Mention the ‘Machine Gun Preacher’ and most people familiar with the story - famously taken to a wider audience through the 2011 film of the same name - will immediately think of a gun-toting American rescuing children who had been kidnapped and forced to fight for the brutal East African terror group, the Lord’s Resistance Army.

But that’s only part of a bigger story and, as Sam Childers, the real 'Machine Gun Preacher', tells Sight during a recent interview, it’s that bigger story of a life transformed through a restored relationship with God that he wants to share with people.

Sam Childers

Sam Childers with a child at the orphanage he founded at Nimule in what is now South Sudan. PICTURE: Supplied.

Currently on a speaking tour in Australia, the 56-year-old is eager to share with people – whether it be in a school, a prison, a soup kitchen or a church – what he says is his “message of hope”.

“When people hear my testimony, when people hear who I used to be, it gives them hope that begins to motivate people to get up and do something,” he says. “And that’s…what I carry, I carry a message of hope for people.”

“When people hear my testimony, when people hear who I used to be, it gives them hope that begins to motivate people to get up and do something. And that’s…what I carry, I carry a message of hope for people.”

- Sam Childers.

While Childers was raised in a Christian home, he left that at a very young age and started using drugs and engaging in criminal activity, eventually becoming a “shotgunner” or armed guard for drug-dealers.

“At one time I was a heroin addict, I was a drug-dealer, I was a bad guy, I was a criminal,” he says. “When you look back at it now, it’s like night and day. [I’m now the] total opposite.”

Childers, who these days counts Uganda as his home, has made about a dozen visits to Australia (not without controversy - he has in the past had difficulty getting a visa into Australia because of his past misdeeds), and on this trip is taking in cities including Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

As well as coming to talk about the transformation that’s taken place within him, he’s also here to tell others about Angels of East Africa, the organisation he founded which now runs a series of projects - including orphanages currently caring for about 380 children - in countries like South Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia. The projects also include a number of initiatives aimed at helping children find a pathway in life.

“Most people don’t realise if you’re in an orphanage you have to leave at 15-years-old…” he says. “So we’re very big in teaching skills and trades so we have several projects that are training centres…Probably 95 per cent or better of the people we work with right now are victims of war – they would not have the opportunity to learn a skill and a trade if we weren’t there…”

Childers says a long term investment in the lives of the children as they become adults is key. As well as supporting some to go to university - “If we’re going to change a nation, it takes professional people; it takes people that are lawyers and doctors and nurses,” he says – the organisation also provides a range of alternative employment opportunities for them.

 “We have restaurants, hotels, motels, we have a commercial farm and we teach everything from construction to working on cars and trucks,” he says. “We have many different skills that we teach.”

More than 440 people are currently on the organisation’s payroll, working in businesses.

“Many of those people are starting families, some of them are taking care of their families and their moms and dads,” says Childers. “So, you know, there’s thousands of people affected by the work that we do.”

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Sam Childers with members of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army. PICTURE: Supplied.

The origins of Childers’ work in Africa go back to 1998 when he joined a mission group from America which travelled to what was then southern Sudan to use his construction skills and help people repair homes which had been destroyed in the war then raging there. It was during this trip that he came across the body of a child killed by a landmine and made a pledge to God to do whatever he could to help the people there.

He returned to the area a few months later and, convicted God had told him to build an orphanage in the village of Nimule on the border with Uganda, he subsequently sold his construction business in the US to fund the orphanage. It was after its completion that he began to take part in armed missions to rescue children kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army and its then leader Joseph Kony, bringing them to live in the accommodation he’s built.

It’s a story Childers tells in his book Another Man’s War (he’s soon to release his third book titled The Most Unlikely Never to Succeed in Life) but also, mostly famously, was retold in the 2011 film which starred Gerard Butler in the title role.

Childers said the film wasn’t a very accurate depiction of what happened.

"The guy that played me in the movie kind of looks like he was losing…his faith in God. And anyone that knows me, knows that that’s not true. Even when I was a heroin addict, a drug addict, a gangster, a bad guy, I always knew God was real. I just thought I didn’t need Him.”

“The thing that made the movie not accurate at all was they took 30 plus years and put [it] into a two hour movie…” he says. “Anyone that hears me preach will end up telling you it’s like night and day to the character in the movie. The guy that played me in the movie kind of looks like he was losing…his faith in God. And anyone that knows me, knows that that’s not true. Even when I was a heroin addict, a drug addict, a gangster, a bad guy, I always knew God was real. I just thought I didn’t need Him.”

He says the name ‘Machine Gun Preacher’ came about years before the film when someone had seen him in Africa carrying a gun and surrounded by children. The sighting led to a newspaper story in the US which used the phrase and, which he says, “really trash-talked me”.

“When I read the story, I heard God say ‘Claim that name’; that name would be a marketing tool.”

It has, he says, since proved to be the case.

Asked about the controversy over his use of guns in rescuing children and concerns among some Christians who don’t believe the use of weapons is compatible with their faith, Childers, who estimates he has rescued more than 1,500 children over the years, says that, “to start with, everything wasn’t like the movie showed” and adds that he always worked alongside police and military.

“If I was doing anything illegal, I would have been arrested….I’ve never done anything against the governments’ where I work.”

He also cites an example from the Old Testament in which it speaks of the Ark of the Covenant in support of his use of weapons.

“What went before the ark and what went after? Security. So, from the beginning of time, we have had good people with weapons and bad people with weapons. What stops a bad guy with a gun? A good guy. You’ve got police officers here in Australia, you’ve got army in Australia…- they carry guns and many of them are born-again Christians.”

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Sam at a school Angels of East Africa has built in Ethiopia. PICTURE: Supplied.

There’s also been controversy over his on-going links with bikie clubs in the US.

“I’ve been a one percenter all my life,” says Childers, who still owns a motorbike shop in the US. “That’s my life and I ride with a lot of clubs. It kind of scares people but I always tell them I’m a chaplain…I’m there to help them in time of need. I think sometimes we focus on a few bad things that bike clubs do and we don’t focus on all the good things that they do. When you start looking, you’ll find that there’s a lot of other people who aren’t bikers who are doing just the same amount of bad things, you know.”

But back to his “message of hope”. Childers, who in 2013 was the recipient of the Mother Teresa International Award for Social Justice, says that while he’s in Australia (and Poland’s his next stop), he’s asking people to look at who he was and the direction he was headed in and compare that with what he’s doing now.

“I mean I couldn’t read or write 30 years ago,” he says. “I’ve got now two books out…and I’m getting ready to put [a third book] out soon. I don’t have any education but I speak in universities worldwide. So it gets people to look at who they are because most people who hear me speak [are] not as bad as I ever was. So I think when they hear me it kind of motivates them that they can be something else.”

Sam Childers is in Australia until 24th September where he's speaking at events including at New Hope Church in Brisbane on 16th September. For the full schedule of events, head to http://kevinevans.com.au/machine-gun-preacher-australia-2018. For more on Sam Childers work, head to http://machinegunpreacher.org.