The evangelist they call The Machine Gun Preacher grew up in a solidly Christian home in the hills of Pennsylvania. Yet early on, Sam Childers showed a knack for getting into trouble. His father, a former marine, was fond of warning him: “Boy, somebody’s gonna kill you one of these days!”
By his early teens, Sam was sliding ever deeper into a life of drugs and violence. Eventually, he became a Shotgunner – an armed guard for drug dealers. But, haunted by his father’s words, Sam grew increasingly afraid that he was going to be killed because of drugs; and after a wild brawl in a bar that almost killed him, he decided to change his life.
“I got into a really bad bar fight in Orlando, Florida, and when I was in this fight there was people shot and stabbed, were laying on the floor and crying. That night at this bad bar fight I almost got killed and – I didn’t give my life to the Lord but I made up my mind if I make it to that door, I’m done living this way.
“I made it out of that bar room – that night is when I changed my life. I didn’t give it to Jesus – it was two years later. I was in a church service and I knew this was my night. And I gave my life to the Lord.”
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“I made up my mind if I make it to that door, I’m done living this way.”
On fire for the Lord, Sam travelled to the village of Yei in South Sudan in 1998, while the nation was in the grip of the Second Sudanese War. Urged by his Pastor in America, he had joined a mission group to help repair huts damaged in the conflict. But his life changed the instant he stumbled across a child’s body ripped apart by a landmine. There and then, he got down on his knees and made a pledge to God to do anything in his power to save the children in the war-torn country.
While passing the village of Nimule, on the Ugandan border, he heard God say: “I want you to build an orphanage for the children. And I want you to build it here.”
Sam returned to the US, sold his construction business and sent the money to Africa. Slowly the orphanage began to take shape. During the day, Sam cleared the brush and built the huts that would house the children. During the evening, he slept under a mosquito net slung from a tree: Bible in one hand, AK47 in the other.
With the orphanage finished, Sam began to lead armed missions to rescue children from the Lord’s Resistance Army, a brutal rebel militia that had kidnapped 30,000 children and murdered hundreds of thousands of villagers. Before long, tales of his exploits spread and villagers began to call him “The Machine Gun Preacher.”
He slept under a mosquito net slung from a tree: Bible in one hand, AK47 in the other.
Sam tells Eternity he was gutted when a US newspaper article picked up on the name while writing a critical article about him.
“The name came from someone who was hacking on me and hacking on the ministry,” he recalls. “When I read it, I was, like, crying and disappointed and worried. I could literally hear God say, ‘that’s your name, claim it,’ but then the last words he said was it would be a marketing tool.”
Despite criticism from many Christians, Sam makes no apology for taking up arms to protect children from being raped or mutilated and says he would “absolutely” do it again if necessary.
Since 1998, when he set up the charity Angels of East Africa (AOEA), he claims to have saved the lives of more than a thousand child soldiers enslaved by brutal rebel armies. AOEA has built five orphanages and seven schools in South Sudan, northern Uganda and Ethiopia, and has recently built training centres and a commercial farm to teach teenagers a trade and make a living. Over the years, the charity has also dug 40 wells and has built up a feeding program that serves 13,000 meals a day.
Sam told his dramatic life story in his 2009 autobiography Another Man’s War, which in 2011 was turned into a Hollywood film called The Machine Gun Preacher, starring Gerard Butler. Sam says the movie was not very accurate and he now hopes to set the record straight with a self-penned script for a second movie, which he hopes will go into production in 2021.
Speaking to Eternity by phone from Melbourne at the beginning of his latest Australian tour, Sam says the new movie will show how – unlike some American preachers – he never quits. But with the 2011 movie still available on Netflix, the Machine Gun Preacher phenomenon continues to draw people who would otherwise never be reached with the gospel.
”Some people can laugh about it or not agree with it, but … it’s turned out to be used more as an outreach for the unsaved,” says Sam in his southern US country music-style drawl.
“When I go do a church meeting, usually one-third of the people that come out are totally non-churched, so it’s been good. It’s not really something to promote to the Christian world, but it’s a good way to get non-Christians into the church.”
“It’s from being a rough guy, still being a biker – it just attracts the unsaved.”
While his take-no-prisoners style is not to the taste of many Christians, Sam says his ministry reaches the unsaved because of who he is.
“It’s the style of preacher I am; it’s from being a rough guy, still being a biker – it just attracts the unsaved. And it’s not a put-on. I got my first motorcycle at seven years old. I’m 57 yrs old now, so I’ve been riding motorcycles for 50 years.”
He gives the example of a man who only came to one of the services he preached at last Sunday in Melbourne because he was a fan of the movie.
“There was a man that came with his wife and she whispered in my ear when she came in the church, she said ‘he has never come to church with me, ever,’ and she says ‘I want to thank you for your ministry.’ So then I started talking with him and he said ‘well, the only reason I’m here is I seen your movie,’ and I said ‘I think God has another plan for you than that.’ The guy at the end of the service was crying – he stood up for salvation; and this is not a new story – this is a repeated story that happens every time.”
Sam estimates close to 500-600 came to Christ or rededicated their lives in his first four meetings on his Australian tour. With 48 speaking gigs in Australia and six months on the road in his 2019 world tour, he says his preaching – which concentrates on the hope in Jesus and his answer to fear and anxiety – brings 25,000 people a year to Christ.
