Archive for August, 2011

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.

Aug

03

2011

The devil’s hunter and his weapons

This is part 2 of a longer article on Sam Childers, the “Machine Gun Preacher.” Part 1 is here, or you can read the whole series as one long article.

Crush the wicked where they stand

Some of Childers’ most outrageous claims are his most recent. An April 2010 Vanity Fair profile, “Get Kony” by Ian Urbina – worth reading in full – focused on Childers’ personal quest to kill Joseph Kony. Kony is, of course, a really bad guy. He’s the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a guerilla group in northern Uganda known for its use of child soldiers. Childers claims to be hunting him. Urbina’s story doesn’t present Childers as particularly good at hunting or much closer to catching Kony than any of the others who are out for his head. But the beginning gives you a taste of Childers’ character:

It’s two a.m., and we’re barreling down a deeply pocked dirt road in Southern Sudan. In the cool of night, the temperature is nearly 100 degrees. Sam Childers, 46, is behind the wheel of a chrome-tinted Mitsubishi truck. Christian rock blares on the speakers. He has a Bible on the dash and a shotgun that he calls his “widow-maker” leaning against his left knee. His top sergeant, Santino Deng, 34, a Dinka tribesman with an anthracite complexion and radiant black eyes, sits in the passenger seat, an AK-47 across his lap.

In time, he liquidated his construction business, sold his pit bulls, auctioned his antique-gun collection, and mortgaged his home to help pay for regular trips to Sudan, where he began spending most of his time. He became obsessed with the fate of the thousands of children who have lost their parents to the fighting. In due course he would set up an orphanage in Sudan. But it was Joseph Kony who grabbed his attention. “I found God in 1992,” Childers says, in what is by now a ritual formulation. “I found Satan in 1998.” He has vowed to track Kony down and, in biblical fashion, to smite him.

From there the story gets more elaborate. According to Vanity Fair, Childers claims to be feeding and supplying the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a southern Sudanese armed group whose political wing has more recently become a major component of independent South Sudan’s government. Childers said that he “made his home in Uganda available to the rebels for a radio-relay station.” He also claims to have been present when the SPLA captured “an L.R.A. soldier believed to be part of Kony’s inner circle. Childers wanted to sedate the man and surgically implant a transmitter so he could be tracked when he returned to the base camp. An S.P.L.A. commander overruled Childers and dealt with the man the old-fashioned way—he executed him.”

No word on whether Childers reported this to anyone before the interview; executing prisoners is a war crime.

God’s RPG stockpile?

The profile continues, describing how a group of soldiers arrive to discuss the hunt for Kony. They ask to see inside his church:

The building, with a high sheet-metal roof and glassless windows, displays no religious markings. Inside, stacked floor to ceiling, sit hundreds of oblong olive-green crates. They contain rocket-propelled grenade launchers, AK-47s, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. The room is dusty, and birds flutter in the rafters. Childers says he supplies mostly the S.P.L.A., and also stores some of its arms. He adds that he has sold weapons to factions in Rwanda and Congo, but declines to specify which ones.

Childers said he gets his weapons from Russians, but only legally. He eventually got frustrated with Urbina’s questions about his arms dealing, but he already admitted a lot. Childers is stockpiling arms, including heavy weapons like RPGs that seem excessive for the needs of an orphanage’s self-protection. He’s storing these weapons in a church at his orphanage (which presumably might make it a target) and he sells weapons to the SPLA, which is not a squeaky clean group. While better than the LRA, the SPLA also has been known to use child soldiers during the period Childers sold them arms. Worse is Childers’ mention of selling weapons to “factions in Rwanda and Congo,” all of which are involved in a convoluted series of conflicts in which all parties have committed terrible crimes. If Childers is truly trying to bring an end to conflict in the region, he should start by recognizing that pumping more small arms into the area isn’t going to help.

In addition to selling arms, Childers claims that his “rescue missions” have also led to his personal engagement in combat. When asked how many LRA members he personally killed, “[Childers] reluctantly admits to ‘more than 10.’” In another long profile – from April 9, 2011 in The Times of London (which I unfortunately can’t find online) Childers appears to say he’s only killed in self-defense, though it’s hard to deem armed expeditions to find the LRA “self-defense.” That profile also emphasizes the primacy of Childers’ hunt for Kony. It also describes him showing off the guns he keeps in his bedroom at the orphanage:

He hauls an Uzi machine pistol out of one [plastic crate] and clicks in a 32-round magazine. From another comes a longbarrelled Magnum revolver, and from under his narrow metal-framed bed comes a case containing a Mossberg bolt-action sniper rifle and a pump-action shotgun. Another box beneath the bed is full of hand grenades.

If you’re not convinced already that his tactics are shortsighted and part of the problem, rather than a solution, you might be wondering if – just maybe – Childers knows the local situation so well that he was able to pick the “right” side in the conflict. Other stories indicate that Childers is impatient and interacts poorly with the Sudanese people. Urbina’s profile continues (emphasis added):

A little later we pull to the side of the road for firewood to bring back to the orphanage. A woman and her husband stand there with a listless baby who is gravely ill from parasites and malaria. Childers offers to take the woman and child to the hospital in Nimule. The father shyly declines, saying he plans to take her to a different clinic tomorrow. A look of rage flashes in Childers’s eyes. “I ought to beat you right here, you know that?” he yells. “What kind of father are you? You are not serious about your children.” Childers points to a nearby grave, where the family has already buried an infant. “What is wrong with you?” Childers by now is surrounded by several of his soldiers, guns on their shoulders. He steps toward the man. “I should really beat you,” he repeats. Terrified, the father gives in. We take mother and child to the hospital.

