To be lowly in spirit

This is part 3 of a longer article on Sam Childers, the “Machine Gun Preacher.” Read part 1 and part 2, or read the whole series as one long article.

Childers has never been a modest man. More from Urbina’s profile of him:

[Childers] compares himself to the biblical figure Ishmael, whose wild spirit, he says, drove women into transports of desire. “It was insane. I would have five girls in a single night. I mean, seriously, I could have had your mother if I had wanted her.” He glares at me, a speck of food stuck in his mustache, as if I don’t believe him. More than the drugs and sex, it was the violence that fed Childers.

That is the image the Reverend Sam chooses to project. He’s a violent man on a mission, and God is on his side. To some that message may be horrifying, but he’s obviously found a niche. Unfortunately there is a strain of American Christianity that eats this up. It’s quite different from the church I grew up in, which was historically pacifist (but has lately strayed towards mainstream Republican militarism). I hope most Christians will recoil in horror when they hear what Childers does in the name of God, but not everyone will. Those groups will latch onto Childers’ violent streak will just pour more money into his work.

The story could end there – with Childers as some bizarre mash-up of Rambo and missionary – except that it gets stranger. Childers claims have grown more grandiose with time, and/or he’s tailored them to fit different audiences to avoid mentioning important parts of his work that might be relevant to donors.

Childers’ organization is now called Angels of East Africa. If you go to their website, www.AngelsofEastAfrica.com, you get redirected to MachineGunPreacher.org. But, if you go to any other page on the website the content is still there, giving you a taste of how the site looked before it got the fancy (and I imagine expensive) Machine Gun Preacher makeover. The original Angels of East Africa “About” page is here. The history page has more. Much of the story is the same, but there are glaring omissions: no mention of being involved with the SPLA. Despite a description of Kony, there’s no indication that Childers was trying to hunt him down. It’s all much simpler — just rescuing orphans and building the orphanage.

Angels of East Africa is also associated with a Christian ministry called Boyers’ Pond / World Missions New Sudan. Their website (www.boyerspond.com) also now redirects to MachineGunPreacher.org. But the original webpages behind the main page are still there, including descriptions of rescue missions January 2007 (including an ambush) and May 2007. Again, there’s no mention of fighting with the SPLA or tracking down Kony. Incredibly, Childers does note in the January 2007 report that as “many times happens, several were not healthy enough to make the trip and we had to leave them behind.”

You shall not swear falsely

All of this made me think: when and where did Childers first claim involvement with the SPLA? As late as 2007 he wasn’t making those claims in material clearly written by him, even in places you’d expect him to do so. After some searching, the earliest instance of his more outrageous claims regarding active involvement in combat and interactions with the SPLA didn’t come from Childers. It came from this 2005 article written by Maria Sliwa (emphasis added):

With a physique like Jean Claude Van Damme, 42-year-old Sam Childers has hunted alligators in the US and has smacked down miscreants in Africa. This titan, who could easily pass for Hulk Hogan’s younger brother, sold hard drugs in the late 70s and early 80s and was a rider with the Outlaws, a motorcycle gang in Florida. He has since put his notorious ways behind him and now uses his muscular prowess to save lives in Sudan and Uganda.

On a recent morning, Sam surveyed the orphanage he built on the 36 acres of bush land he cleared four years ago in Nimule, South Sudan. His orphanage is a safe haven for children who are captured out of, or are lucky enough to escape from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel paramilitary group operating in Uganda and Sudan, which has been designated a terrorist group by the US State Department. Though Sam’s gut is overstocked with intestinal fortitude, the terror that rages around his orphanage is so frightening that just thinking about it can send a cold shiver of electric sparks up and down his sturdy spine.

Sam is a pastor and is the only white commander in the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), another rebel group, which, like the LRA has troops in Sudan and Uganda.