After living in Africa for 24 years, Sam says he started focusing on training programs after realising that 70 per cent of teenagers ended up in prostitution after they had to leave orphanages at 15 or 16.
“In a third-world country there is no welfare system – so that the only hope that you have for someone that’s 16 to 26 years old is to teach them a skill and a trade, so that’s what we’re really focused on now,” he says.
We’re teaching young ladies that are victims of war how to clean a house, how to make beds properly, wash and iron clothes, how to make Spanish omelettes, how to make eggs Benedict, how to make pancakes, French toast.”
“We still have the orphanages, we still do the feeding program, still take care of little kids, but we’re very big into teaching young people a skill and a trade. And we’ve got success stories, one after another, unbelievable success stories.
“We have a big commercial farm that gives work to about 80 people, but I built a two-storey house, six bedroom, four bathrooms and cottages on the outside, and it’s a tourist attraction, it’s like a bed and breakfast. We’re teaching young ladies that are victims of war how to clean a house, how to make beds properly, wash and iron clothes, how to make Spanish omelettes, how to make eggs Benedict, how to make pancakes, French toast.”
After two years of watching Sam and others prepare such Western-style staples, one woman opened up a restaurant in a small town in Uganda, just doing simple Western breakfasts and lunches, which has been very successful.
Though he received the Mother Teresa Award for Social Justice in 2013, Sam’s work has attracted controversy over the years, particularly his willingness to use violence. Sam takes such criticism in his stride, likening it to persecution.
“I got persecuted for standing up and fighting someone that’s going to rape and mutilate children – what an honour!”
“You know, Matthew Chapter 5, verses 10 and 11, if you are persecuted for his sake, you’re blessed. And I’ve been hacked on a lot and I still get hacked on, but what about Jesus? They called Jesus a rebel, they called him a drunkard,” he says.
“The cross was suffering and pain so we’re all going to go through suffering and pain, we’re all going to be persecuted. But I think we’ve got to examine why are we being persecuted. I got persecuted in the past for rescuing children. I got persecuted for standing up and fighting someone that’s going to rape and mutilate children – what an honour!”
Sam says he never wants to turn to violence, but when it comes to rescuing a child he’s not going to stand idly by.
“I can’t do that with anybody. And it’s not even a child. I mean, just anyone. I think a lot of it comes from my dad growing up. My dad always taught us never start a fight. Finish it. Never walk away. There was never a bully in my school that I wouldn’t stand up to. Kids would call me a bully because I fought a lot, but I never bullied kids – I was the guy that would challenge the bully, and a lot of it was because of my dad. My dad said ‘what kind of a kid are you if you would stand back and see somebody beat another kid because he’s not able to defend himself?’”
“My dad always taught us never start a fight. Finish it.”
Despite his burly, bearded appearance, Sam says small children are always attracted to him, and never scared. Asked where his passion for children comes from, Sam muses that it might be because he got lost at such a young age, despite growing up in the Pentecostal church.
“I always say my mom came out of the womb speaking in tongues. My mom only sinned three times in her whole life, when she gave birth to me and my two brothers. So my mom was this ultimate Christian and … both my parents were born-again, spirit-filled.
“When I was between five and 10 years old if you asked, ‘Sam, what are you going to be when you grow up?’, I’d have told you ‘I’m going to be a preacher.’
“But at 11 years old I start smoking cigarettes and marijuana… all of a sudden you find yourself wanting to be cool and popular, so at 11 years old I wanted to hang out with kids that were 14 and 15.
“By the time I was 15 years old I’m a heroin addict … I quit school, I moved out of my house before I was 16. My mom and dad always let me know how much they loved me, they always let me know the door is open, you’re welcome home at any time, but they were not going to allow drugs in their house. And to this day, I highly respect my parents for having what I believe the world has lost – it’s called tough love.”
“I always knew Jesus was real. But in my mind when I was a drug dealer, when I was an addict, when I was a criminal, I knew he was real, I just thought I don’t need him!”
Contrary to his portrayal in the movie, Sam says even when in the depth of his addictions, he never lost his faith in Jesus.
“Now, that still wouldn’t have got me to heaven, but I always knew Jesus was real. But in my mind when I was a drug dealer, when I was an addict, when I was a criminal, I knew he was real, I just thought I don’t need him!”
Since giving his life to the Lord, Sam says he has never had a day where he was less than passionate.
“The average Christian if you’re really honest with yourself, you have warm, hot, cold days. I’ve never been like that and I believe it’s because I give my testimony every week for years …. I live full time in Africa. After Australia, I go back home to Africa. I’m only home for less than a month, then I do a tour in South Africa preaching, then I go back home for two weeks and then I go to America for six weeks of preaching. And then I go to the Middle East. So I’m on the road speaking six months out of the year. Some days I do three and four meetings in one day. So I’m always keeping that fire, and telling people my testimony.”
Sam says he would love to be able to walk into a church and not have to take up an offering because his passion is saving souls. But with an operating budget of $55,000 a month for AOEA, he has to keep raising money. He has launched a 60-day MGC Challenge in an effort to raise his annual budget in 60 days. His goal is to have his entire organisation self-sufficient over the next three years.
“I want to just concentrate on souls, you know. The passion inside of me is I get excited when non-believers come to the Lord. That’s my passion.”
Sam is touring tour Victoria, NSW and Queensland until September 23. If you would like to hear him preach, you can find his speaking dates here.