Who is Sam Childers?
This page combines a series of five blog posts I wrote on Sam Childers (starting with this post) into one long narrative.
UPDATES (9/24/2011): This post doesn’t have all the most recent information — for updates see my follow-up posts, “More on Rev. Sam Childers,” “How Sam Childers endangers humanitarians everywhere,” and “Machine gun roundup: the story gets worse.” Also, my piece “Machine Gun Menace” in Foreign Policy summarizes much of what I wrote here but extends the argument against vigilante humanitarianism, and Christianity Today explores allegations of neglect at Childers’ orphanage.
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-nominated director 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-soon 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.
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?
To be lowly in spirit
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 asSimon 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.
So how do we know that Childers isn’t telling the truth? His SPLA buddies said so. After claiming that he was the only white SPLA commander, that he let them use his house as a radio base, and that he recruited SPLA troops as his own personal child-rescuing mercenary outfit, in October 2010 the SPLA put out a press release (through long-time Sudan hand John Ashworth). It reads:
Sam Childers is not associated with the SPLA
This is to inform all who are concerned that Sam Childers is not associated with the SPLA. Sam is alleged to be busy now collecting money in the USA using the name of the SPLA. He went to the level of alleging that he is “paying his militia force – a platoon of seasoned fighters recruited from the SPLA – and for his effort, he says, the Government of Southern Sudan has named him an honorary commander, the only white man to achieve that distinction”.
The SPLA does not know Sam Childers. SPLA cannot release its soldiers for militia purposes as that is not allowed by the SPLA Act of 2009. If the allegation is true, then the SPLA is appealing to those who are concerned to take legal measures against Sam for the misusing the name of an organization which is not associated with him.
Thanks. Signed: Lt. Gen. Kuol Deim Kuol, SPLA Spokesman
A rather inconvenient truth. This press release was actually the first I had heard of Childers, as the blogger Roving Bandit (formerly of Sudan) highlighted both Childers’ story and the SPLA’s press release.
Post-press release I believe the most sympathetic possible view of Childers is that he started an orphanage and rescued some children… but maybe he’s prone to exaggerating his feats and the means by which he accomplishes them. Maybe Maria Sliwa got carried away in promoting him writing about him and exaggerated his SPLA claims and violent tactics. But even if those stories originated with her (who can ever know?) (Update: see previous note re: Sliwa’s work as his publicist not beginning at the time of her article) [Now] Childers has now fully claimed them as his own. You can read a few excerpts of his memoir through Google Books. In it he claims:
I had SPLA soldiers with me from the first time I went to Africa. Once they realized I was as committed to helping the people of Sudan as they were, they accepted me as their friend and fellow soldier. When I saw that they didn’t have the equipment and supplied they needed in the field, I started bringing them gifts like binoculars, tents, and sleeping bags.
I started hiring the SPLA for security work, and because we worked so close together, I became an SPLA soldier myself. They saw that my heart was to make a difference in the lives of their people, so they started calling me a commander. I carried truckloads of food, salt, sugar, blankets, and other supplies to the front for soldiers, as well as preaching to them and encouraging them in battle.
In his book Childers also claims to have been present during the negotiation of the CPA (which brought Sudan’s civil war to a close). By his own telling he was the only one at the table concerned with the humanitarian needs of the Sudanese people, which didn’t make people happy: “U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell had some representatives at the talks, and I heard they got upset with me. One of them asked somebody else, ‘Who the hell is this white guy?’”
So who the hell is Sam Childers? He wants you to believe he’s working to resolve South Sudan’s problems, but to me he seems dangerously unstable. Here’s a man with a temper, selling arms to groups he likely doesn’t understand, and promoting himself with dubious claims. I certainly won’t donate. But like it or not, the Machine Gun Preacher movie is coming soon. USA Today has a brief preview, and more is sure to come. In the meantime Childers has been touring the country’s churches in a custom-painted Machine Gun Preacher truck and raising money through the Machine Gun Preacher store.
Those who follow the aid and philanthropy world may find all of this a bit reminiscent of the Greg Mortenson scandal. The Mortenson scandal erupted in part because people who were suspicious about exaggerations in Mortenson’s story kept quiet for much too long. I imagine there are many people who have met Childers throughout the years who feel the same. The United States has thousands of tiny charities – many of them with a religious mission – that never make it big. Mortenson’s claims were finally scrutinized when his books became bestsellers, but by that time his organization had already raised millions of dollars. I’m worried that Sam Childers is about to see the same type of fame: a massive increase in donations driven by his book, and especially by the Machine Gun Preacher movie.
To be fair, I see no indication that Childers has mishandled money as Mortenson apparently did. You can look up the tax records for “Boyers Pond – Shekinah Fellowship – Angels of East Africa Inc” using their tax number, EIN 251841332. (See the note at the end of this series for more on the finances.) But the lack of accountability is troubling. If the organization has a board it’s not listed publicly. The main employees of the charity appear to be Childers, his wife, and their daughter. That may be standard issue for smaller charities, but with revenues approaching $1 million annually – and certain to increase after the movie is released – it should be cause for some concern.