Maybe Childers has been telling a consistent story all along in private, but this is (as far as I can tell) the first public mention of his work with the SPLA. And this narrative took over the others until it became the hyperbolic Sam we hear from today. So who is Maria Sliwa? Though she didn’t disclose it in writing her article, Sliwa runs a PR firm, and Childers is her client(Updated Correction: Maria Sliwa left a comment on this post saying that she did not begin representing Childers until 2008. I had assumed so because a) the page that has her contact info appeared to be much older, judging by the web design, and b) it reads more like a PR piece than objective journalism. She later clarified that she does not currently represent Childers.) An old page on the Boyers’ Pond site lists her as his press contact. Her website (and an older version) lists media appearances she’s arranged for clients, and her ability to push a story is quite impressive.

Maria Sliwa’s clients include several people connected to modern-day slavery and Sudan (such as Simon Deng) but also many conservative figures. One is Joseph Farah – founder of World Net Daily and one of the leading proponents of Birtherism (the “birther czar”). Farah is known to play fast and loose with the facts, to say the least, so Sliwa’s work promoting him should not inspire us to have confidence in her devotion to the truth.

Continue reading part 4 here, or you can read the whole series as one long article.

03

08 2011

12 Comments Add Yours ↓

The upper is the most recent comment

  1. Maria Sliwa #
    1

    Hi Brett,

    Had you called me for comment, before publishing this article, you would have learned that I traveled to Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda with Sam Childers in 2004. You would have also discovered that I was attending NYU’s grad school for journalism at the time the article was published in 2005. The article was an assignment for a writing class I attended in the fall of 2005. The journalism program at NYU encouraged students to publish then as it does now. I graduated in May of 2005 and have not published any articles since. In 2008 Mr. Childers asked me to promote his work, which I agreed to do.

  2. Maria Sliwa #
    3

    Brett you are misinterpreting information again. I never said that I “currently represent Sam Childers,” as you indicate. (Please reread my post.) You incorrectly assumed this without first checking with me. In fact, you NEVER checked with me on anything you posted here, but have built much of your work on assumptions that are based on incomplete and unsubstantiated information.

    You have not presented your article as an opinion piece, but rather as an investigative work. The problem is that your entire piece is riddled with mistakes. Much of this is due to your shoddy exploration. Therefore, your analysis, which is based on deficient research, has resulted in poorly constructed and faulty conclusions.

    For example, am I to assume that you are doing this for ulterior motives because the movie about Childers is coming out in September and you are trying to make a name for yourself? Or, can I say your perception is tainted and bitter against Childers, a conservative pastor, because you are a former conservative Christian-turned-non-religious political liberal? The truth is I can assume all I want, but it doesn’t amount to anything if I can’t properly substantiate my conclusions with all of the facts. So too, you can assume all you want, but if your investigative work is not solid it will not stand up.

    In your article you also state that “an old page on the Boyers’ Pond site lists her as his press contact.” In the context of your statement, you infer that I was promoting Childers at the same time I published the feature article about him. But that is ludicrous. Just because the web site was created on April 8, 2000, before the article was published, doesn’t mean information cannot be posted on the site after it was created. In fact, the web page you mention, but fail to provide a date for, http://www.boyerspond.com/chopper.html, was added to the site on April 20, 2008 — three years after the article was published. A little more digging on your part could have easily garnered this information. But again, your assumption created a problem for you because you did not do the necessary research.

    There are many more mistakes in your piece that I don’t have time to walk you through. But I do hope that before beginning another investigative article that you put in the work that is necessary.

    Finally, my article on Childers is obviously a feature story. Please find out the differences in feature writing and other types of articles from an authoritative source. There is a distinct difference.

  3. 4

    Honestly, based on your promotional work for clients who play lose with the facts (Farah being chief amongst them) and complaints I’ve read online (from other conservatives) about your possibly copying other work, I take everything you say with a huge grain of salt, and don’t think you’re in much of a position to lecture me on accuracy.

    As for how I presented my piece — I published it on my blog. Blogs aren’t opinion, or investigative journalism, but a mix of all of the above. Yes, my opinions intentionally show through. Yes, I did some investigation as well, but I readily noted that my sources were all online and did not imply that I had done any further work, such as interviews. That leaves you free to reject my conclusions if you think my methodology is insufficient, but others can judge for themselves. Again, most of the most damning things about Childers are his own statements.

