Machine Gun Preacher
It’s been a lifetime since Sam Childers lived and partied in Jessup, Georgia. If his old pals from those wild days come to the Harley ride he’s hosting out of Savannah on Oct. 15 – if they’re even still alive – they will likely not recognize him.
Childers is a different man now, evidenced not just by the graying mustache and the sober, creased eyes, but most noticeably by the self-made brand tattooed across his forearms: Machine Gun Preacher.
The former hired gun for drug deals in cities dotted across the U.S., now wields an AK47 on missions of a whole different nature halfway around the world. A recovering heroin addict, Childers has spearheaded the effort to build seven orphanages and five schools in Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda. He is a high school dropout from rural Pennsylvania who now heads up a nonprofit and a church that helps dispense 7,000 meals a day, six days a week to people in East Africa displaced by a harrowing war that seemingly has no end.
Luckily, neither does Childers’ dedication to the cause.
He isn’t kidding. His marriage to ex-stripper Lynn, whose church-going ways in 1992 led him back to the religion he’d abandoned as a kid, ended in divorce. He once let his house in Pennsylvania slide into foreclosure in favor of sending every cent he could find to his first orphanage project in southern Sudan. He sold his construction business in the States for the same reason. His son died of a heroin overdose, the same drug that gripped Childers’s life for much of his 20s.
But his singular focus has yielded success on multiple fronts. He’s written two books, the first of which, an autobiography titled “Another Man’s War,” was made into a 2011 full-length feature film starring Gerard Butler and Michelle Monaghan. He owns a custom bike shop and a security company, both based in Pennsylvania. And he hawks shot glasses, ball caps, T-shirts and other items branded with the “Machine Gun Preacher” logo on his website.
"I never dreamed there’d be a business, a clothing line, motorcycles, it turned into a brand now,” he says of the ‘Machine Gun Preacher’ moniker, originally given as a slight over his seemingly conflicting use of weapons and occasional violence as part of a Christian-led purpose: Childers purports to carrying an AK47 assault rifle and occasionally fighting alongside the Sudan People’s Liberation Army to rescue children from the grips of the Lord’s Resistance Army, headed by guerrilla leader Joseph Kony. (SPLA officials have denied the claim that Childers has worked with them.)
“I look at it as it allows me to make a good honest living to keep doing more work and save more children,” he says of his commercial success. “So yeah, it turned into a brand, but I couldn’t have done that on my own. God’s hands were in it.”
He believes God’s hands have been on every part of his life, starting long before that fateful first trip to Africa in 1998 when he came across the body of a child who’d been torn apart by a landmine.
Eighteen years later, he seems to be making good on that promise. Donations from his nonprofit and church ministry are being used to fund a six-story building in Ethiopia and a 1,000-acre farm in Uganda that both serve to teach young adults various trades to help them eventually earn a living and sustain themselves.
“I’m excited to see how those projects are going to keep maturing to change young people’s lives,” Childers says.
But he also says he’s working to change lives here in the States. In fact, A&E is about to debut a reality show about him and the down-on-their-luck people he helps while speaking and preaching at high schools, churches and corporate events around the world. His motivational speaking engagement calendar is booked two years in advance.
But locals intrigued by his story, or fans of the film based on his life, don’t have to wait that long; Savannah’s Compassion Church and Savannah Harley Davidson will host Childers the weekend of Oct. 15 and 16. It’s an opportunity for people to see and hear a message of redemption that many could find hope in, says Dave Stewart, the church’s global outreach pastor.
“I think there’s a lot of people out there who believe they’ve done things or seen things or been places or committed cardinal sin, and they believe God could never love them. The truth is God can use anybody’s life story to his glory. Nobody’s too far from the love of God,” Stewart says. “The opportunity to bring Sam in here was really exciting – to meet him and to have that story spread, but also because we want to be a church that’s an outreach to anyone and everyone. I think a lot of people who will be attracted to Sam’s story might not be the type who would feel comfortable accepting an invitation to a regular church service on Sunday morning.”
Though he and his ex-wife founded a church of their own, Childers echoes Stewart’s sentiments regarding the kind of preacher he is – and isn’t.