Machine Gun Preacher: Man on a Mission
- Laura MacCorkle
- 2011 30 Sep
“If someone doesn’t want to consider me as a pastor, that’s fine,” says Sam Childers, a tattooed, motorcycle-driving pastor who’s also known as the “Machine Gun Preacher.”
With his fatigues and grizzly-bearded exterior, to some he might be an intimidating presence. But to Hollywood, his life represents a story so unbelievable that it just couldn’t be passed up. And now actor Gerard Butler brings Childers to the big screen in the film of the same name, Machine Gun Preacher, which releases wide in theaters on Friday, September 30.
Childers does indeed carry a machine gun as he does his ministry and rescue work in Africa, fighting to save orphaned children from starvation, disease and enslavement by the brutal rebel militia group, Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). But he explains this use of fire power by asking a poignant question:
“If you have a child and somebody took your child and I said I could rescue your child, what would you say?”
Once a violent, drug-dealing criminal who had an affinity for women, an angry Childers turned his life over to Christ and started going to church again with his wife Lynn and young daughter Paige. It was there Childers heard about a mission trip to Africa to help repair damaged huts due to conflict from the Second Sudanese War. Armed at the time with only his handyman skills, Childers signed up to go and thought he could do something good by helping out.
But while in Southern Sudan, Childers came across the body of a child torn apart by a landmine. And at that moment he dedicated his life to doing what he could to save the youngest victims of war, no matter the cost.
Childers also did something that everyone said he was crazy to do—build an orphanage in Nimule, right on the Ugandan border in the exact area where the LRA was still kidnapping children and murdering villagers. But Childers says that’s where God told him to build it, and so he did.
Today, The Children’s Village is the largest orphanage in Southern Sudan and has fed and housed over one thousand children. It is just one of the many outreach projects made possible by Angels of East Africa (AOEA), Childers’ nonprofit organization. When he’s not working in Africa, Childers also pastors The Shekinah Fellowship Church in Central City which also reaches out to families and people in need in the local community with food and clothing—and in the winter months, oil and heating materials.
Helping others both tangibly and with a “message of hope” has been Childers’ mission for thirteen years now. But what about the ammunition? Not long after the orphanage in Southern Sudan was finished, Childers began leading armed missions to rescue children from the LRA, and that's when people began to call him “The Machine Gun Preacher.”
Regarding his moniker, Childers kids that a preacher with a machine gun is “good for offerings,” but he is quite serious about the work he believes God first called him to over a decade ago—both in northern Uganda and Southern Sudan—and today in other outreach efforts in Ethiopia and across the United States.
Childers admits that his story as portrayed in Machine Gun Preacher is not for everyone, as the grittiness of his life before accepting Christ and the violence surrounding his overseas rescue work has earned this on-screen portrayal a solid R-rating. Still, it is a part of who he was—and is—and what he has also written about earlier in his 2009 biography, Another Man’s War: The True Story of One Man’s Battle to Save Children in the Sudan.
I talked with Childers recently, just days before Machine Gun Preacher was set to open wide in theaters. No question went unanswered as he addressed his turbulent life before Christ, the controversy that has periodically surrounded his ministry work in Africa and his hope that some churches will actually buy tickets and support a film based on his true story.
Machine Gun Preacher covers thirty years of your life in two hours. In your work with the film’s screenwriter, how hard was it to do that and choose what to include?
You’ve got to remember the screenwriter, what he did was he did his research with me. I didn’t tell him what to put in and what he couldn’t put in. He’s the one that researched everything, and then he pulled out what he thought would be the best for the screenplay. So I was pleased that he left the faith part in, as far as how I believe, because that’s all part of my life. But when it comes down to actually picking and choosing, I didn’t have the choice to do that. He just made sure he’d done his research. He did a good job on the research. He not only moved in with me for about a year, he literally went to Africa. [Director] Marc Forster actually went to Africa, too, so they did a very good job on the research. So they just didn’t hear it from my mouth. They heard it from friends, they heard it from children who were rescued, they heard it from soldiers. So they ended up doing all of the research that was needed for the movie.
