Machine Gun Preacher – Sam Childers interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
SAM Childers, the real-life Machine Gun Preacher, talks about some of the issues, questions and contradictions posed by the new movie starring Gerard Butler.
He reveals how his real-life was often worse than what’s depicted, some of his experiences in Africa and what set him along his present path of caring for children in Africa. He also talks about his family’s involvement in his charity work and why he’ll never talk about taking lives.
Q. What does it feel like watching your life play back on-screen?
Sam Childers: I get used to things very quickly. When I first saw it in August I cried the entire way through the movie, and the second time I saw it was a few hours later and I cried the entire way through the movie! There’s even times when I first watched it, and even the last few times that I’ve watched it, that there’s other things from my past that it brings up and I end up crying. There’s a documentary coming out because there’s a lot of questions from people and contradictions from people… we knew it was going to happen and so that’s why the documentary is coming out afterwards. So, they flew in three guys that I used to run with 30 years ago and they interviewed all three before they saw the movie and then they interviewed them after they saw it. All three of them said the same thing at different times… just said it in different ways, that the first part of the movie was not even a fraction of who Sam Childers was. I was a mean, rotten, scumbag… I was the worst person, the meanest person you would ever meet. So, it brings back a lot of those memories and it bothers me every time.
Q. How did the process of making a film begin?
Sam Childers: 2005 is when it all started. Dateline NBC featured me on a one hour special they’d done about Joseph Kony and they’d done 30 minutes on what I was doing in Sudan. And Dateline NBC was one of my biggest things to say that the Machine Gun Preacher was real. They are the biggest news people in the US and they don’t do a story if it aint true. Dateline NBC came to Sudan for two weeks with their own film crew and filmed. You can actually watch it on the Internet if you Google Dateline NBC and Sam Childers, you can watch the one-hour special. So, that’s when everything kind of got started and so I’ve been into the thing for a while now. You get used to all the media and everything.
Q. What made you want to go to Africa and Uganda in the first place?
Sam Childers: I never went to Uganda… what happened was when I first went in I went to the side of Sudan that was called Yei. Naturally, you’ve got to fly into Uganda first. And then you travel through parts of Uganda to get into Yei. But if you’re looking at the map, Yei would be over here [gestures], while Northern Uganda is over here… like the Gulu area where all the fighting with Kony was over a decade ago. Kony was from Gulu and when I was in Yei I heard about this conflict going on in Northern Uganda where this rebel group was kidnapping children and forcing them to be child soldiers and killing children… it was just horrifying.
And then I heard of the Night Commuters… There are no Night Commuters any more, but back when Kony was in Northern Uganda the children would come out of the bush in the evening and they would sleep on the verandas in the town of Gulu – over 10,000 children per night would sleep on the streets because that’s where their safety was, in the town at night. So, when I heard all of this I naturally went to that side of Sudan, which is where the orphanage is. My very first encounter into Northern Uganda was coming around the corner and seeing a large flatbed track with supplies burning and dead bodies lying on the ground. That was my first encounter into northern Uganda and that’s when it all began. I saw that the area needed my help and I still have a home with children that I’ve rescued in Northern Uganda, in Gulu. We have three bases in Uganda.
Q. How often do you go back? And has the film helped with fundraising?
Sam Childers: I spend about seven months a year in Africa. I just got back and did a preaching tour for a week and a half in the US. I just came from the orphanage, flew in, and I leave here tomorrow and go back to Africa. So, I spend the majority of my time there. The movie has not really started drawing a lot of money yet. I haven’t been paid yet. Number one is I took what they call a deferral to get paid after the movie makes money to get more money. I do OK. I am a preacher and I do well preaching. Since the book came out, the size churches that I go to now are a lot larger… the average church I speak in is like 2,000 people. So, I do very well speaking when I’m on the road.
So, the actual money, when I do get paid, I’m going to put most of it into a trust. I know because of what I do around the world that there’s a chance that I might get killed one day. My daughter runs my non-profit. I’m not going to spend money just because I have money. So, I want to put the money that I have from the movie and any extra money that starts coming in into our Trust so that if something happens I know that what I worked for the past 15 years is going to keep going on.
Q. You’ve seen a lot of horrific things, so how does that affect your faith? Does it challenge your faith?
Sam Childers: No because as a Christian… I’m more of a freedom fighter than I am a Christian. I serve Jesus Christ. How I believe is that God’s promises are not for here on Earth. They’re for when we leave this Earth and we go to Heaven – that’s when there’s no more tears, no more sorrows. A lot of times people that aren’t Christian, or that might not fully believe… they know there’s a higher power but they don’t fully believe, they’ll say: “Well, if there’s a God, how come children be mutilated?” But you’ve got to remember that the promises are when we leave this Earth and we go to Heaven. That’s what I believe.
Q. Have you or will you take your wife and daughter to Africa?
Sam Childers: Yeah, my wife has been there several times. If you stay through the credits of the movie you’ll see my whole family in Africa. My wife has been there about four times. My wife’s passion is not Africa; my wife runs the church that I founded in the US. She’s a pastor. For her to go to Africa just for a vacation is a waste of God’s money. We don’t waste God’s money. My daughter runs my non-profit. She’s in Africa all the time. Now, she just took a year off… she works out of the office running all the book work. But she took a year off because she just had a baby. So, the baby is almost a year old now and she’s getting ready to take a trip with her daughter back to Africa.