In the April 2011 Times of London profile (not online), Childers said this:
“I tell you this – and I believe the day is coming soon – if I had the money, I could have Joseph Kony’s head. I could bring him down. And I will have the money, soon.” […]
… Childers insists the film will be a hit: “It’s going to do unbelievable well.” He hopes it will make him famous, so he can raise more funds for his manhunt and his orphanage.
My hope is that more people will think critically about what the “Machine Gun Preacher” is advocating and doing in Sudan, and choose to give to other organizations instead. There are plenty of reasons to doubt his work:
- Violence. By his own claims Childers has personally killed people – in the double digits. He is not a man of peace, and it’s hard to see how his claimed tactics bring the situation closer to that. Even if he were the best option for getting Kony (highly doubtful), it doesn’t seem to me that the use of child soldiers in the region would disappear with Kony’s demise. Also, since many of Kony’s troops are themselves soldiers, how does Childers avoid killing them?
- Weapons. Again by his own claims, Childers has sold weapons to armed groups in Sudan, Rwanda, and the Congo. There are no happy-go-lucky bands of nice Christian warriors in the area; every group I’ve read about has been accused of terrible crimes at some point. Feeding more weapons into the conflict will only make things worse, and end up hurting the children Childers purports to help. His solutions are woefully shortsighted.
- Lies. Childers claimed to be a “white commander” in the SPLA, but the SPLA has publicly denounced him and called for legal action. This apparent falsehood casts some doubt on whether Childers really does the things he claims – the violence and weapons described above – so we’re left choosing between whether he is dishonest or dangerous. Or both. (Update: see Childers’ letter of support from an SPLA general here — but also note that this isn’t the only of his claims that begs skepticism.)
- Disrespect. Much of what Childers’ trafficks in – weapons aside – is poverty porn of the worst sort. By only emphasizing the worst aspects of any situation Childers may drive up his donations, but he demeans those he seeks to serve. He goes even further in his report on South Darfur, prompting a commenter who worked in the region to call him out.
- The White Man’s burden. Childers’ story is only the latest in a long history of “Whites in Shining Armour” narratives that emphasize the heroics of white Americans and Europeans while downplaying the agency of the people of Sudan and elsewhere in Africa.
- It’s a bad model to begin with. Saundra S of the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough has written extensively on why donors should be wary of orphanages.
What then shall we do?
I realize some people will find these posts and be discouraged because they were moved by stories of suffering in Sudan and just want to give to someone. Don’t respond to the emotion you’re feeling by supporting Sam Childers, as there are – contrary to his claims – many other organizations working in South Sudan that do good work. If you feel compelled to give to a charity in South Sudan you might consider Oxfam. If you only give to Christian groups, consider World Vision. No group is perfect, but these are both reputable charities. My apologies for not being familiar with smaller charities on the ground, and I would appreciate suggestions from those who are more familiar with the area.
Ironically, I think Sam Childers is best summed up by blogger Chris Baron in this review – where Baron obviously believes in Childers. He asks good rhetorical questions, but obviously I think the evidence points to a different conclusion:
There are only two options, he is either an insatiable liar or there is a God in Heaven who has tasked his angels concerning Sam’s work. And how many liars do you know give up everything in order to save children, build orphanages and fight enemies who are not their own? Liars don’t do that. Liars are self serving.
Notes on Angels of East Africa’s finances: The organization’s income has increased in recent years from $309,166 in 2006 (tax PDF), $578,992 in 2007, $446,294 in 2008, and $877,755 in2009. Vanity Fair reported that the orphanage has an “annual budget of about $600,000, raised primarily through Childers’s speaking fees and donations from a global network of evangelicals.”
I’m not a Form 990 tax expert, so I will leave more detailed explorations to others. The travel costs ($233,717 in 2008 and $216,809 in 2009) seem high to me. Childers certainly isn’t taking a huge salary: the first year his salary was listed was 2008, at a mere $38,900. It’s hard to tell what all they’ve spent money on – all orphanage expenses are listed under line items such as “Wires to Africa.” Presumably some of this money went to purchase weapons as well?
Miscellaneous notes: here are some additional semi-relevant links that I could not work into this narrative but you may enjoy:
- The FAA fined Childers $28,000 in 2007 for transporting oil and other hazardous materials by plan.
- A bunch of photos of Sam Childers in Africa.
- A video interview in which Childers says he joined SPLA, features sick, crying Africans and naked children, and describes him as a “a rebel turned savior called the bearded white man.”
- An adaptation of a chapter in Childers’ book.
- It’s not clear to me where the claims in this PDF come from, but they outline some even more grandiose claims supposedly made by Childers – seems less reputable to me.
- This video is a short documentary on Childers (or maybe a preview for one?).
- Childers has a second book titled Living on the Edge coming out in a year or less.
- This long-ish MSNBC story also features Childers. It’s remarkable how uncritical the coverage of him has been by so many media sources. I also find it hard to imagine that they would take his more extraordinary claims seriously if he were an African rather than an American.
COMMENTS POLICY: I welcome feedback, but for the sake of keeping some standard of quality here to encourage others to read the discussion, I will delete comments that have a) gratuitous profanity or other NSFW material or b) nothing but ad hominems that don’t add to the discussion.