'Hillbilly' Sam Childers, inspiration for 'Machine Gun Preacher,' returned from hell to do God's work

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TORONTO -- In a 36-year-old film festival with few firsts left, Sam Childers can claim one.

"I believe I was the first hillbilly to ever walk the red carpet," he said of his September stroll outside Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. "From what I hear, I was the first man to walk the red carpet with Harley clothes on."

That's not some designer fresh from the catwalks of Paris but Harley-Davidson, emblazoned across a vest he wore. Besides, he says of the movie that had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, "The bottom line, for me, I believe it showed people that God does exist."

His story about a hellish descent into and recovery from drugs and alcohol, embrace of God and a mission trip to the Republic of Sudan that changed his life is told in "Machine Gun Preacher." It's as improbable as it is inspiring and had the young woman who plays Mr. Childers' daughter near tears.

"The story of Sam's faith and how God brought him from A to B, where he was and where he is, it just really goes to show you that anybody can help," actress Madeline Carroll, 15, told a cluster of reporters at the Fairmont Royal York hotel.

"He was a bad biker and now he's a born-again Christian literally fighting for these kids. And also, I couldn't imagine being 15 [in Africa] and already having killed 30 people. It's just some of their stories make me so sad but some of their stories are just incredible," she said of the child-soldiers.

"How could I not do a movie like this that could maybe open eyes and help save some of these kids over there?" she added, her voice breaking.

"Machine Gun Preacher," directed by Marc Forster and opening in Pittsburgh on Friday, stars Gerard Butler as Mr. Childers, 49, who has lived full time in Central City, Somerset County, since 1986.

"It's already starting to change people's lives and most of all, I believe it's having people look at themselves after watching the movie. It's not really about Sam Childers, it's actually about you. 'OK, what are you gonna do now?' "

More than 1,000 phone calls, emails and Facebook messages have poured into Angels of East Africa just from members of preview audiences.

Even reporters who informed Mr. Childers they read the description of his story and were prepared to rip it and him apart were shaken, he said.

"After seeing the movie, they literally sat there and cried in front of me. 'All I gotta ask you, are these struggles that you went through true?' ... The entire movie's based on the truth, OK, but the time line is really messed up because you got 30-plus years in a two-hour movie," he told the Post-Gazette.

Mr. Childers -- with combed back graying hair, walrus moustache that bleeds into a beard, toothpick tucked into his mouth and "Machine Gun Preacher" tattoo on his right bicep -- is an unlikely savior and protector of kidnapped and orphaned children in Africa.

But in 1998, during a mission trip to help repair huts in southern Sudan, he came across the body of a child blown apart by a land mine.

He fell to his knees and made a pledge to God to do whatever it took to help the people there, and he later heeded God's word to build an orphanage on the Ugandan border. That was just the beginning of charity work that continues to this day.

When the name of the actor who starred opposite Jennifer Aniston in "The Bounty Hunter," played King Leonidas in the manly epic "300" and the disfigured musical genius in "Phantom of the Opera" was floated to Mr. Childers as the star, he drew a blank.

His daughter knew who Mr. Butler was and Mr. Childers started some Internet research. "I was a little bit concerned because, let's be real, the guy's got a strong Scottish accent, but I tell you what? He did very, very well in the movie. Unbelievable," he said.

"In many of the scenes, you can see in his eyes that he got it. He truly felt the passion, the reasoning."

Michelle Monaghan plays Sam's wife, Lynn; Ms. Carroll is their daughter, Paige; Michael Shannon is Sam's best friend, Donnie; and Kathy Baker is Sam's mother, Daisy.

The son of an ironworker, Sam was born in North Dakota, went to grade school in Shanksville, high school in Grand Rapids, Minn., and says "a lot of my crazy years" were in Grand Rapids and Orlando, Fla.

Given what he calls his perfect, middle-class Christian family, he had no reason to dabble in drugs.

"But at 11 years old, I started doing drugs. Thirteen years old, hard drugs. Fifteen years old, putting a needle in my arm and it just kept going deeper and deeper to selling drugs, being a shotgunner [or armed guard for dealers]. I was probably the worst of them all," he said.

"I was down in Florida, I got into a bar fight down there that turned into a shoot-out in a bar and almost got killed. I went home that night and on the way home, I said I'm done, I'm not doing this anymore."

He's been free of alcohol and drugs for 20-odd years.

A scene in the movie in which he falls off the wagon was invented by screenwriter Jason Keller. So was a tongue-lashing and cruel rejection of his best friend, although he does admit to channeling his anger about something awful in Africa into five fistfights one summer.

"That's all part of Hollywood. A very good friend of mine, Steve Munsey who has a big church in Chicago, what he liked about that part is it shows people that even if we slip up and go back to old habits, at least Christ will accept us at the end again and again and again, so I was OK with it."

Mr. Childers will be returning to Africa soon for three-plus weeks but he also is part of a tour promoting the film which is being slowly rolled out.

"If I wasn't doing the tour and if I was in the U.S., I'm usually raising money preaching. Just in the past year, the message of hope that we carry -- I don't like to be known as a preacher so I call it a message of hope -- we've had over 15,000 people make commitments to change their lives."

Mr. Butler spent two weeks in Central City, heard Mr. Childers speak, devoured videos of the do-gooder and logged time on the phone and in Los Angeles with him.

Although Mr. Childers tells the story somewhat differently, Mr. Butler amused reporters by recounting his first visit to Sam's house where he found a man with a toothpick in his mouth, a cocky smile and attitude that said, "What you got for me?"

The actor sat down and Mr. Childers said, "Here, take this," and he gave him a gun.

Mr. Butler continued, "And I'm like, OK, I know this is a bit of a test so I just start playing with the gun and then I'm thinking maybe I should brandish it so I brandish it and they all go, 'Whoa, whoa!' And they duck, 'That's a loaded gun.' "

Mr. Butler said he saw a man with incredible charisma who could be dangerous but was a powerhouse with a twinkle in his eye. Mr. Childers, after all, led armed missions to rescue children from a rebel militia, slept in Africa with a Bible in one hand and AK-47 in the other, and earned the nickname that doubles as the movie title.

The Pennsylvanian continues his work in the Sudan, has three projects in Uganda, just started one in Ethiopia and is getting ready to work in Somalia and the United States, where he's tackling the problem of sex trafficking.

He speaks to high school and college students about the perils of drugs and alcohol, operates the church he built and an adjacent campground for troubled kids and runs a bike shop on Highway 30 in Central City about a mile west of Reels Corner.

"The motorcycles from the movie, we actually built those, all the main ones that you see Gerard ride, we built from scratch," Mr. Childers said. With the proceeds, "Every bike that we sell, we drill a well in Africa somewhere."

For more information about the R-rated movie, the children, Mr. Childers and his efforts to provide clean water, food, shelter, education, infrastructure, counseling and rescue, see www.angelsofeastafrica.org.

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies .


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