When you see the finished product, is there anything that did not make it into the movie that you wish had?
You know, I think that’s a bad question to ask me because you know you’ve got thirty-plus years. I believe they’ve done a good job. Naturally, it’s my life so anybody in my situation is going to say, “Oh yeah, I wish they would put in this . . . there’s this I wish they would have put in.” But you know for a thirty-some-year-plus movie that they made into two hours, I’m pleased with it. Now if I started talking here, which I’m not going to tell you everything I wish they would’ve put in, I could go for hours. So yes, I’m not going to go into that. The thing that means the biggest thing is do I support it? And yes, I do.
Is there anything in the film that is “pure Hollywood”?
Yeah, I mean, there is definitely a couple of things. Like it had me saying the "n word” a few times, and I was never a person to use that. My dad, his mom died when he was five years old. My dad was raised by a black lady. We were brought up never to be prejudiced at all. If I ever said that word and my dad was alive, he’d knock my teeth out. So I never said those words. It showed me kind of having a bad day, going back to drinking and [that’s] totally not true. I mean, I might be a messed-up preacher, but I never went back to drugs and alcohol in twenty-three years. So just little things like that was Hollywood. The action scenes were amped up, and that’s Hollywood.
What is one of the hardest scenes for you to watch in the film?
The whole first part of the movie was definitely based on the truth. And the whole first part of when I look who I was thirty some years ago, it really bothers me. And it brings back other things, you know, so it bothers me. I have seen the movie now ten times, and last night I just saw the last part of it. But it brings back old memories of other people that I might have hurt. And so it’s not . . . I’d have to say I’m already used to the movie. It’s just the other things that it brings back.
When you reflect on those years before you had given your life to Christ, do you feel like God has redeemed that time and is using it for his purposes right now?
Well, my hope is that he will. But you know I think when I look at who I am, or who I was, it just helps me to try to do better each day. So I don’t try to focus so much on the bad. If we focus so much on the bad, then we don’t want to do anything. I try to focus every day on what I can do good for today.
You had some rough stuff in your past, but now you’re experiencing some rough stuff in your present work in Africa.
We just don’t work in Africa. We just don’t work in Sudan. We’ve got three projects in Uganda. We have a project in Ethiopia. But we also do a lot here in the U.S., too. We have a wonderful team behind us now, and the work keeps enlarging. So we do work from speaking on drugs and alcohol in the U.S., down to working against the sex trafficking in the U.S. So for us it’s about rescuing children around the world.
You’re a real trailblazer, and there’s not really anyone quite like you out there. Is there someone you look to as a role model for what you are doing in your work?
I have to say no. You know there’s a lot of things from my dad that stick in my mind, and my dad kind of brought us up never to walk away from somebody that was in need no matter what the odds are. If the odds are totally against you, you still take a stand for them. So no. I don’t really try to idolize anyone. Just try to remember a lot of what my dad taught me.
In Machine Gun Preacher, Gerard Butler brings you to life quite vividly on the big screen. What was it like helping him learn how to be you?
Well, I really believe I was worried about Gerard the whole entire time. Number one was his English. I mean he’s got an accent . . . very strong Scottish accent. He did an unbelievable job getting rid of that. He did a very good job in the acting. You can see it in his eyes that he caught hold of the meaning. But I was concerned until I saw the finished product the end of August of this year, and he did a very good job. Now he did his research. He came to Pennsylvania, stayed with us a couple of weeks. I met him in L.A. a few times. Talked with him on the phone several times. I spent a lot of time with his dialect coach. Met him on set a few times. I mean, he did his research and there’s a lot of videos out there on me on YouTube and all over the place. So he would find every video, and then he got DVDs of me preaching and everything and he listened to them over and over and over. And he did a very good job catching the actual character of me. He did a good job.
How much time did you spend on the film set?
I was on the set three different times in Detroit, and each time was at least three or four days. Then I was in South Africa a few days. I mean I didn’t have the time just to kind of move in there on the set, you know, because I built the motorcycles that were in the movie—all of the main motorcycles. I have got a motorcycle shop in Pennsylvania, and we build custom bikes. So the bikes that were actually in the movie we built.
