While Sam Childers travels around North America promoting Machine Gun Preacher, a movie opening tomorrow based on his life story, the orphanage he founded in South Sudan is under fire from the community and local government for alleged neglect of the nearly 150 children who live there.
Witnesses have said that the children at Shekinah Fellowship Children's Village are malnourished, unhealthy, and unhappy. Several locals—including pastors, government officials, and a high-ranking member of the military—tell Christianity Today that Childers has exaggerated or outright lied about his work in the African nation.
Community leaders want his orphanage in Nimule—near the border with Uganda—to be shut down immediately, and for local ministries to take over. In a September 2 letter to Childers, 14 local leaders—including the man who says he gave 40 acres of land to Childers to build the orphanage—wrote that Chiders has "dishonored our agreement" to take care of orphans, and that they demand "immediate closure of the compound." Childers told CT he never received that letter.
"As a community, we want Sam to leave and let other people take over," said Festo Fuli Akim, the man who says he gave Childers the land in 1999. "Let Sam go away so that someone with a good heart, someone who is humane, can come in and take over."
When a CT reporter visited the orphanage this week, Childers's staff, including two American men, were still on the premises, saying that the only problems at the facility were minor and had been taken care of. CT observed no significant problems; the children seemed happy and healthy, and living conditions seemed generally good.
Childers, in the U.S. to promote the film, denies breaking any laws, or mistreating or neglecting children. He told CT, "We're still there. We're not going anywhere. And I'm not going to let anyone just come in and take my orphanage over."
Former biker finds God
The 49-year-old Childers is a former biker and gang member who found God as a young man and felt called to help orphans in Sudan, where he has been working off and on for more than a decade. Machine Gun Preacher, starring Gerard Butler in the lead role, has received positive buzz at screenings and film festivals, but CT has learned that some of its depictions—as well as some of Childers's claims in his 2009 autobiography—are untrue.
Childers is known as the "Machine Gun Preacher" because he says he fights, often with an AK-47 assault rifle, against the infamous guerrilla leader Joseph Kony and the rogue Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), whose war crimes have left thousands of African children orphaned. In his 2009 book, Another Man's War: The True Story of One Man's Battle to Save Children in the Sudan (Thomas Nelson), Childers writes that he has "rescued more than 900 refugees of all ages. More than half of them were children who had been captured by the Lord's Resistance Army." He founded a group called Angels of East Africa, and he writes of "leading a rescue with an AK in my hands and a pistol on each hip." He claims to have fought alongside the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) to liberate many of these children—and the movie depicts as much.
But an officer in the SPLA denies any association with Childers, and has asked Childers to stop "staining our names." According to a letter obtained by CT dated April 8, 2011, Lieutenant General Obuto Mamur Mete told Childers that he had become "a problem," and urged him to stop "using the names of our authorities, me in particular, to manipulate your wrongdoings." Mete also told London's Daily Mail that Childers's "claims to have fought alongside us are a lie. He has never even seen the LRA." Childers disputes Mete's claims, saying that he has fought with the SPLA and against the LRA.