Street had the unique opportunity to sit down with the real Machine Gun Preacher to talk about his work in Africa, the testimonies we all carry and how if he was still doing wrong, God wouldn’t have let him get so far.
Street: Could you tell us a bit about your life before you found God and your cause?
Sam Childers: I was a pretty rough guy. I got into drugs at a very young age — I started doing drugs at about 11 years old, went to hard drugs by 13, then from that to putting a needle in my arm at 15 years old. You know, doing heroin. And went from [heroin] to selling drugs. Actually, I was a shot gunner for drug deals for many years. So just about anything you can imagine is what I was. I wasn’t a good person.
Street: When did the name “Machine Gun Preacher” first pop up?
SC: You know, years ago. [In Africa] I slept on a grass mat, bible on one side and machine gun on the other side. The natives started saying, “That’s the Preacher.” Then they’d say, “Ah no, that’s the Machine Gun Preacher.” Because, you know, I carried a machine gun. So one day, a story came out, I believe it was in New York, I don’t really remember, but they titled it “Machine Gun Preacher.” Somebody was trying to discredit me from being a preacher. So anyway I read the thing and I’m starting to cry and God said, “Claim that name.” And I’m like, “Come on God, they’re calling me the Machine Gun Preacher!” And He said, “Claim that name.” I own the name Machine Gun Preacher. I mean, it is my name. I mean, there is a movie coming out, there’s a documentary coming out. There’s actually even a clothing line being done. That’s how big God is. Sometimes people, we keep God little, because we keep Him in a box thinking He’s only there for little things. I don’t believe that. I believe the sky is the limit with Him. I mean, come on, I’m a hillbilly from Pennsylvania. I’m the only hillbilly to walk the red carpet inside of the film festival at Toronto. That’s big. I’m the only man to ever walk the red carpet with Harley boots on and a Harley coat! But that shows you how big God is.
Street: The film shows you meeting with the leader of the Sudanese freedom fighters. Have you been able to meet any other influential people?
SC: You know, I’m going to say yes. There’s over a half–a–million soldiers, freedom fighters of the [Sudanese People’s Liberation Army], and I know probably 50 to 60 of the leaders very well. I’ve probably worked with maybe 200 different soldiers. But that’s just a little fraction when you’re talking a half–a–million people. I was in the peace talks with John Garang. There was somebody not long ago who tried to say I wasn’t in the peace talks but if you get to looking you’ll see a picture of me standing at the peace talk with John Garang and by the peace rock. There was a rock that was brought in by Colin Powell with a plaque on it. There was no way you could ever got your picture by that unless you were at the peace talk. But I think wherever you have someone telling good, someone always tries to tell some crap, too.
Street: What do you hope that people who see this movie with no background knowledge of you or the Sudanese conflict gain from it?
SC: I would say there are a couple of things I’m hoping. The big thing for me is that when people walk out of the theater, I don’t believe it’s about Sam Childers anymore. I believe it’s about them. What are you gonna do? My hope is for them that they’re going to educate [themselves] about what they can do. It’s not just about helping our nonprofit. There’s a lot of other nonprofits out there that do good work. I tell people all the time, be comfortable with who you’re going to help. If you’re not comfortable with a nonprofit, look for another one. I hope a lot of people are gonna choose to help us. But the biggest thing for people to look at is, it’s not just about African children — it’s about children around the world and there’s something each and every one of us can do.
Street: The film shows that even other people who are trying to help out the Sudanese have not always been amenable to your methods. How strong do you feel the opposition is towards you personally?
SC: I have shut drug dealers down in the U.S. — even in my own town — and I’ve gotten heat for doing it. But I really don’t care. It’s all about, am I satisfied in here? You know, I don’t always agree with what I do, but God seems like he’s always helping me. I should’ve been dead 30 years ago and I’m alive.
Street: How did your family react to the film?
SC: They all loved it. I mean they’re like me — there might have been a few little things we really didn’t like but there was enough good in the film for us to back it and accept it. You gotta remember, when you sell your life rights to Hollywood, you just better hope and pray they do a good job because once you sell it they can portray you however they want to end up portraying you. The only thing you can end up doing about it is you can boycott it or you can say they did a good job. And I’m okay with it, I’m satisfied.
Street: What percentage of the movie would you say is factual?
SC: It’s all based on the truth. They amped up action scenes of Africa. The whole first part of the movie about my past, none of it was amped up — if anything, it was toned down. They didn’t show half of the horrific things that happened.
Street: How often do you travel to and from the Sudan?
