An unlikely hero

Rebecca Cusey Contributor
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Sam Childers, a gun-toting, motorcycle-riding preacher, is the subject of the new movie “Machine Gun Preacher” starring Gerard Butler.

From the hills of Pennsylvania, the former drug addict and biker thug once proudly declared, “I’m a hillbilly and I’m gonna stay a hillbilly.” But when he and his former stripper wife got a hold of some old-time religion, he became an unlikely hero to over a thousand children in war-torn Sudan.

As told in the film, Childers travels to Sudan with a church group in the late 1990s. Not satisfied with helping people in relative safety, Childers befriends some soldiers and takes a trip to an area plagued by violence. When he meets children whose homes have been razed, parents killed and siblings abducted, Childers decides to help in any way he can.

The blue-collar former criminal succeeds where more polished charities fear to tread. He builds an orphanage in the middle of a war zone. Militias in Sudan and Uganda routinely kidnap children, some to be trafficked and some to be forced into military service. Just providing a safe place for the children is not enough for Childers. He takes up a machine gun, ambushes militias and engages them in raging firefights to free the children they have taken.

Hence the nickname Machine Gun Preacher.

“What people don’t realize [is that] when you sell your life rights to Hollywood, you don’t know what the end results will be,” Childers said when we spoke recently, along with screenwriter Jason Keller, in Washington, D.C., “But it’s all based on real events.”

Keller traveled to the Sudan with Childers. “I had spent a lot of time with Sam. I had seen pictures of these kids I had come to know from thousands of miles away, some of these kids Sam had saved. To go there and to meet Walter and meet James and sit down and play soccer with these kids, it was moving and brutal for me, frankly.”

The experience challenged some of Keller’s notions about warfare. “I am against violence, but when I traveled to Sudan and I met those kids and I saw the scars of war, literally, on their faces, and I saw the land decimated by 20-plus years of civil war, the answer to that question becomes really complex and there is no easy answer. In my view, people who say ‘Violence is bad and you’re not a Christian if you commit violence,’ I say that’s easy to say when you’re safely ensconced in your home in the United States and you have take-out pizza down the street. It’s a different thing to say when I’ve seen the places Sam has been to on this planet.”

The movie does not shy away from darker aspects of Childers’s story and faith. Driven by the most urgent of missions, Childers suffers spiritual, emotional and family trauma. “He was the darkest human being I’ve ever met,” Keller said.

There’s a reason for that. Childers explained, “I had [Sudanese] kids who were killed, and it’s because I left them behind. I actually stepped down from the pulpit for about three months.”

Because it deals frankly with dark subject matter about children being killed in war as well as Childers’s criminal past, the movie is rated R. It also includes a sex scene and pervasive swearing. “Machine Gun Preacher” is not your typical film about a Christian preacher.

That’s because Sam Childers isn’t typical.

He spends about seven months a year in East Africa, where his orphanage is benefitting from the newfound peace in the region and the July establishment of the new nation of South Sudan. He has new projects in the works: feeding starving people in Ethiopia and restoring broken-down houses for elderly Ugandans.

“It is hard coming here and adjusting to the U.S.,” he says, “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.”

When he’s in the U.S., he spends time with his family, rides his motorcycles, preaches and raises money for Africa. “At home, I’m just Sam Childers, I’m really nothing. At least in Sudan or Uganda or Ethiopia, I can be somebody and I can have a purpose.”

Not bad for a hillbilly from the backwoods of Pennsylvania.

Rebecca Cusey is a movie critic and entertainment reporter.