“If you got good people having weapons, then it’s a good thing. If you have bad people having weapons, then it’s a bad thing. In countries that have outlawed guns around the world, it’s a proven fact that only outlaws have them.”
Years before the most viral video of all time, KONY 2012, slammed Joseph Kony into the global consciousness, Sam Childers was cruising around with soldiers from the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army hunting him down and protecting those he sought to capture.
As Childers puts it, “I was helping Sudanese rebels before helping rebels was cool.”
Thirty years ago, he was known by those closest to him as a rough, tough, lost-cause. He was a drug addict and a violent man who had served time behind bars.
Today, the Pennsylvania native, is an ordained minister who goes by the name of “The Machine Gun Preacher.”Armed with his AK-47 and a calling from God, he works to protect, at all costs, the vulnerable women and children of Sudan, Uganda, and Ethiopia. What started as a mission to fend off the LRA has grown beyond the borders of Sudan. Some have referred to him as “a bizarre mash-up of Rambo and missionary.”
How did Childers’ go from American reject to an African freedom fighter?
It all started one Sunday night when his wife Lynn, a former stripper, pulled Childers to a church service. He had a Christian background but his faith had, long ago, faded from the center of his life. That night a missionary from South Africa was speaking. During the service he called Sam out and told him that God wanted to “consume” him. He was right. Sam recommitted his life to God and agreed to visit Africa with the pastor to help build a roof.
In 1998, a changed man, he visited the Sudan. Not content to just build a roof, Childers ventured deep into the war torn nation. He witnessed first hand the devastation of the LRA. Most notably, he came across a young boy who had stepped on a landmine. He would never be the same again.
Seeing this child pushed Childers to devote all his energy to protecting these children. Childers gut-reaction was to use his knowledge of weaponry to fight fire with fire. It also involved selling off his construction business in the States and dedicating all his time and resources towards building his Children’s Village orphanage in Nimule, South Sudan. The orphanage was a place the women and children could come for protection.
Since 1998, he has provided armed security at his orphanage as well as food and medication for 300 children. He has since expanded his operations to include three orphanges in Ethiopia and others in Uganda.
While many see Childers as someone saving these children, he tells everyone who will listen, “I didn’t rescue the children of Africa, they rescued me.”
On average Childers spends 7 months a year in Africa and 5 months travelling elsewhere, with three months reserved for preaching and fundraising.
Childers story is now well documented. First, in his 2009 memoir, “Another Man’s War: The true story of one man’s battle to save children in the Sudan.” Second, in the Hollywood re-telling of that book, 2011’s “Machine Gun Preacher” starring Gerard Butler.
Both have boosted Childers’ public profile. He tours around to churches all over the world telling his story and raising funds for his orphanages.
With this newfound celebrity, however, has come a great deal of scrutiny.
How is violence on top of violence solving anything? Why is he meddling in the affairs of another country? How many people has Childers killed in Africa? What’s really going on at his orphanages?
These tricky questions surround Childers’ story.
With a wild story involving Eastern and Central Africa, there is much I WANNA KNOW about Sam Childers.
I reached Childers via phone from his office in Washington, D.C.
From KONY 2012, to gun laws in America, to the AK-47, to the criticisms surrounding his work, to his friendship with Uganda’s president, we cover it all.
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(LISTEN/DOWNLOAD INTERVIEW ABOVE, OR READ THE ILLUSTRATED INTERVIEW BELOW)
How has the current tour been going?
You know it’s been doing well. To be honest with you, I’m never really concerned with money. Because of my faith I do the best I can. So it’s up to God to make things work. I never really look at the money part. What I look at is the lives that are changed. So far on this tour we had nearly a thousand peoples lives changed. I’m talking about people that never went to church, people that never had any faith. So, in order to have a thousand lives in this day and time change in three weeks, buddy, that’s good.
You’ve been talking to crowds for many years now, and it continues to resonate. What do you think it is about your story that continues to, as you say, change lives?
I’d have to say the thing that’s changing everybody’s ear right now is how bad Sam Childers was thirty years ago. I carry a message of hope that no matter who you are or what you’ve done you can change, but it’s all up to you. You know, some people want to let on that Jesus or God is this genie in a bottle that you rub and it pops out and fixes problems. You’ve got to remember, that’s not how he works. If you’re living a life that is not a life good life, you have to make up your mind that you’re done living that life.
You’re traveling around the states telling your story, but it seems like it must be a tense time to be talking about guns.
Yes and no. I’m 100 per cent for guns laws. And what I mean 100 per cent is that we should have the right to bare arms. In some states you can have a protection permit but you don’t have to qualify on a shooting range, and I’m totally against that. I believe that any American that is going to have a protection permit to carry a gun throughout a city, throughout a shopping mall, that they should have to qualify under the same restrictions as a police officer. Some people are against me saying that but that’s how I believe. I believe in the rights to bare arms, and that every home should have a firearm.
So you’re telling me that even with the moniker”The Machine Gun Preacher,” you haven’t been attracting any heat?