Let’s go back to Marc Forster for a little bit. In observing him on the set or in working with him before filming began, were you ever nervous at all wondering how he would direct or interpret your story on-screen?
I’m going to say yes I was. I was very concerned. A lot of the people would ask me, “Well, what did you think of Marc Forster?” I don’t think it really matters what I think of him. He’s one of the top ten directors out there. And I was very concerned with everybody, you know. When you sell your life rights to Hollywood, it’s gone. So I was very concerned through the entire stage of this whole thing. But I’m satisfied with the end product, you know. There were a few things like I said earlier that I didn’t like, but there was enough good that it overcomes that.
In the film, the struggle of time spent in Africa and being away from your family and your church is portrayed as very real and hard for you. Is that still the case?
Now, you know that was when it was all first started. You have to remember the movie is all pre-2008. And the book was pre-2008. So now my daughter actually runs the nonprofit. There have been at least ten or more people from my church go to Africa already, so now it’s everybody who’s caught hold. Everybody has kind of seen the vision, and everybody is working for it now. Now you know we’re not a church of a bunch of rich people, but our church gave school supplies to over twenty-five kids and put school clothes on over twenty-five kids. We have a food pantry that we handpick people that we give bags of groceries to every two weeks. So we do a lot inside of our area [in Pennsylvania]. We do a lot for other people. And it’s like our church caught on to the vision, so everyone’s working to do the same thing that I do. We’ve got a very good team now. That’s how I’m able to sit and say all the things that we’re doing. I couldn’t say that years ago, but now I can sit and talk about the things we’re doing in the U.S., what we’re doing overseas in four different countries—only because there’s a large team of people now working.
The film reminds me of the impact that a powerful life testimony can have. . . one that you’d hear in a church service. Would you agree?
Yes . . . yes. And we have it every week in our church. I mean every Sunday there’s testimonies in our church. And I believe it all depends where you’re going. Some ministers don’t like testimonies because they take up too much time in the church. And people get up and they start talking “stupid stuff.” But we still do them in our church, but I tell people right off the bat what a testimony is. A testimony is not getting up and complaining [about] all the bad crap that’s happening to you. A testimony is getting up and saying what you have overcome and what you went through this week and you overcame it all. That’s a testimony.
Why do you think it’s so important that people hear about the kind of rough stuff that others have gone through?
Because that helps the other ones that are standing there that are going through a storm or a trial. It helps them to know that there is hope on the other side. So that’s why we do them every week in our church. And I mean, I’m kind of a hard person when I’m in the church. I don’t let people drag on with long testmonies that turns into five minutes. I believe a testimony should last two or three minutes. And if it’s a “stupid” one, I’ll say, “Alright we’ve heard enough.”
Because of the R-rated rough stuff depicted in Machine Gun Preacher, this will likely be a hard sell for some Christian viewers.
The movie is definitely not for religious people. But I always say, “Okay, religious people are the same ones who hung Christ on the cross.” So there’s going to be some religious people who will try to hang me on that cross too, I’m sure. But you know when the movie was being done, I didn’t want it to be a movie for Christians, because then you’d only have Christians watching it. So it had to be a movie for the world and of the world to give them hope. And I’m not standing here to preach a message to people. But I am standing here trying to give people a little bit of hope. And I mean last year alone just through the messages I’ve spoken around the U.S., we’ve had over 15,000 people make life commitments. And why I like to say it like that is I don’t want to sound like a religious person. I believe that when a person walks out of hearing me and they say, “You know what, I’m walking away from drugs,” I believe he just made a life commitment. And if he can be inspired that much by my story to walk away from drugs, he’s going to remember that “After I done it, then that’s when I gave my life to God.” So hopefully they’ll keep following. My life is about getting people to make life commitments when they hear that message of hope.
What kind of feedback have you been getting at the many preview screenings of Machine Gun Preacher?
