TRENTON, Ill. (RNS) On a recent autumn night, about 100 people gathered in the parking lot of Grace Community Baptist Church here, listening to the Rev. Sam Childers talk about heroin addiction, biker gangs and African warlords.
Mostly, though, the man who calls himself the Machine Gun Preacher talked about Sudanese children.
Childers talked about 3-year-olds who’d been raped, of 7-year-olds whose legs had been blown off, 9-year-olds whose lips had been shorn from their faces, and teenage girls whose breasts had been ripped from their chests.
And he talked about the 12-year-old soldiers—kidnapped and brainwashed by the Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army—who had perpetrated much of the violence.
The Machine Gun Preacher is a self-appointed vigilante in that conflict, a 47-year-old former drug dealer from rural Pennsylvania whose life of crime and drugs came to an end when he found Jesus in 1992.
His controversial exploits have made him the subject of an upcoming Hollywood biopic starring Gerard Butler and helmed by an Oscar-nominated director.
In the cause of the persecuted Christians of Africa, he is a celebrity. And wherever he shares his war stories money flows—a measure of how strongly evangelicals feel about the plight of Christians in Sudan.
And though he resists the title, Childers has become for many a kind of standard-bearer of the conflict. To his critics, he is a lone-wolf vigilante who may be doing more harm than good in one of the most dangerous parts of the world.
Since the early 1980s, the Sudanese have fought a civil war pitting Christians in the south against an Islamist-controlled government hoping to impose Sharia law across the country. At least 2 million people have been killed in the conflict, and millions more have been displaced.
Southern Sudan, where Childers operates an orphanage, has largely ruled itself in recent years with a semiautonomous government, led by its own president and protected by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army.
Childers has used SPLA soldiers as his own mercenary outfit he writes in his autobiography, “Another Man’s War.”
Childers’ presence in southern Sudan can be verified through aid workers, many of whom have heard about—and are irritated by—his actions.
It’s more difficult to verify the tales Childers tells in his autobiography, and there is no way to document the accuracy of the numbers he rattles off to anyone who will listen.
In his book, Childers describes his early life as a violent sociopath. He was an illiterate high school dropout and gang member whose ever-present sawed-off shotgun helped him protect some drug dealers and rob others.
Today, Childers’ walrus mustache and sideburns have turned gray, but he retains some of the biker image of his youth. His western Pennsylvania dialect gives Childers a working class authenticity that has endeared him to the Hollywood community.
“He does good on this planet, but he’s difficult to be around,” said Jason Keller, the screenwriter who penned “Machine Gun Preacher.” “He’s opinionated and aggressive, and he does this beautiful thing in Sudan that none of us is willing to do.”
Childers is in Africa seven months out of the year and raising money back home most of the rest. His wife, Lynn, a former stripper, pastors the Shekinah Fellowship Church in Central City, Pa., where the couple lives. Their grown daughter—who once asked Childers if he loved African children more than her—now runs his nonprofit group.
Childers said his excursions into the bush, from southern Sudan into northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and now the Darfur region of Sudan, have two purposes.
First, save children whose parents have been killed by the Lord’s Resistance Army. And second, kill the army’s messianic, machete-wielding, dreadlocked leader, Joseph Kony.
For years, Kony—who also has been indicted by the International Criminal Court—terrorized southern Sudan.
Questions have also been raised about the tactics of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. The United Nations says the SPLA has violated rules on using children in conflict, though the report said the army had recently signed “action plans” promising to end the practice.
In his book, Childers writes, “When you go out and kill some of the enemy, you’re making progress.”
That kind of disregard for one of the Ten Commandments makes some Christians nervous—even if the people Childers and his soldiers are killing are molesting, maiming and murdering children.
“It’s an aspect of this story that either bothers or intrigues people,” said Keller. “It’s confusing to Christians. How can he go out there, pick up a machine gun and call himself a man of God?”
That’s a question that Childers has heard for years, and he brushes it off like a mosquito in the bush.
“People who get upset tend to be thinking of the God of the New Testament,” Childers said.
Childers points to the Old Testament, where God tells Saul to “utterly destroy” everything the Amalekites have, including “man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”