The Times Magazine
Sam Childers was a violent drug addict who went by the nickname Savage. Now he’s a God-fearing, gun-toting vigilante intent on rescuing the child victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army. No wonder Hollywood is intrigued.
The Rev Sam Childers leans back in a plastic chair, crosses his tattooed, bear-like arms over a broad expanse of chest and regards me from behind wraparound sunglasses. Finally, after an unnerving minute, a smile gradually spreads out beneath his ragged and greying walrus moustache and he chuckles.
“I never said I killed anybody, did I?” says the man who calls himself the Machine Gun Preacher. “I never shot anybody that didn’t need shot. If a gun’s pulled on you, you shoot.”
We’re outside a nameless bar – “the local saloon”, he calls it – in Nimule, southern Sudan, our feet in the dirt, flies buzzing in our ears, sweat sticking to our backs. Gawky Sudanese teenagers laugh, shout and play at a pool table that lists on the uneven ground, its green baize torn and patched and torn again.
As he sips a can of Red Bull, I can see the outline of a pistol Childers always keeps tucked into the waistband of his shorts. Two men – Childers’ men – in desert fatigues lean against his Mitsubishi pick-up truck dangling their AK-47 assault rifles nonchalantly.
Life is defined by brutal simplicity for Childers, 48, a former drug-dealing biker and violent brawler, who found God in Pennsylvania and a mission in Africa. The way he tells it, that mission is to rescue children and kill the man he holds responsible for orphaning them: Joseph Kony, a rebel leader who has terrorised parts of Central Africa for nearly a quarter of a century.
With heartbreaking regularity, Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) restocks its ranks with abducted children and conducts campaigns of massacre, mass rape, mutilation and pillage against villagers unlucky enough to cross paths with them. Thought to number just a few hundred fighters, the LRA nevertheless roams across Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic terrorising civilians and wreaking terrible havoc.
Many LRA victims have lips, noses or eyelids sliced off. Abducted children tell on their escape of being made to beat others to death or kill their own parents and siblings. Some recount tales of forced cannibalism. The horror stories are legion.
It is not just Childers who wants Kony dead. Last year, President Obama signed a Bill calling for Kony to be captured or killed and, in 2008, US military advisers aided Ugandan troops in a failed bid to kill him. Two years earlier, a squad of Guatemalan commandos, specially trained in jungle warfare, was wiped out when the United Nations dispatched them to deal with the LRA.
But Childers is not a man given to doubts. “I’m going to get Kony,” he tells me, leaning forward for emphasis. “He knows I’m coming and I’ve got something for him, right here.”
Childers taps the Springfield .45 on his left hip. “No safety,” he says, “13 in the clip and 1 in the chamber. Some people say Joseph Kony isn’t a threat. He is. And even if he isn’t, I have personal issues with him.”
Later, in his spartan bedroom at the orphanage for rescued children that he began building in Nimule nine years ago, Childers digs through a series of large plastic crates stuffed with clothes. He hauls an Uzi machine pistol out of one and clicks in a 32-round magazine. From another comes a long-barrelled Magnum revolver, and from under his narrow metal-framed bed comes a case containing a Mossberg bolt-action sniper rifle and a pump-action shotgun. Another box beneath the bed is full of hand grenades.
“Yeh, there’s a few guns around,” Childers nods to himself.
Sudan when we visit is in the depths of the dry season. Dust devils skitter across the thorny scrub, twisting high into the clear, blinding sky, the wind blows hot and bushfires ignite in walls of flame that race across the land, charring the tinder grass and acacia trees. It would be hard to find a more fitting backdrop for the world of violence, retribution and redemption that Childers inhabits. “When I first started this, I didn’t want people to know about my past, the things that I had done. Because I’m telling you, man, 30 years ago I was the meanest person you’d ever have met. I was never a tough guy, but I was mean.”
Childers has always been a brawler. His first fight, aged 5, happened when his mother took him to a Native American powwow dressed as a cowboy; his dad, an ex-Marine and a Christian, encouraged his violent streak, introducing the young Sam to the two enduring loves of his life, motorbikes and guns. He was given a pair of toy pistols for his fifth birthday and a motorbike for his seventh. Shooting was a family tradition.
“My dad was a really good shot and usually Sunday after church, if it was a nice hot day, a little breezy, we’d go up behind the barn and we’d shoot pistols. We would do a lot of shooting. As a child, I was hunting with a 12-gauge that was taller than me.”
At school in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, Childers grew into a stoner and a “hood”, a rebellious bad boy with sullen spirits and an appetite for a fight. He also developed an early and prodigious appetite for drugs and sex.
“At 11 years old, I was smoking dope; 13, I’m popping pills, doing acid; by 14, I was screwing my teachers in school; 15, I was shooting up heroin and doing cocaine.”
At the age of 16, he shot a man for the first time. It was a fight over a girl that ended with Childers shooting the boyfriend in the knee before slipping the pistol into the back of his jeans, beating the bleeding man with his fists and speeding away on his motorbike.