The child recovers; Childers almost certainly saved its life. But the bullying lingers in memory long afterward. I remember once asking Childers whether any vil­lagers had ever declined his offer to take their children, or whether he had ever taken any against their will. He erupted angrily: “You know what? I don’t have time to be distracted by this sort of interrogation.”

This is hardly reassuring. While Childers doesn’t answer Urbina’s questions about taking children against their will (or detailed questions about his arms dealing), it’s clear that his own ambitions feed off of media coverage. How else did Urbina come to profile him? Self-aggrandizing is a good word for it. Urbina describes Childers as “droning on about the feature film that he hopes will be made about his life, a proj­ect advanced by a Hollywood agent.” Who does that?

Continue reading part 3 here, or you can read the whole series as one long article.

Aug

03

2011

Who is Sam Childers?

He goes by many names, Reverend Sam and the “Machine Gun Preacher” amongst them. If you haven’t heard much from Sam Childers, you will soon. To date he’s been featured in a few mainstream publications, but most of his exposure has come from forays into Christian media outlets and cross-country speaking tours of churches. In 2009 he published his memoir, Another Man’s War. But Childers is about to become much better known: his life story is being made into a movie titled Machine Gun Preacher. It hits the big screen this September, starring Gerard Butler (300) and directed by Oscar-winner Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace).

Why should you care? If you’re concerned about Africa (especially the newly independent South Sudan), neutrality and humanitarianism, or how small charities sometimes make it big on dubious stories, Childers is a scary character. By his own admission Sam Childers is a Christian and a savior to hundreds of children, as well as a small-time arms-dealer and a killer. And, as far as I can tell, he’s a self-aggrandizing liar who chronically exaggerates his own stories and has been denounced by many, including the rebel group of which he claimed to be a commander.

It’s hard to get to the bottom of much of Childers’ story. I first heard of him months ago and have been scouring the web, but the trail is still pretty thin. On the on hand there’s a ton of copy written about him – but almost all of it originates with Childers’ own storytelling. I think there are a number of good reasons we should be skeptical.

The short version of his coming-to-the-big-screen story is this: Childers used to be a drug-dealing gang member who loved motorcycles almost as much as he craved women, drugs, and violence – especially violence. He fell in love with his wife after they met through a drug deal, and she convinced him to turn his life around. Sam found Jesus, got involved with the church, and went to Africa. There he encountered the Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and it use of child soldiers. He found his calling leading armed rescue missions to free enslaved children in northern Uganda and southern Sudan. Now that his life story is being made into a movie — a goal Childers has long sought — his ministry will only grow stronger and save more children.

His website, MachineGunPreacher.org, makes no apologies about his violent tactics. Here’s one of the banners that adorns the front page:

What you see now is a slickly-polished presentation, but it hasn’t always been that way. Childers’ story has grown over time, apparently aided by a PR firm, sympathetic media, and a quest to be ever more sensational. My gut reaction is that he’s making much of it up – and I’ll present evidence that shows at least some of his claims are likely falsehoods. We can choose to believe that Childers’ claims are true, in which case he is dangerous, or that they’re false and he’s untrustworthy. The reality is probably that he’s a bit of both.

This is part 1 of a longer article on Childers. Continue reading part 2 here, or you can read the whole series as one long article.

Aug

03

2011

The Onion of Africa advocacy

The Onion of Africa advocacy” is my new nickname for Falling Whistles, the Congo advocacy group that appears to be staffed more by graphic designers than people with policy chops or good taste. On first read it’s hard to tell whether all of their material might actually be a big inside joke designed to mock tasteless, shallow advocacy messaging. Which would be awesome… except that they’re serious.

Their latest email, with the subject line “Announcing the Hamptons Edition Whistle” and a message body composed entirely of an image, is pasted below (click for larger version):

Judge for yourself?

Aug

02

2011

New books

… that I wish I had time to read:

1) Laurie Garrett’s first book since Betrayal of Trust (2000) is I Heard the Sirens Scream, which takes on 9/11, the anthrax attacks, and the US response to both. I’m most interested in the discussion of “the bizarre chemistry of The Plume that rose from the burning crushed World Trade center for four months.” Alanna Shaikh interviews Garrett about the book in UN Dispatch.

2) The Other Barack, though it sounds depressing.

3) The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York. A review:

By 1982, Osman writes, the number of hardware stores in Park Slope was more than three times the per-capita average in the rest of the city, and surveys indicated that a majority of Park Slope residents were undertaking most improvements themselves. In the current age of multimillion-dollar brownstone sales, it’s easy to forget the more modest roots of these neighborhoods….New, politically savvy residents sometimes found common cause with local residents in lobbying for services and opposing large-scale development. In 1975, the Fort Greene Non-Profit Improvement Council was powerful enough to obtain a court injunction halting study of the construction of a new Giants Stadium on the Atlantic Terminal site. Such coalitions, however, don’t always hold together….

Sounds interesting throughout, especially now that I’ve been to Brooklyn. Yes, before this summer I had never really ventured outside of Manhattan on my few visits to New York. Also, the question of gentrification is one of those things I used to think was simple, when I first read of it. Surprisingly (or not?) it was talking through those issues in DC with several friends who are urban planners that made me realize that there generally aren’t easy answers to any question involving old and new residents and changing economic fortunes in a neighborhood.

Not #4: After reading J’s review, I think I’ll pass on Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers.

Aug

01

2011