So, she’s in and out of Africa all the time. Her husband works out of our office and he just got back – he was on the orphanage for a month. So, her husband is in and out of Africa all the time. So, my daughter runs our non-profit. It was true, that part of the movie, where she literally was starting to hate me because she thought I loved the children of Africa more than her. But my daughter has now seen the dedication, when she became an adult. She’s seen the purpose, she’s seen the reasoning, she’s seen why I put them first. Now my daughter is doing the exact same thing. She puts the children of Africa first.
Q. Was there anything in the film that wasn’t included about your experiences? And what can people do for the cause after they’ve seen the film?
Sam Childers: I think most people, after they’ve seen the film, get that the film’s not about Sam Childers anymore and it’s not about Gerard Butler, it’s now about you and what are you going to do? This is what I tell a lot of people because there’s a lot of people out there that think in their mind that I’ve done all this for our non-profit – totally not true. I do Q&As and I do all kinds of talks on it and I tell people all the time: “Educate yourself on what’s going on around the world where children are dying. Educate yourself on what’s going on in Africa…” There’s a lot of good non-profits in Africa.
This is not all about Angels of East Africa. This is about you getting behind someone that you feel comfortable with supporting and supporting them. If you can’t find someone and you feel good about supporting us, get behind us and support us. So, the biggest thing is you feeling comfortable supporting that person. But you’ve got to remember that the movie was pre-2008. It’s not like I will still walk around with a machine gun doing what happened in the movie. The action scenes were amped up. But what you’ve got to look at is that we feed 3,500 meals a day. I just finished a school in Ethiopia and I just finished another big school in Sudan, so our mission is about feeding people and educating people. That’s what we do today. Being honest with you, if I would run into a situation where I’d have to pick up a firearm to save another child, would I? Absolutely! I wouldn’t even think about it. I rescue people and feed people. I will do whatever I have to do, as long as it’s within the law, to rescue a life.
Q. One of the key scenes in the film is when you think you’ve stabbed and killed the Indian hitch-hiker to death…
Sam Childers: That’s totally true…
Q. And it really tore you up inside…
Sam Childers: It didn’t happen like that at all. To start with, when that scene happened I wasn’t even married. And it didn’t even bother me. To be very honest with you, I didn’t really give a crap back then. I left Minnesota… I thought I’d killed the guy. It was a year later when I was talking to my friend on the phone and he said: “Sam, when are you coming back?” I said: “Man, I aint coming back up there, you know what happened…” He said: “What are you talking about?” And when I mentioned the Indian he started laughing on the phone. He said: “You didn’t kill that guy! Did you think you killed that guy?” For a whole year I was looking over my shoulder thinking I was going to be arrested. But that part was true. But that wasn’t my turning point. The movie is based on the truth but you have to get 30-plus years into a two hour movie… the timeline was all screwed up bad. So, everything is combined. My daughter has never seen me ever take a sip of alcohol… never.
Q. So, given that the movie shows you being torn up about that incident and you now saying that you didn’t care at the time, how did you feel when you did actually kill someone for the first time?
Sam Childers: I never did ever in any interview, ever, and you can write this down, I’ve never spoke of ever taking a life in any interview. I’ve never answered that question and never will, so don’t get me to try and answer it now [smiles]. You know, The Bible says that if we’re going to boast about anything, it should glorify God. I’ll boast about all of my faults, I’ll boast about all of my addictions that God has conquered, I’ll boast about everything that God has conquered in my life, but there’s just certain things that I’ll never talk about. And I’ve never said I’ve ever took a life. I can tell you this much… I was a drug dealer, so I’ve killed a lot of people, with drugs. When you’re a drug dealer and you see drugs to people and you get them addicted and three or four years later they get killed in a car wreck, I have to answer for that. So, I’ve hurt a lot of people and done a lot of bad things that I have to answer for.
Q. So, what was your turning point?
Sam Childers: I was in Orlando, Florida, and I got into a bad bar fight one night and it turned out to be a shoot-out. I almost got killed. On the way home that night, I was driving home and I said: “I am done with this life. I am done!” When I got home I told my wife the next morning that we were moving. My wife was like: “What!?” So, I said: “We’re moving… somebody’s going to kill me or I’m going to end up in prison.” I don’t have a problem with dying but I have a problem with what I’m going to die for. I don’t want to die for no reason at all. If I’m going to die for something, I want it to be worthwhile. We moved to Pennsylvania and my wife started immediately serving God and going to church with my mum. Two years later is when I made the move to start going to church.
So, I do a lot of drug and alcohol speaking with people to stop addictions. I’m not a Bible-thumper. I don’t preach like that. I tell people that has addictions: “If you want your addiction cured, it begins right here. It begins right here.” Jesus Christ is not a genie in a bottle. You got me? Jesus Christ can help you get through anything but even with addiction, he’s not going to say ‘hocus pocus, your addiction’s gone’! You have to say: “I’m done!” It all begins right here in your mind. There are a lot of things that can help you. It’s just after I walked away from my addictions and the things that I struggled with, that’s when I chose Jesus Christ and now he helps me and guides me through the rest of my life.