TAMPA — Trouble seems to follow him.
And that's OK with Sam Childers, the former Outlaw biker turned gun-toting evangelist whose controversial ministry — rescuing orphans and pursuing warlords in Africa with his own paid militia — has prompted the burning question:
Missionary or mercenary?
“It went that way with Jesus, too, if you recall,” he says. “Any time you go against the grain, or stir up a little something, you're gonna set some people off.”
Take recent events, for example.
In October, Childers joined fellow honoree Dalai Lama when he became the first American to receive the annual Mother Teresa Memorial International Award for Social Justice from the Mumbai, India-based Harmony Foundation. He was recognized for his humanitarian efforts in saving abducted African children from the Lord's Resistance Army.
Childers didn't get long to revel in that honor. Just last month, his home, business and warehouse in Pennsylvania were raided by federal agents after his former son-in-law made firearms-smuggling allegations against Childers, who heads the Angels of East Africa nonprofit.
“It's all lies, and I'm telling everyone we've got nothing to hide,” Childers told a local television reporter.
Critics accuse Childers of making claims regarding his African ministry that are exaggerated or outright untrue. They decry his “gunfire-and-brimstone tactics,” calling them a “disaster.” Supporters, on the other hand, laud him for his bravery and relentless commitment to saving a targeted population against a brutal opposition. “He is a man of God,” an officer in the Sudan People's Liberation Army told Vanity Fair in the magazine's 2010 profile on Childers.
The man who evokes such polarizing views is in Tampa for the Saturday showing of “Machine Gun Preacher: The Documentary,” at the Gasparilla Film Festival and a Sunday appearance at The Well of Life, a nondenominational church that caters to bikers.
“Don't judge the man until you meet him,” says Well of Life pastor Mike Monday. “I was hesitant at first, but after I saw the movie and then met him in person at (Daytona) Bike Week, I now know he's a down to earth guy who has such a passion for what he believes in. He's got an incredible message to share.”
This isn't the first time Childers' story has been on the big screen. A Hollywood version with the same title opened in 2011, with heartthrob Gerald Butler playing Childers. But if you blinked, you probably missed it.
“It only opened in 96 theaters. Ninety-six theaters,” Childers says, still clearly ticked off. “The movie company dropped the ball on it while going through a lawsuit, the advertising budget was cut way down, and there you have it.”
Now the film is experiencing a resurrection on Netflix and RedBox. And though Childers, 51, admits it wasn't easy to sign the contract and relinquish control, he says the screenwriters did a “pretty fair job” of condensing 30-plus years of his colorful life of violence and Christian service into a two-hour story.
So why follow up with a self-produced documentary?
“People still had a lot of questions. What was fabricated and what was true?” he says. “The movie definitely was told from a secular viewpoint. With our film, we're not shying away from God's role in all of this.”
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“All of this” began with his messy growing-up years, some spent in Central Florida.
The son of a ironworker and former Marine, Childers discovered early on that he had a craving for cigarettes, alcohol and, eventually, heroin. He dropped out of high school and got involved in a biker gang, eventually working as a hired gun for drug dealers.
A brush with death at a Longwood nightclub when a fight broke out scared him straight. That's when he told his wife, Lynn, a former stripper, it was time to get out of Dodge and move far, far away from the influences that were bound to kill him. They left Florida and headed east to Pennsylvania, where Childers prospered in the construction industry.
But it was his conversion to Christianity in 1992 that made the 180-degree change in his life.
After his wife returned to the church she had left years earlier, Childers vowed to do the same if God would grant them a child. Their baby daughter was born, and he kept his promise, joining a rural church with Assemblies of God roots.
He says he would have been happy staying put there but, “God had different ideas for me, none of which I could have predicted.”
At a revival meeting, his pastor prophesied that Childers would one day go to Africa. In 1998, that prediction came true, when he went on a mission trip to the village of Yei in Southern Sudan to repair damaged huts from the ongoing civil war. After coming upon the body of a child ripped apart by a land mine, he made another promise: To do whatever he could to help the people in this war-torn country.
Childers has kept his word, though it has come with a price.
His ministry, with a staff of about 100 and an annual budget of approximately $1 million, now operates in Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda. It runs five orphanages with a sixth on the way, housing some 170 residents. It serves more than 4,000 meals a day, oversees four schools, and operates a 1,000-acre property that teaches farming, ranching and irrigation. So far, it has drilled 12 wells.
Childers spends about eight months of the year in Africa. At home, his wife is the senior pastor of the church he founded, Shekanih (Hebrew for “awesome presence of God”) Fellowship Church, located just a few miles from the site where the doomed Flight 93 crashed on 9/11.
He says he gets criticized and even death threats from Americans who don't like the work he does in Africa. The common complaint: Why aren't you helping out your own country? He says his congregation — relatively small, with less than 200 members — is very much committed to outreach, from running a free thrift store, delivering supplies to disaster-struck areas and operating a campground next to the church for the homeless.
Childers acknowledges his appearance can be off-putting and his manner too unpolished for some. He says he's not a suit-and-tie kind of preacher. “What you see is what you get,” he says. “And some people don't like what they see.”
He tells his story not for self-promotion or glory, he says, but because he wants to be an example. He's proof that a messed-up life can become a productive one.
“At the end of the day, put everything you do on a scale. Does the good outweigh the bad? It does with me, so I block out the bad stuff that's said,” Childers says. “Be obedient to God, wherever he asks you to serve.”