired guards to defend it, and provided a safe haven for the youngest victims of the conflict. Roving militias in Africa routinely round up scores of children, kill their parents, and press the little ones into prostitution or force them to become soldiers. Childers didn’t stop at providing an orphanage for children who came to him. He picked up a machine gun and actively hunted militia to rescue children.
He just may be the first real-life Rambo pastor.
“For me, if someone is killing one child, that’s a problem,” he said.
Rated R, the film features disturbing violence against children as well as biker-level profanity and one married sex scene. It also unflinchingly portrays Childers’ faith in its complexity and doubt, as well as the profound motivation it gives him.
As the war rages on and Childers finds himself unable to protect all the children he feels called to serve, he distances himself from his wife and child and struggles with God.
“I’m born again, spirit filled preacher,” he said, “Every Sunday I’m preaching somewhere. But most of all, I let people know I’m only human. I don’t try to hide the fact that I have struggles and I deal with things just like everyone else does.”
He added, “If you’re living the Christian faith, we all get to that point where that day is just a crappy day and we gotta come back to where we was.”
Jason Keller, the Hollywood scribe tasked with turning Sam’s life into a movie, doesn’t consider himself religious, but he came to respect Sam’s faith, doubts and all. “What I started to see in Sam and what moved me, we started to discover a man who’s a preacher, who’s a good Christian, who was flawed, who was to this day transforming, but trying to be the best man and Christian he can be, and sometimes succeeding and sometimes not succeeding … it was something I could identify with, he’s a real human being.”
When Keller met Childers, the preacher was mourning the murder of several children he had been forced to leave behind in a place of danger. “He was the darkest human being I’ve ever met,” Keller said.
Childers recovered from that horrific event, at least enough to function again. Since the establishment of the new state of South Sudan earlier this year, things look better for his orphanage.
“There hasn’t been anyone killed in northern Uganda in three years, there hasn’t been anyone killed around the orphanage in two years, but you could drive six to eight hours from the orphanage and you can be into what you would call an active war area,” he told me.
That doesn’t mean the fight is over. The energetic Childers has projects in the works. He wants to open feeding centers for the starving in Ethiopia and plans to restore the crumbling homes of elderly people in Uganda.
He allowed the movie to be made because he hopes it will move people to action.
“It’s hard for me to live in the United States,” he admitted, “Over there [Africa], every day you can do something good. You raise money to have a feeding program; you don’t know what that does to you inside. It is hard coming here and adjusting to the U.S. We’re so concerned about our parties and having a big Christmas, there’s so many concerns that we have here in the U.S. that are senseless.”