We had a thousand-plus people already e-mail our office, call our office, Facebook us that they went to see the movie for many different reasons. The main reason was Gerard Butler’s in it. Other people say they heard it was a true story about Sam Childers and Africa, so people went to see it. But when they left the theater, it wasn’t about Sam Childers. It turned out about them and what are they doing. So I believe that this film—if we can push it, if we get behind it and we push it—I believe that we can help the world to change a little bit. If you got just from screening the thousand-plus people that’s making commitments in their lives, imagine if this thing goes worldwide. I’ve been encouraging the churches all over the place that if you want to do an outreach, buy tickets, buy seats in the theater and hand the tickets out in shopping malls. Hand them out in bar rooms for people, because anyone that gets two free tickets to go to a theater, they’re going to go. So it could help to make this world a better place ‘til the Lord either comes or takes us out of here.
In recent weeks, I’ve read some more controversial feedback about you from a former employee of yours at the orphanage in Sudan, government officials, community leaders and others about untruths, poor conditions, neglect or inaccuracies in how you’ve portrayed yourself. It’s hard to know what to believe now after reading your book and watching the film. How do you respond to these accusations?
There’s nobody on this earth, including Christ, who has ever done anything good that people didn’t come against him. Nobody. And I made the comment the other week: If they keep coming up with any more garbage or accusations, I’m going to run for president in 2016. [Laughs]. So I’m really considering running for president. But I think people have got to realize that in America we have such a thing called freedom and freedom of speech, and I’m a freedom fighter. And even those people that might come up with accusations you know, I’ve been called [everything] from being someone that’s a fraud down to being a gun dealer, a diamond dealer. You name it, I’ve been called it. I fight for freedom that everyone can say I fight for the good person, the bad person, for everyone to have that freedom. And you know I’m not going to let things get me down. I’m not going to let things stop me. God’s the one that knows what’s truly going on. So I just keep doing my thing, and let them keep doing their thing.
So then do you view opposition and accusations like these as spiritual attacks on you and your outreach work?
Yes. You know, our biggest problem actually comes from one organization. It’s happened since right from the very get-go. Right in the beginning. But it doesn’t bother me. Matthew 5:10-11 says that if we are persecuted for his sake, we’re blessed. Well, you know, I claimed the name “Machine Gun Preacher” a number of years ago because someone tried to discredit me in a story over a decade ago. There’s not only a movie that came out [called] Machine Gun Preacher, there’s a clothing line that’s come out now. So it goes to show you that the sky’s the limit for God. And as long as we handle the persecution properly, no one has ever heard me speak out against those people that say those things [about me]. And I’m not going to. It wasn’t too long ago somebody in my hometown was saying something and one of the bikers from the church said, “Reverend, we need to go over to this person, and we need to tell them they need to be quiet.” I said, “Let them keep talking, man. We keep getting blessed.”
Besides the film, you also have a reality television series that’s in the works. Would you share a little bit about that?
It will be coming out in the late spring/early summer of next year. And it’s all about second chances. The entire show is about that—from pulling prostitutes off the streets, giving them a second chance in life down to pulling guys out of crack houses, and [giving] homeless people a second chance in life down to doing home makeovers in Uganda, down to every motorcycle that we sell—I build motorcycles and stuff—every bike that we sell [from the proceeds] we’ll be drilling a well over in Africa. So that’s what our TV show is about. It’s all about second chances.
You know I’m sure it’s going to be for a season, and you know now if they pick it up two seasons, three seasons, I mean that’s going to be all up to God, I believe, and also to the network and to the people responding. I believe it’s going to be a show that people will really grab a hold of. I tell you why. There’s a lot of reality shows out there, but there’s none that is all about helping people. So we have created the show that we believe that can be for the whole, entire family—from the youngest to the great great grandfather of the family—that everyone can sit around the TV and watch it together as a family and at the same time. When it’s over, we believe that people are going to say to themselves, “Wow, I’m going to help somebody this week.” So if we can create a show like that for the whole, entire family that people want to watch and they’re excited about watching and then they’re excited about doing something for someone, I believe we might have done something.
Apart from the feature film and the television series there is also a documentary in the works, right?