    Also, I did infer from your statement that you continued to represent him, which I think was a reasonable interpretation of what you said. I’ll make another correction. As for other factual errors in my piece, if you provide evidence that there are errors I will happily correct them, but most of what I present is simply quoting what Childers has said, and what others have written about him. If those other sources are in error then Childers should release a statement saying so, as they are the best available third-party information on him out there, and he is about to get the media attention he has been seeking for years.

    As for my motivation, I read about a person that I think is getting a free pass from critics to date — largely because his support comes from a religious community that doesn’t question humanitarians from within its own ranks to the same degree they might be skeptical of those from outside. Having been a Christian, I know this can happen. I also know that there are MANY Christian humanitarians who are honest, hard-working, and long-suffering in their work for many of the poorest and most marginalized communities in the world. Most of them absolutely abhor violence and those who see it as an answer, whether they cloak their work in the name of religion or not. I’m happy for Christians to give to Christian charities because I know many of them do excellent work; I just want them to make an informed decision about it. I wanted to write before the movie came out because a lot of people are about to hear about Childers for the first time, and I want them to get a more complete picture and not just a Hollywood version or the MachineGunPreacher.org version.

  4. Maria Sliwa #
    5

    You are excusing yourself for bad reporting, while hiding behind the fact that this is a blog. Without proper investigation you quickly accuse others of negative things, and yet you can’t handle the heat when your work is scrutinized. You obviously have a problem with conservatives and your writing reveals that you are closed-minded and biased. You also believe everything you read, without sufficiently checking it out, and filter things according to your own personal likes and dislikes. Yet you refuse to consider substantiated facts that would easily refute your conclusions because you won’t see any other side of the story you have created.

    Face it Brett, you are the one who is running fast and loose with information and have proven yourself an unreliable source. You never spoke with Sam Childers about your concerns. Yet you conclude that he is a liar, a libelous statement considering your weak investigation, without ever reaching out to him for comment. And to this day, you have never directly reached out to me for comment either. Despite all the posts on Google regarding my work, (approximately 10,300), you have managed to focus on some allegations you have read on the Internet, as well as my work for conservative clients you don’t like.

    What about the work I have done for the progressive left such as Small Planet and Frances Moore Lappe, and for clients of other pr firms I contract with who are also on the left or are far-left progressives? You could have also found this on the Internet. If you had contacted me I would have told you about it and you could have then checked it out for yourself. Yet you seem to be afraid to contact people you have accused of wrongdoing. Is it because you are concerned that by doing so, you could be proven wrong? Is it because mentioning the accused’s side of the story is inconvenient for your blog, would add much needed balance to your biased analysis, and could water down your findings?

    You obviously don’t like Joseph Farah and have labeled him, without substantiating your negative comments. You have also disregarded all of the positive things he has written about the left, while scorning him as a conservative. Others don’t like Frances Moore Lappe, and have labeled her. Yet I will not scorn conservatives or liberals because despite their differences, both have something to contribute. The truth is that Farah and Lappe are beyond labels, but are considered great in some circles and are shunned in others because of their political points of view. And because of situations like this, in general, I have taken just as much heat for promoting people on the left, as I have for promoting people on the right. But I will continue to represent people on both sides because this great nation of ours is built on freedom of expression. Whether you like it or not Brett, the first amendment of our constitution assures this right to everyone. Farah and Lappe have a right to express their differing points of view because that is our democracy in action – the free exchange of ideas. This same right to free expression also enables you to publish whatever you want too, despite the many problems with your work.

    • 6

      I’ll let readers judge for themselves. You call ME libelous while in the same breath calling me “close-minded and biased,” “running fast and loose with information,” and call me an “unreliable source”? But you decline to ‘walk me through’ the errors because you don’t have time?? If there are specific points of fact beyond those you’ve mentioned already (which I readily corrected) on which I am demonstrably wrong on, please post your evidence.

      Otherwise, stop complaining just because I pulled together Childers’ own damning statements and wrote my opinion on them. And if he didn’t say those things, he should publish a press release saying so now that he’s sought to become a public figure. Finally, I welcome freedom of speech, which is one reason I run a blog and welcome comments — your implication that I don’t is laughable.

