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Don’t Mess with the Missionary Man: Machine Gun Preacher Sam Childers

Gerald Butler (l) and Sam Childers (r), 2011 (Photo by Phil Bray)

I recently attended the Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa, Florida, where I served on the documentary grand jury as well as a panel discussion about filmmakers and the press. In the Filmmaker Lounge post-panel, I was surprised to meet the subject of one of the docs I’d watched. Kevin Evans’ Machine Gun Preacher tells the unbelievable tale of Sam Childers, outlaw biker turned rescuer of African children, fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army with a Bible in his hand. (If this stranger than fiction story sounds familiar, it’s probably because you saw Gerard Butler play Childers in the 2011 Hollywood version of the same name.)

Even odder was Childers’ unabashed openness with a journalist he’d just met and his willingness to flit between diverse subjects: his steadfast belief in Obama’s ties to the loathsome leader of northern Sudan, whether Erik Prince of Blackwater was giving mercenaries a bad name, the reason he was at the Gasparilla International Film Festival in the first place. Because I found myself with more questions than time, I decided to follow up with Childers ASAP, before he was off on his next African mission and out of touch with the first world.

Filmmaker: So Machine Gun Preacher, directed by Marc Forster and starring Gerard Butler, came out in 2011. Why participate in a documentary about your life now? Is it to correct some things Hollywood may have glossed over or have gotten flat-out wrong?

Childers: Marc Forster did a great job on the movie and Gerard Butler took on my character really well. I was a bit concerned to start with, as here’s this tall guy with a thick Scottish accent and I’m thinking, “They picked this guy to play me?!” But you know what? He did an amazing job. They couldn’t have picked someone better.

The only thing that was difficult for me in the film was the timeline. You had 30 years of my life crammed into over two hours. There were things in the movie that weren’t a hundred percent accurate, like my daughter Paige never ever saw me drink or do drugs. I never tried to commit suicide like they showed me do in the movie. It looked like I’d lost my faith in God, which was not true, as I never lost my faith in God. I had lost my faith in people, as people promised me a lot in those days and a lot of children died because of that. I’ve never fired an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade launcher]. I used to have them but never fired one. I never threw Donny out of my house. [In the film, heroin-addicted best friend Donnie is a fictional composite of five or six different real people.] If you ask any one of my friends – I would never do that. Never! I had a stepson who died of a drug overdose, and they found it too difficult to put into the movie. And I wanted that to come out in the documentary, as it was such a challenging time when Wayne died of a drug overdose, a mixed-up cocktail of different drugs. I needed to show this.

Also, I would never shoot a child that was a sniper/assassin. Sure, we had many ambushes and had to return fire like it showed. You have to remember that the LRA [Lord’s Resistance Army] takes children and trains them to be child soldiers. And my early days in Florida were far worse than they showed. I was a bad boy – the scum of the earth! I used to stutter every second word, so I could not argue. I would just fight. I had no problem taking to someone with a ball bat and beating the living you-know-what out of them. I had to look cool in front of the chicks. They weren’t gonna go for a guy who stuttered every second word. But a fighter, that’s different. The part that showed me going back to the bar and getting drunk, and my wife Lynn picking me up from the police station, is not true. I have not had a drink in 23 years. Now the fighting part, that’s a different story. I’ll leave that up to your imagination.

When you sell your life rights to Hollywood, some things change. You lose control of a lot of things, but like I said, Marc Forster did a good job. The movie was 80-85% accurate and Jason Keller, who wrote the screenplay, did a good job. Both Marc and Jason went and saw our projects in South Sudan and Uganda. Jason interviewed a lot of my rescued children. I even took them to many locations where we fought the LRA. A lot of what you saw in the movie was how the children at the orphanage in South Sudan described the stories, and not me.

Filmmaker: I take it that the royalties you received for your book and the subsequent Hollywood movie went directly back to your projects in Sudan. Were you able to expand your mission in Africa as a result?

Childers: Most of the book moneys went to projects in South Sudan and Uganda, yes. It helped a lot in those early days. It was tough – I mean really, really tough. There was just no money, and we had to scrimp all the time.

We did build some new dorms and many other things, put in wells and a new cookhouse. And the movie – I still have not been paid for that yet. Hopefully they will pay me shortly. They gave me a small part financially in the beginning, and I’m still waiting for the vast majority. It seems funny that there’s this movie out there about my life and everybody thinks I got paid a fortune from it. In fact, it made things more difficult at the start, as people didn’t want to help because they thought that I got paid millions from the movie. But that simply was just not the case. What the movie did was give me a platform to speak from. It wasn’t easy, but yes, it got me into a lot of places that I may not have been able to get into, and for that I’m truly thankful. But it would be nice to be paid!

At the moment we have six projects that are happening. In Nimule, South Sudan, there’s the children’s village/compound. We take care of around 150 children, and that goes up and down 15-20 per month. Most children have lost all their families as a direct result of conflict, mostly war. I started in 1999 with only a mosquito net in a tree and an AK-47 strapped to my back. You needed one close by — an AK that is. In those days the LRA were all round. Me and my soldiers were clearing the land to put some buildings up for the few children we had. That was another lifetime ago.

In Nwoya Farm, northern Uganda, there is this new project. We have a thousand acres of prime land here that when finished will feed all our children, and we’ll train our older kids that don’t want to go on to a higher education. These kids we can teach farming, cattle ranching and irrigation. We’ll also be putting a fish farm here. It’s a blessing to have this place. There’s around 20 people, adults and older teenagers, here at the moment.

In Gulu House, northern Uganda we have 15 children here, and these are the smarter kids that want to go on in school to a higher education level.