SC: I spend about seven months a year in Sudan. I’m usually there for a month and a half, back here a month, there a month and a half. Constantly back and forth.
Street: Do you do other things in Africa other than working with orphanages?
SC: I mean, absolutely. We’re big into feeding programs in Africa. I have a restaurant in Uganda too. I have a restaurant that does very well. But inside of Uganda, if you get into the bush you’ll find out that there are people living in shacks a little bigger than this room that are falling apart that we wouldn’t put an animal inside. You wouldn’t put a goat inside of it. So we’re gonna go in and do home makeovers. We’re not gonna build on, we’re just gonna redo the roof, plaster painting, doors, windows, all that stuff in the windows. Then we do a lot here in Pennsylvania too. I have a camp ground in Pennsylvania and in the summer months we work with troubled youth constantly.
Street: Have you taken the fight to any other places?
SC: I work in Uganda and we just started in Ethiopia. We’re getting ready to do some work in Somalia. But we do a lot here in the U.S. We actually are starting into sex trafficking, not just [to] expose it — I could care less about exposing it — but I want to stop it. And I speak on drugs and alcohol [at] high schools and colleges all over the U.S.
Street: How has your wife’s experience been running your church in Pennsylvania?
SC: My wife is a pastor, and a very good pastor. My wife’s career — or I should say story — is getting out. She was a stripper, and you don’t hear of too many strippers becoming pastors. But now she gets people from all over the U.S. wanting her to do ladies’ conferences, wanting her to do a book. I believe everyone carries a testimony of their life. If you were something awful and you tried to change your life and you did, that’s a testimony. But as Christians, sometimes we hide those testimonies and we’re not to hide them. When my wife started speaking out about who she really was, she gives to every dancer, every prostitute to inspire them that they can change if they truly want to.
Street: Can you talk a little about your upcoming reality TV series?
SC: Our TV show is all about giving people a second chance. Like two years ago, I found this homeless guy that I just really felt wanted to change his life. But the problem is, when you’re in the ditch, it’s hard to get out of that ditch unless someone’s truly willing to pull you out. So I went to the guy and I said, well listen, if I help you get out of here, what are you gonna do? And he says to me, I will never go back. So I got him an apartment — I paid for all this myself — I got him an apartment and I paid for two months’ rent. Went out and bought him a whole mess of groceries that would last him almost two months. We couldn’t find this guy a job. So finally I went to a guy who owned a restaurant and ended up saying to this guy, listen, give him a job. He says, Sam I can’t. I say, tell you what I’m gonna do. I’ll give you $500 and you give him a job for two weeks and if he doesn’t work well, you get rid of him and it didn’t cost you a penny. You used my money to hire him! The guy is still working there. So our TV show is about giving second chances, pulling a prostitute off the street, or a guy out of a crackhouse.
Street: What is your advice to people who have backgrounds like yours and want to be preachers?
SC: Let me ask you the question: would you rather have somebody talking to you about drugs, sitting in this chair, that never done ‘em dressed in a suit, or would you rather have me, that I lost my son to heroin? I believe that when it comes down to certain things of life, I can explain it a little bit better. So it goes to show you that sometimes people like me are better used to give somebody some inspiration in life than the guy in the suit.
Street: Have you had proteges become preachers like yourself?
SC: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, the guy that’s in Africa right now has a sister church to mine inside of Indianapolis. He’s a biker guy. I spoke in his church in 2008 and prophesized over him that he was gonna have his own church. Now he has his own church. He’s working full time with our missions as well. But he has a thriving biker church, man, in Indianapolis. So yeah, I mean he’s just one of them. There’s a lot of them.
Street: Was there anything in the final film that was blatantly not true?
SC: You know, the one thing that I really don’t like is that it shows me having a bad day. You know, I stumble and I fall and I’m probably the most messed up preacher you’ll ever meet, but I have never went back to drugs and alcohol just because I was having a bad day. When I walked away from drugs and alcohol, I’ve been free from it for 23 years. I have never ever went back. Fell every other way but never went back to drugs and alcohol.
Street: There’s also the moment in the movie where they mention that the Lord’s Resistance Army has a bounty on your head. Is that something that actually happened?
SC: At one time, there was a list of about 800 names of people that would’ve been arrested if they come into Khartoum. They would’ve arrested me for aiding and abetting rebels, so that was not just the Lord’s Resistance Army. I mean it’s a known fact that Kony would like to kill me. But it’s a known fact that he’s a coward because he knows where I live. I’ve offered him to come by many times.
For Street’s take on Machine Gun Preacher, check out our review here.