Childers punched, kicked, stamped, tore, gouged, stabbed and, occasionally, shot his way through his teens and early twenties, earning the nickname “Savage” and a fearsome reputation even among the Hell’s Angels and Outlaws biker gangs he rode with. Stocky and short, he was considered a messy but effective fighter. “There’s different kinds of guys: I never hesitated. I never considered myself a good fighter; I always considered myself quick at taking somebody out. If there’s a problem, you’ve gotta handle the problem that quick…” – he snaps his fingers – “…or it will take you down.”
In the evenings, he and his buddies would ride their long-forked chopper motorcycles down to “redneck joints” looking for cowboys to fight with. After one “hellacious fight” that saw the local cops cordon off the entire block, Childers spent three weeks in prison and worked on his “jailhouse tattoos”. The one on his left bicep reads “Harley”, after the American-made bikes he rides and loves.
Childers worked as a builder but dealt drugs for cash (cocaine and marijuana mostly) and later became a “shotgunner”, a hired gun guarding drug deals for his friends down in Florida. Which is where he met his wife, Lynn – she was working in a strip club in Orlando when Childers was overseeing a drug deal in the early Eighties and became his unlikely saviour.
They moved back to Pennsylvania together for a quieter life, but Childers couldn’t adjust. “I started drinking again, fighting, running drugs from Florida. Meanwhile, my wife gets born again.” In 1992, after years of cajoling, nagging and persuading, he went with her to church where, much to his own surprise, he found religion. “The power of God was moving on me something fierce that I couldn’t get out of my seat,” he says.
But the real Damascene moment came six years later. Like many recent converts, Childers wanted to do missionary work, so he went to Sudan for the first time in 1998, where he put his construction skills to use, fastening a steel roof to a school.
He did not know the country was in the midst of Africa’s longest and bloodiest civil war, pitching the southern Christian rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) against the superior firepower of Khartoum’s northern Arab army and its allies, the LRA, employed as a proxy force by President Omar al-Bashir.
One day an SPLA soldier took Childers to a minefield. “I’ve seen a body of a small child – don’t know how old the child was – but from the waist down was gone. There was bodies everywhere back then, like mass graves sitting on top of the ground, but the body of this small child done something to me, and I stood over that body and said, ‘Lord, I’ll do whatever I can to help these people.’ ”
Childers describes the life he led back in the US as a “hillbilly dream”, earning good money constructing barns, hangars and outhouses, driving trucks and shooting guns but, after five weeks in Sudan, it all felt empty. “I had a fishing boat that had everything; it was a Bass Tracker, it had tackle boxes with fishing poles worth $5,000. I had TV in my boat, a telephone in my boat. I had everything you can imagine; I had 4x4s; I had dirt bikes; I had all the recreational stuff there was; I had a 32-foot Safari Camper – I had everything. I ordered a truck brand new every year. I had a gun collection of more than 100 guns… And I started selling everything just to be able to do the work in Africa.”
But as he spent more time and money in Sudan, it was his family in Pennsylvania that bore the personal costs. Their home was threatened with foreclosure and his teenaged daughter, Samantha, now 21, grew up abandoned by her father. “I was never there for my daughter, never,” reflects Childers, his usually bulldog-proud head bowed towards the ground.
The “work” was bringing in medicine, then food, then uniforms, guns and ammunition for the SPLA. He carried a pistol at first, then an AK-47, and he had SPLA soldiers seconded to him. He ran a mobile clinic taking basic first aid to cut-off communities. But above all, he wanted to kill Kony and rescue the children that the LRA preyed on.
“I’ve come closer than anyone to catching Kony, and as far as getting any of his guys, we’ve got a lot of ’em,” Childers claims. His tactics are direct and more than a little foolhardy: baiting the LRA, then coming out shooting.
“What I used to do is, when they were attacking on the roads a lot, I would just travel the roads back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, travel constantly. Stop to eat your lunch, take a p***, hang around, just wait to get ambushed. I’ve been ambushed more than ten times. It’s a rush.” The last time was in September, while driving north to Darfur.
“I tell you this – and I believe the day is coming soon – if I had the money, I could have Joseph Kony’s head. I could bring him down. And I will have the money, soon.” This certainty springs from the fact that there’s an imminent Hollywood version of his life, called Machine Gun Preacher, starring Gerard Butler from 300 and The Bounty Hunter. It’s due out later this year.
It’s a casting decision Childers doesn’t entirely approve of. “I don’t care much for Gerard, but regardless what I think, Hollywood loves him,” he says. “I was supposed to be a bartender in one of the fight scenes, but Gerard said he was too ’timidated to be around me, so they didn’t even want me on set.
“I met him several times, and I said to him if you’re ’timidated to be around me, maybe you shouldn’t have took the part,” says Childers, who had a row with the film-makers when he came on set carrying a gun.
Childers feels cheated by his Hollywood experience, saying he’s so far earned nothing from the film adaptation of his life. “These Hollywood people are tricky, I’m telling you, man!” he says. Nevertheless, Childers insists the film will be a hit: “It’s going to do unbelievable well.” He hopes it will make him famous, so he can raise more funds for his manhunt and his orphanage.