No. To tell you the truth I just left a church outside of Columbus, Wednesday night. There were 1,300 people and I would have to say at least 95 per cent of the people were firearm people. Most of America are for the right to bare arms you know. But I will say that when I speak out about how I think about firearms there are a lot of people that don’t believe that way. It is our constitutional right.
I have many gun courses under my belt. I’ve had many gun trainings. I’m a professional with a firearm. I can shoot with either hand and I’m getting ready to take another course. I believe that training is something you never have enough with when it comes to firearms.
Do you have a gun on you right now?
Absolutely. I have a security company in the U.S. I do security work and I carry one legally. If I go into a state where I’m not licensed, I don’t carry a firearm on me.
The AK-47 is your weapon of choice. I’ve also heard it referred to as the real weapon of mass destruction. How do you reconcile loving a gun but also knowing it’s responsible for killing the most people in history?
I would say just about anything could be the same way. Look at how many people are killed in automobiles. You’ve got to also remember how much peace did the AK-47 bring to other countries. You know, there has never been peace anywhere in the entire world without a war. There’s always been war. So, I’d have to say that I don’t really have a problem with that. I would say myself that the AK-47 is probably the most dependable firearm that is out there. I know it’s the weapons of choice through many militaries as well as terrorists. A weapon is not bad it can only get bad with the hands that actually grab a hold of the weapons. If you’ve got good people having weapons then it’s a good thing. If you’ve got bad people having weapons then it’s a bad thing. Countries around the world that have outlawed guns, it’s a proven fact that only outlaws end up having them.
Let’s talk about the man who has been the target of your AK for a long time: Joseph Kony. A lot has changed in the last few years. The LRA has diminished and Kony was brought to the attention of many people through KONY 2012. What was it like for you watching that campaign explode and then fizzle?
I do a lot of work in Uganda and I have businesses there. KONY 2012 hurt the economy of Uganda. I’m not going to knock on the boys who did because I don’t like people knocking on me, but let’s be for real they were six to seven years too late on their story. The story should have been brought out a little different so that it wouldn’t put the country under a threat. It is a known fact that the tourism in Uganda dropped out of sight. There were millions of U.S. dollars lost in the country of Uganda because of KONY 2012. If people don’t want to take that from me just do a little research on the internet or speak to the government of Uganda. It should have been done differently.
What people have to realize is that Joseph Kony never was a threat to Uganda. Joseph Kony never was a threat to Sudan. He was a pest to those countries. Even now, he’s not in those countries, he’s actually in the Congo. But, the big thing is that he needs to be brought to justice. I believe that they need to keep hunting for him and they are. There’s still a big problem in Sudan and for the surrounding countries and it’s the President of Northern Sudan, Bashir.
The wave of criticism that hit the KONY 2012 creators was huge. What did you make of Jason Russell’s public breakdown?
You know I felt bad for the guy. I didn’t see it and to be honest I don’t really want to comment on it too much. I can tell you one thing, it’s pretty sad that America can’t be more forgiving. I knew the guy and he really in his mind thought he was doing something good. But, he was mislead somewhere along the way. What they did was really good, no one can take that from them. They went viral. What they should have done was involve the country of Uganda.
I listened to an interview with Jason Russell where he said the forces of the LRA have declined dramatically since the campaign. So, how big of a threat do you think they still are?
OK, to start with, I don’t think that video helped to shrink the LRA. The UPDF, the government of Uganda, are the ones who are fighting and hunting down and pursuing the LRA. That video had nothing to do with the LRA getting smaller. It’s the work of the country of Uganda. If he took credit, he’s wrong to do that. I’m telling you what I know, and the government is pursuing him. I would say that if there’s one child’s life threatened, or one village, there’s still a serious problem. These warlords, or what ever you want to call them, need to face justice.
Are the days of being a travelling, fighting solider, over for you?
No, man. I’m fifty years old now, but no. I believe that if there’s a cause to stand up, I’m still going to stand up. I believe my struggle will go on until the day that I die. I’m always going to have a concern for children.
But, is the Sam Childers driving a Land Cruiser hunting the LRA a thing of the past?
You know, no. I can say this much, if he would come back into the areas I’m working I would absolutely pick up an arm and start working again. Keep in mind that I’m not going to do anything against any government, or anything I wouldn’t be authorized to do. Let’s put it like that.
When your biopic came out it heightened your public profile. With that exposure came a great deal of criticism and scrutiny. I just wanted to go over a few of the biggest ones. First, what do you think when the press frames you as a terrible international development idea? And, as a man with a white saviour complex who is fighting violence with violence?
I don’t have a problem with that at all. I’ll tell you why. I’m a man of freedom and I’m a man who thinks every man or woman should have the freedom to say their own beliefs. If I were to criticize against that than I’m criticizing against how I believe. So, everybody has their own right to believe the way they want to.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that back when Kony was attacking a lot of people, my food truck was running food and medicine for the Red Cross. So, there was a lot of people that came after the movie and criticized, but what about the ones who used me and hired me during the effect of the civil war?