  5. Maria Sliwa #
    7

    What is laughable is that you have written all of these loosely strung together allegations against Sam Childers and his work, and yet you have never gone to Nimule, South Sudan, to check out Childers’ orphanage for yourself. If you had you would see a living hell on earth, the suffering that is beyond human comprehension, and the desperately needed safe haven Childers offers to the children at his orphanage, despite the incredible danger and horrifying conditions. You would see that most of the aid groups are in Kampala, Uganda where it is safe, and that only Childers and one other Christian group that drives in and out of Nimule in an armored truck, are working in the danger zone of Nimule. The conditions are desperate and the work that Childers is doing is desperately needed. Nobody else is doing it. Yet you are too afraid to contact Childers directly with your allegations, let alone go to one of the most dangerous places on earth to check out his story for yourself. You have been so quick to criticize his important work, while maligning him with your armchair journalism. A quick review of the articles about the LRA and Joseph Kony would backup these facts about the danger zone of Nimule. In fact, a quick review of the mainstream media that went to Sudan with Childers, would substantiate these facts as well. But you have blinders on and refuse to see. Unfortunately, it is your bias that is blinding you.

    And yes, while you are allowing me to post my comments, some of your redactions and edits of your original comments are still not correct and lack sufficient information because, once again, you are picking and choosing what is sufficient for the story you are creating, but is not necessarily fact. Bottom line, your article is still a major mess and that is why I don’t want to waste the time and walk you through it because I can see that you won’t get it anyway and are just getting angry and defensive. And at the rate you are going, it looks like you will never engage in truly objective reporting. So what is the use?

    You mentioned World Vision. Yes, I agree, it is a fabulous organization. I saw this first hand while at the World Vision center in Northern Uganda where I interviewed former LRA members who had been taken to the center for rehabilitation. World Vision is another organization that doesn’t have an outpost in the danger zone of Nimule because it is just that — too dangerous. Yet in all of your slamming of Childers did you ever report that World Vision works in conjunction with him? No. You never did. But if you had been thorough in your work and contacted Childers regarding your allegations, instead of focusing on trying to tarnish him, he would have told you all about it and would have given you the contacts so you could have checked it out for yourself. But because you did not do this you are recommending an organization, World Vision, as a legitimate one, even though it sees fit to work in conjunction with Childers, who you still contend is illegitimate, even though your work against him is built on insufficient information. Again, this mistake on your part could have been avoided if you were not so afraid to talk with Childers. But what would completly solve your problems in this matter, and rectify your stubborn mistakes altogether is a trip to Nimule, so you can see it all for yourself. However, if you are already too afraid to speak with Childers, you will be scared to DEATH of Nimule. This I can promise you.

    Why should Childers issue a press release answering your baseless allegations, when you haven’t even contacted him to question him on your findings? It is obvious from your writing that you are biased against him and that you don’t like him because he is a conservative Christian, so why should he bother? As long as your bias continues, you will always be clouded and will never seek the truth. It is also obvious that you are never going to legitimately seek the truth because you don’t want to, but rather will continue to pick and chose what is convenient for you, according to your strong filters.

    Quite frankly, in lieu of the fact that the situation Childers so bravely faces in Sudan is so desperate and dangerous, you should be ashamed of yourself for your substandard reporting.

    • 8

      This is not very productive, since you so obviously think little of me and my writing. Again, I welcome the chance to correct specific errors but find it hard to see how so many of them would have crept in since most of what I report is Childers’ own assertions about his own work. Please let me know which of my redactions/corrections are not correct, I will make them so. And if you think all of this results from bias because you think I don’t like Childers because he’s a conservative Christian (it’s not! it’s because of the things he has done and said — I couldn’t care less about the content of his beliefs if they didn’t lead him to do and say outrageous things), what effect does arguing with me have?

      You keep analogizing this to reporting, but it’s not. It’s blogging. I pulled together publicly available information and presented it as such. I hope that this does lead some good journalists who *do* have the resources to both travel to Nimule and independently verify Childers’ published claims.