The Children’s Village in Nimule is the barbed-wire-fenced heart of Childers’ operation. The large, neatly swept compound has a football pitch and a weathered playground with rusting swings, a seesaw and slide. The collection of buildings are all mud brick and tin roofs, there’s a shady avenue of neem trees and two boreholes to provide fresh water. At the gate, six SPLA soldiers lounge beneath a tree, their guns stacked against its trunk.
There is a church hall, a library with mainly Christian books, a pair of hulking metal shipping containers that Childers plans to convert into a seamstress school, a mechanics’ pit and carpentry workshop to teach the older children a trade, plus the skeleton of a building that is to be a primary school.
When I visit there are more than 200 children, from toddlers to teenagers, staying in a courtyard of little dormitories with bunk beds and grass mats. Childers says he has rescued 1,000 children, many of whom have subsequently been reunited with family members.
Sometimes, when he reaches a village that has suffered a recent attack, he cannot fit all the children whose parents are dead or missing into his truck. “You choose the really sick ones and send the others back. One time, I left them and some got killed,” he tells me, his eyes reddening around the rims. “It really sucked, really bad. Next time it happens, I will stop the truck, get out, grab my machine gun and extra bullets and stay with the children.”
This is not the only time during the days I spend with Childers that he struggles to stifle the emotions that seem constantly to roil beneath his skin, sometimes erupting in violence, sometimes in tears.
More than once he talks about the anguish caused by the death of his 25-year old stepson, Timothy, who died of a drugs overdose in 2003. “He came to live with us for probably eight years straight and I considered him my son and he was proud to let people know I was his dad,” Childers says. Although unrelated by blood, Timothy shared some of his stepfather’s proclivities, partying hard with his friends and doing heroin. “He died in a room all by himself,” says Childers slowly. “It was the hardest thing that ever happened to our family.”
And in a rare moment of reflection, he remembers coming back to the orphanage one evening, “and I was washing my face and I started looking in the mirror and I started to cry, because I seen the same guy in that mirror that was there 30 years ago, and I didn’t know if things had really changed.”
Despite such moments of self-doubt, Childers has never questioned his ongoing use of violence and sees no contradiction between guns and God. “How can a man of God justify carrying a gun? How can the true man of God in the Old Testament justify carrying a sword?” he asks by way of justification.
He still has a home in America, between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg in Pennsylvania, where his wife is the main pastor of their church. Their house is similarly well stocked with guns: under pillows, behind mirrors, even one inside a hollowed-out Bible. He has a series of shooting ranges in his garden: “I can open up the back door to my house and fire a machine gun out the door.”
There is also a shooting range out the back of his evangelical church in the Allegheny Mountains. “We shoot deer right out the back of the parking lot.” The Shekinah Fellowship Church draws a 180-strong congregation of bikers, “hillbillies” and “some of the roughest, toughest people… On a Sunday, there’s probably 30 to 40 guns in the church.” Some of the local residents called the 40-acre plot “Little Waco” when he began building his church there in 2000.
Childers’ vigilantism, his unshakeable belief in his ability and authority to discern right from wrong and to punish accordingly, belongs somewhere between the Old Testament and the Wild West. It’s an attitude that is probably only possible here, in the loosely governed badlands of Central Africa, where law and order are local and lax, allowing Childers to travel the land dealing divine justice and righting wrongs where he sees them.
He tells the story of a squalid hotel in a tinpot village somewhere in the forested border region between Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He stayed one night and found a man there pimping out young girls. “And in the middle of the night, God had an angel come down the hallway of that hotel,” says Childers with a smile, “and that guy who sold these little girls, somebody busted him up with a bamboo stick that he’ll be s***ting in a diaper for the rest of his life.”
The smile falls from his face and, after a pause, he adds grimly: “Anybody else can go in and out of that town and they know that stuff goes on. I can’t. Listen, I’m a preacher and I love Jesus Christ, and I know that’s wrong. I’ll answer for it [but] I can’t let it happen. Whatever the consequences, it’s on me, not on nobody else.”
And he still brawls, most recently in 2009 at a biker event in Pennsylvania, when he was standing next to one of his custom-built Harley Davidson bikes with the faces of three rescued children spray-painted across the tear-drop fuel tank. “This one guy walks up to me and says, ‘Who in the f*** put them n*****s on that bike?’ ” Childers beat him up and pulled a gun on the man’s friends.
“When it comes to somebody talking like that about children, or if somebody starts ‘F-ing this, n***** that,’ I’m going to lose it. You don’t know how many times I’ve shut people up from talking like that and got in a lot of trouble for it [because] you know I’m from an area where the Ku Klux Klan is pretty big. But we were raised as children never to be prejudiced and never to walk away from a fight.”
The bravura with which he speaks of his continuing violence sits awkwardly with his proclaimed faith, and Childers admits that finding God did not, after all, change him. “Did the meanness ever stop, or did the purpose change?” he asks, not waiting for an answer. “I’m the same guy; I just live for a different purpose now.” And he fixes me with his unblinking brown eyes, challenging me to disagree. I don’t.
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