In 1998, a former gang biker named Sam Childers joined a church mission trip to the Sudan to help repair huts damaged in the Second Sudanese Civil War. Most of the people on that trip finished their charitable labors and left Africa behind, but Sam didn’t — not completely.
While in the Sudan, Sam came across the mutilated body of a child killed by a land mine. The experience shattered him, and Sam made a pledge to God to do whatever he could to help the children of the Sudan.
In spite of war-zone conditions, Sam embarked on a project that locals considered impossible: He built an orphanage near the Ugandan border. A dozen years later, over 1000 children have been sheltered in Sam’s orphanage, with over 150 children there today. In the United States, Sam pastors a church that he built himself, Shekinah Fellowship Church in Central City, Pa.
Sam’s work in the Sudan is controversial. Complaints have been lodged that the children in his orphanage are neglected and in poor health. A pair of American medical experts who visited the compound expressed grave concerns and asked Christianity Today magazine to investigate. However, when Christianity Today staff visited the site earlier this week, they found the children happy and in good health. (Read more at ChristianityToday.com.)
Sam Childers blames the controversy on a Sudanese former staffer who he says was fired for corruption and mismanagement of the orphanage. Still, he admits that at times he has failed in his commitments, including his obligations as a husband and a father, along with mortgage and car payments.
Actor Gerard Butler portrays Sam in Marc Forster’s Machine Gun Preacher, which opens tomorrow, Sept. 23. Sam spoke with me last week (prior to the revelations from Christianity Today) about the film and his work.
Before I get to the serious questions, I just have to ask: You make quite a first impression, and a big part of that is that flamboyant ’stache of yours ...
(Laughing) Thank you.
Do you have any idea why Gerard Butler didn’t wear his facial hair more like yours?
Probably because he can’t grow a good mustache like mine! (Laughing)
I’m sure everyone’s been asking you what you think of the film.
When you sell your life rights to Hollywood, you lose those life rights. I thank God we had a good screenwriter, a good director and a good actor. Everyone involved knew my passion —knew that my life is all about Christ — so there’s no way they could leave that out.
To have a movie done in Hollywood where they don’t take that out — I have to fully support that. Even if there are little things I would gripe about, we have to remember: It isn’t always about what we think. I believe the point of my life comes across.
What are you happiest about in the film?
Everything in the movie is based on the truth — it’s just that the timeline is a little messed up. The action scenes are amped up some. I think the thing that bothers me a lot is that when I look into who I was and remember the people that I hurt.
I think the greatest thing the movie shows is that I came to a point in my life that I knew I had to change. And there’s a lot of things we can do to change our life, but I chose Jesus Christ.
In the film, when you first accept Jesus, you go through a bit of an awkward transition. For a while you start dressing a little conservatively to fit in with the church crowd.
I always wear Harley clothes, but when I go to a church to preach, I wear a long-sleeve shirt. That’s how I preach. I don’t think the clothes in the movie were changed all that much. It didn’t show him in the Harley clothes as much when he went to church. I look about the same all the time, unless I’m actually behind a pulpit preaching.
I’m thinking of the scene where your character goes to a bar wearing a striped collar shirt.
I do have a lot of striped shirts — but they’re Harley shirts. They have the Harley emblem on them.
I will tell you this much, since you brought up that scene in the bar: After I started walking with Christ, I have never gone back and started drinking or doing drugs. Ever. One time. So that was a piece of Hollywood.
At one point I started to gripe about that scene, and a pastor of a megachurch said to me, “Well, you know, Sam, that scene shows for the person out there that might slip up again that Christ will definitely accept them back again — no problem.”
Did you go through a crisis of faith like what we see in the film?
You mean like doubting my faith? No. I can honestly say that. Now, do I stumble? Do I fail? Do I question God sometimes? Absolutely. I would be a liar if I said I didn’t. But as far as questioning if God is real — no. I don’t do that.
Can you tell me about the crisis you went through in your marriage?
I believe marriages are always going through some kind of crisis. I believe that’s something we gotta work on every day.
We had some serious things going on in my marriage. It all went on at the same time I almost lost everything. I almost lost my home. I lost my son, which it didn’t show in the movie. There was so much they couldn’t put in the movie.
There was a time that I went to Africa hoping never to come back. I never thought of suicide, like it shows in the movie. But when I went to Africa that one time, I planned on going as far and as deep as I could and hopefully somebody was going to end my life. I was finished. I was done. But God wouldn’t let it happen.
There’s a scene in the movie — this is true — where I left some children behind, thinking I would come back in a few hours and get them, and many of those children got killed. Think about children getting killed and it’s all your fault. There’s not a night goes by I don’t think about those children.
I was messed up. At that time in my life, I blamed everybody. When I came back to the U.S., I started fighting — I mean, fist-fighting. People would say things; I would fly off the handle. I was totally getting out of control. Did I step away from God? Absolutely. I mean: I actually stepped down and didn’t preach for three months — because I blamed it all on me.
One day, God spoke to me and said, “You know, you didn’t leave those children behind on your own. Every person who ever heard you preach left those children behind also.”
Your book mentions your wife Lynn and your daughter Paige joining you in Africa —something the film doesn’t show. How often did they join you in Africa?
You see in the movie that my daughter Paige and I lost our relationship for a while, but you see in the end it coming back. Now, my daughter runs the nonprofit. She’s in Africa all the time now — she goes a couple times a year. My wife goes maybe once every other year or so.
My daughter’s seen the need; she’s seen the purpose — she’s not only seen it, she felt it all strongly enough in her life to come to me and say, “Dad, I want to run this nonprofit.” All the times that I was sacrificing for the children, she was also sacrificing. So, she said to me, “Dad, who will sacrifice for this like I will and like I have?”
Have you worked with Catholics in your work?
Catholic Relief Services has always been very good to us. I’ve always had good interactions with Catholics, with the Catholic Church. I’ve spoken in Catholic churches in Africa many times.
During wartime, CRS would give our orphans so much porridge every month — not actually porridge, but what they called maize flour to make porridge, or sorgham flour.
This is a subtle point, but when your character is baptized, it’s in the name of the Lord Jesus — not in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
We believe in baptism. Outside my church we have a pond, and we baptize there. We even baptize in the wintertime if people want it. I baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. There again, that’s part of the movie. Why they did that I can’t say.
When the movie goes to the third act, after his crisis of faith, it seems to me that your character finds peace — but we never see him pray or talk about God again after that or connect with his family. It seems like there’s something missing there.
Right. That’s a very, very good point. My take is: That’s what we look for as Christians. But for the ones who aren’t, who are total nonbelievers — the ones I work on touching every day of my life — I believe it’s a good seed planter. Last night, I went to an after-party for the film, and the questions from nonbelievers were incredible. They got the point. They knew it was about God.
If you make it too godly of a movie, then it’s for religious people. For who this movie is going to be reaching, I’m satisfied with it.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.