Another thing that keeps circling your story, and I’m aware you don’t like to talk about it, is the number of people you’ve killed. A Vanity Fair profile quoted you saying, “More than 10.” Do you still deny that?
The man that wrote that article, Ian Urbina, did a very good job but he took quotes from other people in the bush, OK. So, I have never to this day and never will talk about taking a life or harming a person because it does not glorify Jesus Christ. If I’m going to boast about anything, it’s going to be about what he’s done for me. Violence does not glorify Christ, so I’m not even going to comment on it. The Vanity Fair article was not an article done just by me. The man who did the photography for the article is in my office right now. He’ll tell you that half of that more than half of that article was hearsay from other people.
But if you have a belief that there’s a time to kill, how is it not, in your opinion, something worth valuing?
I’m not going to comment on it anymore. I don’t believe anything that glorifies violence is something to boast about.
OK. In 2011, Christianity Today did a large investigation into the state of your orphanage. They implied that things were not going so well and locals were not happy. How do you respond to those criticisms?
Something just developed from the Christianity Today that you don’t even know about because the email just came. The guy that did the article is no longer with them. He was sent away and not on a happy note either. The other thing is that he corrected himself. He did almost four pages of trashing me and then on two lines he wrote, “We sent in a CT reporter and could not find any evidence of any of this.” So, I mean, I have never talked about the whole article and I’m not going to do. I’m going to ask Christianity Today, why was it written? If you send a reporter in that investigated everything, why didn’t they report what the reporter reported?
My people in Hollywood told me, “Sam, bad press is good press.” And, if anyone reads the article they correct themsleves. But I was upset because the journalist that was sent in to investigate it came directly to us and we didn’t even know him. He was upset because they didn’t write what he had found. Do you know that to this day, we are the highest recommended NGO in South Sudan? And, we have letters to prove it.
There is also a lot of confusion about your relationship with the SPLA. There are letters online from SPLA officials claiming that they have nothing to do with you, and others that say the opposite. What exactly is your relationship?
You’ve got to remember that the SPLA has how many hundreds of thousands of soldiers. I don’t know them all, but I can tell you that some of the biggest men there know me well. So, there again there’s always going to be some Lieutenant Generals that don’t me but there are a lot of them that do know me.
I carry a membership card in my wallet, it says SPLM/SPLA membership card. I believe if you look on the internet you’ll find a copy.
Another thing that is problematic is the people you endorse and vice versa. For example, on the back of your book the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, writes his support. Some people might cast him as a war criminal.
There again we’re going back to other people’s opinion and I can tell you this much, I wish we had a President with morals and values like President Museveni. You can quote that I said that. He loves the people. I know Museveni personally. I’ve met with him a few times. I’ve got pictures with him. The man is a good man. There again, we always go back to other people’s opinions and just like right now, some people are for Obama some are for and others are not. No matter who the President is you’re always going to have someone knocking them. The values I have seen over fifteen years, President Museveni is a good man.
When the history is written on Museveni there is obviously going to be a lot of shady things in there.
The Bible says that no man is without sin. If we say we are then we call God a liar.
In “Another Man’s War” there are some incredible tales of when you believe God protected you from danger. Why do you think God protected you, when others may have been shot in the head the first time?
You know it’s kind of hard to. I believe I already lived my time. If anyone would ask me, I believe I’m living on borrowed time. I have never questioned death. I have never been afraid of death. To be honest, I probably have more fear of living than dying. I don’t think of things like that.
Your father, Paul, was a boxer. Tell me a little bit about your dad’s boxing life.
My dad was a champ boxer. Back in those days the boxers didn’t make a lot of money, usually it was the guys who set them up. My dad was also a Marine. The one thing my dad always taught us, and I preach about it quite often, is we need to learn to stand up for people when the odds are against them. I speak a lot of this in high schools. You have so much bullying going on, kids need to learn to stand up. It’s not about fighting with your fists. It’s about standing up for what’s right and saying, “Look I can’t allow this to go on.” My dad always taught us that no matter what the odds are, if you know something is wrong, you need to stand up for what’s right.
Did you ever get in a fist fight with your dad? If so, how did that turn out?
(laughs) No. There were a few times I said some words I shouldn’t have, and he straightened me out real quick.
You have a lot of supporters, but many who cannot get behind your message and story. What’s your final word for them?
You know there have been people writing bad blogs on me, and I’ll tell you what I told them: If you’re not able to come to Africa with me, check out when I’m around the United States and come visit me at my church, or my bike shop. Hang out with me and see what kind of person I am. Then write your stories or blogs.
Finally, if you came face-to-face with Bashir, what would you say to him?
(laughs) I don’t think I’d be doing a lot of talking. Bashir needs to pay for his war crimes.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON SAM CHILDERS:
1) Go here: www.machinegunpreacher.org
2) Follow on Twitter: @machgunpreacher