In Kampala House, Uganda are the cream-of-the-crop kids that want to go to the highest level of education. These children are smart or they would not be here. Some are in higher college and doing really well. They want to become doctors, lawyers and engineers, or even pilots. They have big dreams and we encourage them.

In Braziga School in Kampala, Uganda we feed around 800-1,000 kids a day at this school. For some kids it’s the only meal they get that day.

In Ethiopia, Nazret, we have a six-story building project that we’ll have our children living in, around 55 at the moment. This will be a hotel, bakery, cafe, gym, and reception/function center. We’ll have western volunteers come in from the US, Australia and the UK that will train our kids to run these businesses. The kids will even have the chance to purchase the businesses when trained. We’ll finance them with a no-interest loan, and work with them on the books until they pay the loan back.

Also, as part of the Nazret project we have 18 foster care families and look after a school. (We have built new classrooms and a toilet block here.) We also have another 250 kids whose education we pay for as well as feed them. These kids are still at home, but the families are too poor to educate and feed them.

Filmmaker: We chatted briefly in the Filmmaker Lounge after you attended a panel I was on. You mentioned Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater who you know personally – which reminded me of The Project, a film I saw him in last October at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. I’d written that it might just be the only pro-mercenary film I’ve ever seen. Do you think mercenaries have gotten a bad rap, or have the skyrocketing financial incentives warped original intent?

Childers: I wanted to meet some of the filmmakers and Kevin [Evans, one of the Machine Gun Preacher documentary makers] invited me to come up to the lounge. I had no idea of what to expect – but yes, we met a lot of nice people, and I got to meet you! And the amazing thing was that the reason that we entered the Gasparilla International Film Festival in the first place was that we were going to be at Daytona Bike Week that very week and Kevin Evans suggested that we enter. And I said, “Yeah! That’s my old partying town. Yeah, let’s do it!”

Some people call me a mercenary, and I’ll take it whatever way they want to say it. I wish I was sometimes, as they make a lot of money. Fact is, I’m a freedom fighter. I fight for the freedom that every man, woman and children can do whatever they want. If they want to serve Buddha, that’s fine. Or if they want to serve Allah, or be a New Age type – even sit in the bar with a drink on Sunday. I fight for that freedom so they can do that. But me and my family, we choose to serve Jesus Christ. That’s it!

I don’t have a lot of time for the Obama government at the moment. Just Google me and you’ll see why. There’s been a lot of accusations about me. Some say I’m a diamond dealer and even a gun dealer. Come on! Let’s be for real. I rescue children. That’s what we do!

I challenged Joseph Kony back in 2003 to come out from hiding and fight me, while on a radio station show in Gulu [northern Uganda’s conflict zone area]. He never showed up. He’s a piece of garbage that preyed on innocent children, stole tens of thousands of kids — and for what? The man is a crazy! He has no agenda. Kony is only part of the problem. President Omar al-Bashir is the big problem. He’s wanted by the ICC for crimes against humanity. He’s the one that finances scum like Kony and other rebels in Sudan. Look at Darfur and the Janjaweed. All financed by the president of northern Sudan.

Erik Prince, I don’t know him personally, but we talk on occasions. I don’t like to rag on people as that’s what happens to me, but here’s a guy that’s copped a bad rap from the US also. Sure, there are areas of concern. Let’s just leave it at that.

Like anything, there are good mercenaries and bad mercenaries. You know, I say this all the time, that bad people can do good things. So what are you good people doing right now? You take the biker culture right now – a lot of bikers are good people. I’m talking about the hardcore one-percenter bikers. I’d rather have some of them change my daughter’s flat tire out on the highway than some of the guys that are wearing suits out there. Just because they have a few tattoos and ride a Harley doesn’t make you bad.

Filmmaker: Likewise, as a highly unique Christian missionary, do you feel that personal profit-seeking preachers have given your religion a bad name?

Childers: A lot of preachers that ask for money say that you are going to be blessed the following day. Come on! You’re probably going to suffer big time the next day! But if we stay steadfast and sow our hard-working money into the right things of God, I believe we/you will be blessed. But yes, there are a lot of good honest preachers out there, and of course there are some that like to keep some of the money for themselves, and that’s wrong. I say this all the time – that there’s nothing wrong with living in a million dollar home as long as it’s from other business means, and not donations from people to the ministry. If I’m asking you for your money, and I’m using that money to build my home, then that’s just plain wrong. I’m not a Bible-thumper. I just believe in Jesus, simple as that. He was and is the Son of God and died for me.

Filmmaker: Your former life was one of drugs and violence and now it’s one of rescuing children and (sometimes) violence. Do you feel you’re merely swapping one addiction for a more positive one?

Childers: I don’t believe I’m a violent man. I rescue children. I used to be violent when I was a scumbag drug dealer! Yes, there were times when I had to use a gun, and I’ve never tried to deny or justify that. But what would you do if your child or your mother was held at knifepoint by a crazed madman and you have a choice – to help or to run? On the left of you is a gun sitting on the table, and on the right there is a door you could run out. You have to choose. What would you do? God forbid you ever have to make that choice. I had to. The only difference is that I never put the gun down.

I’ve seen some terrible things over the years that Hollywood could not even dream up. The only thing is, it’s real and not a movie. As for an addiction? I would simply say that I love Africa and if and when I die I’d like to be buried there. People say that I saved the children – but the real story is the children saved me.

There was a story done about me a few years ago in one of the papers with the headline, “Messed-up Preacher in Town.” I’ll never forget that, and you know what? I’ll never deny it either.

For more information on Machine Gun Preacher (the documentary and the man) visit http://www.machinegunpreacher.org.

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