The documentary is actually done, and I didn’t think of it a minute ago and you were asking questions about accusations and stuff. And I tell the world now when people start bringing up stuff, you know I’m not going to defend myself. I don’t’ believe I have to. I believe God will overcome all that. But I tell people be patient. There’s a documentary coming out and everything, and in this documentary there’s actually people talking that might not agree with me, that might even be against me. But the documentary goes all the way back to high school teachers [and] people I went to high school with. And right now the first two-hour cut has been done. We’re dealing with someone now out of California that is wanting to do it as a series documentary, because they believe it’s just too strong. I mean we’ve got footage all the way back forty-some years. And it’s an amazing, amazing documentary, but I got a feeling that it’s going to be like a series documentary that will actually go like an eight-hour piece. But it has from children to people that I’ve helped over the years down to soldiers. I mean everything. It covers every question anybody would ever ask.
So was the documentary being shot while the feature film was also being made?
There’s a man by [the name of ] Kevin Evans. If you notice, you’ll find him on my Web site. Kevin has been travelling in Africa with me for the last six years. And Kevin has done over 200 documentaries. So Kevin has been filming me pretty nearly every trip that I go on for six years. Before that, from my very first trip to Africa, I have footage of my own. But then going back through the family, my dad used to film a lot just kind of like family filming. So we have footage all the way back ‘til I’m like two, three years old. So we have thousands and thousands of hours of filming. But then a little over a year ago, these guys that worked for us filming actually went back in to towns that I used to live at and filmed high school friends, school teachers. I mean unbelievable filming. And there’s another guy that’s involved . . . Sebastian Roché. You might have seen his trailer online. Sebastian actually went in to several different parts of the country that I lived in and also filmed, too.
In all of these experiences, you've seen a lot of rough stuff that I’m sure has helped build up a sort of callous. But is there anything that still breaks your heart?
You know, I think the biggest thing is with Christians. You know if you really examine the people that might come against me, they’re Christians. And you know we’ve got to remember the ones that are around us that are watching us all . . . you know I’m talking the secular world. They notice that. They see that. What are we doing to show a nonbeliever that the Christian life is the life we live if we can’t get along ourselves? So I believe that as Christians, if we want to help build the Kingdom, we’ve got to watch the life that we’re living and try to be good examples and try to love one another and not so much persecute one another.
After someone watches Machine Gun Preacher, and they’re inspired to get involved with your work, can they do that through your nonprofit Angels of East Africa?
What I tell everybody . . . a lot of people are asking me that. Do we need help? Absolutely. I’d love everyone to help, but I believe that people need to educate themselves about rescuing children. And you need to do a little bit of research and find someone that you’re comfortable with helping. And if you’re comfortable with helping us, absolutely we need the help. But there are a lot of good organizations out there doing good work. Just find one that you’re comfortable with. But the one thing I tell everyone: look at the leaders of those organizations, what kind of homes they live in, what kind of salaries they get paid, and what kind of lifestyle they live, because you could be putting money into someone’s lifestyle and not into their work.
What’s next for you after you’re done with promoting Machine Gun Preacher?
I leave to Ethiopia on the 5th [of October], and then I go from there back into Sudan. We’re getting ready to increase our feeding programs again. I think what’s up for me is to try to use everything that’s happening to do more work. And you know the average person that knows me, even relatives and friends, are saying to me, “Sam, why don’t you just sit down and walk away now? You know you could walk away with what you sold your life rights for.” And like I say to them, “You just don’t get it.” We’re going to be looking to increase the work that we’re doing. And the biggest thing that I like to do is feeding programs.
Sounds like you've obviously been blessed, and now you’re going to turn right around and continue blessing others.
Absolutely. That’s what it’s about.
Starring Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Kathy Baker and Madeline Carroll, Relativity Media’s Machine Gun Preacher releases wide in theaters on Friday, September 30, 2011. For more information, please visit the official movie site here. Machine Gun Preacher is rated R for violent content including disturbing images, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality.
For more information about the real-life Machine Gun Preacher, Sam Childers, and his Angels in East Africa nonprofit organization, please visit his official site here.