  6. 9

    Brett, the Machine Gun Pracher would like to offer you the opportunity to prove or retract your claims. Please visit the Machine Gun Preacher Reality Series Facebook to read the invitation.

    • 10

      Zac — thanks very much for the note. For those who don’t have access to Facebook the posting reads:

      “Brett Keller. Reverend Sam Childers will return from Somalia on the 10th. He would like to extend to you the invitation to journey to Central City, PA so that you can clarify your claims. Time to put your money were your mouth is…
      “In fact, Sam would like to invite you to his service on Sunday morning at the Shekinah Fellowship, Central City, PA.
      “That’s this Sunday 14 August. If you can’t make that, you are welcome to call him and arrange another time. His phone number is widely available on the net.”

      Thanks for the invitation. I think it would be challenging for me to visit Center City in person, at least in the next few weeks (I’m wrapping up a full-time job, moving, and starting classes all in the next two weeks – and I don’t have a car). Based on the vitriolic reaction I’ve received from your own church members/supporters in comments here, it does NOT sound like the most welcoming place. However I will consider it.

      That said, I will be in touch with Childers after the 10th to discuss this. I would also be interested in discussing other ways in which Childers might clarify his statements. For example, I’d be willing to provide a list of questions based on the extensive list of his reported quotes and publish his responses. I’ll be in touch.

  7. 11

    Do consider it Brett. You have nothing to lose really. If you challenge someone in a public forum you really owe it to them to allow them the opportunity to respond to your claims.

  8. Maria Sliwa #
    12

    Brett,

    I understand that you are having a hard time with the feedback you have received and I apologize for being so hard on you. But it is important that you handle your posts with responsibility. Yes, this is true even for a blog. You have called Sam Childers a liar as well as other seriously negative things, and yet you were very resistant about contacting him with your allegations. But depending predominantly on the information you have collected from web sites is not sufficient to excuse the libelous things you are alleging. I am glad you are considering talking with him now, even better would be a face-to-face interview.

    I know the last thing you may want to do is more work on this, (work that requires much more diligence) especially when you have so much on your plate. But this is an important lesson to learn for college, as professors generally will not let you get away with citing a paper with mostly secondary Internet sources.

    So even though this is a blog, it does not excuse you from the necessary diligence and objectivity that is required, which is what a responsible writer would do.

    The other thing that is necessary is to overcome the bias that could be leveled against your work because you left conservative Christianity, side with atheism and may be perceived as having an axe-to-grind with conservative Christians, as a result. In most cases, it is the atheist groups that have problems with conservative Evangelical Christians. They don’t seem to attack liberal Christian groups as much. So you need to overcome this perception by showing the reader that you don’t have this bias against Childers and are truly objective, even in terms of your own likes and dislikes. It may be hard to do, but it is not impossible if you apply yourself. If you find you can’t overcome bias, then you should let your readers know about this too, or at least state that you are working to overcome this obstacle. This is because your readers will also trust you more if you are transparent.

    Being a responsible writer also means reviewing all of the material available, rating your sources as primary and secondary, and conducting numerous interviews and then fact checking your work. If you do these things, the reader will be much more apt to trust you.

    Yes, all of this requires a lot of work. But next time you call someone a liar, perhaps you will think twice before publishing it without the sufficient diligence that is necessary to justify such a serious claim. You went into this endeavor relying heavily on a faulty press release, which you never properly checked out. And in your zeal to expose Childers, I am afraid you jumped the gun and have libeled him instead. You owe Childers and your readers more than that. You owe them a fearlessly unbiased look at your own writing and a work that reflects the required diligence – again — even for a blog. And if there is information that counters your original findings, you can’t be afraid to admit that you were wrong. That is what good writers do. They are not afraid to be truly objective and understand the ramifications of that word and what it really means. You have to be brave enough to cut the things in your writing that are not sufficiently backed up. In journalism it is called “killing your darlings.”

    I am sorry my comments have upset you, but hope you will take into consideration the gist of my posts so you will emerge a better, more responsible and more objective writer.


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