Sam Childers feels too much attention is given to his nickname.
Childers, who pastors at the Shekinah Fellowship Church in Central City in Somerset County, is known as the "Machine Gun Preacher."
"A lot of that is a marketing tool," Childers said. "Our big thing is feeding children, educating children. That's our bottom line: saving children.
Above, Pastor Sam Childers (right) poses with actor Gerard Butler, who play Childers in the new movie “Machine Gun Preacher.”
Childers preaches at the Shekinah Fellowship Church in?Central City.
"But if I pull up in a trailer that says, 'Sam Childers: Saving Children,' not too many people give it a second look. However, if it says, 'Sam Childers: Machine Gun Preacher,' you get everyone's attention. It gets the word out."
It's not that Childers' moniker is unearned. The 49-year-old pastor has gone on armed patrols in East Africa to rescue abducted Sudanese children in the middle of a brutal warzone, bringing them to the safety of an orphanage he funded and built. A new movie titled "Machine Gun Preacher," starring Gerard Butler as Childers and Michelle Monaghan as his wife, Lynn, chronicles his story.
He also wrote an autobiography, "Another Man's War," which recently has been updated in paperback.
Childers was converted out of a hard life as an armed guard for drug dealers and as a dealer himself. Soon after his conversion, he started Bible study courses and then began preaching at Shekinah, an independent church.
But another ministry was waiting.
"I went to Sudan after I heard a missionary talking about it," Childers said. "When I was there, I saw the body of a small child that stepped on a landmine."
The country was in the midst of a war, and Childers, feeling pulled to the area, vowed to build an orphanage for the children affected by the violence - whether through losing their families or being abducted to serve as child soldiers in the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel militia.
Childers also began leading armed missions to rescue those children.
"If someone took your child, and I told you I could get him back, what would you say?" Childers asked. "I rescue children. People focus on the weapons too much; they focus on the preacher with a gun thing."
But he does have a specific answer for those who would question whether a man of God should shoulder a weapon.
"I would tell them to read their Bible closer, to turn to the Old Testament," he said. "Who was Joshua? Who was Gideon? Who was David? They were true men and warriors of God. And I'm nothing compared to what they were.
"Who fought to keep our country from being overrun so long ago [during the American Revolution]? Militia groups, and those groups were run by pastors."
Childers is concerned that over time, people began thinking that pastors must be weak, timid men.
If pastors are timid, "how can we take care of our flocks?" he asked.
Childers' mission, Angels of East Africa, has rapidly grown since its inception in 1998. He has helped thousands, and currently houses 175 children at either the Sudanese orphanage or at one of his three bases in Uganda. The organization has expanded beyond Africa, helping children "all around the world," he said.
"We try to stop sex trafficking, we have a camp to work with troubled youth, we help with addiction problems," Childers said. "I also speak in colleges around the United States."
Jamie Soderlund, who works for Childers at both the Angels organization and his church, grew up in East Africa as the daughter of Finnish missionaries, witnessing the atrocities herself. She has "a lot of respect" for the pastor.
"He has a lot on his plate," she said. "To carry such a responsibility, I can only imagine. He doesn't just have to worry about himself and his own family like other people; he has an extended family of hundreds of kids who rely on him."
Soderlund traveled with Childers to Sudan last year to do maintenance work on the orphanage and to spend time with the children.
"These children have lost years," she said. "It's not enough to be out of the war zone; they need to recover after it. They need to feel safe to sleep at night.
"They have nothing to go back to, and if they have someone left, they don't want them back. A lot of communities don't want the children back. There's a hatred there because of what the kids were forced to do. There are so many layers to the problem, and no one quick fix, but it's a good start to have a place where they can feel safe."
Butler, who has starred in such films as "300," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Bounty Hunter," thoroughly studied the preacher's life for his role in "Machine Gun Preacher."
"Gerard came into Central City for almost two weeks. He came to my church and heard me preach," Childers said. "I spent some time in Los Angeles with him. He did a lot of research for the character.
"Jason [Keller, the screenwriter] went to Africa with me, and he spent time with the children and soldiers. He lived at the orphanage for two weeks. Marc Forster, the director, spent the same amount of time at the orphanage, too."
Childers was careful to note that everything in the plot was pre-2008.
"It's safe there now," he said. "There hasn't been anyone killed around the orphanage in two years. But the LRA is, right now, about six or eight hours away from us. They are still a serious problem."
He is backing the film "100 percent."
"I've seen the movie seven times already, and I cry every time," he said. "There are a few little things that were Hollywood, but for them to portray my story as good as they did, I'm a blessed man."
Soderlund has seen the movie three times and praised the filmmakers for their authenticity.
"It was better than I expected," she said. "I was prepared to not like it. It's hard when you know someone personally to see them portrayed by someone else."
She sees the film as a challenge to its viewers.
"It is the kind of movie that gets under your skin, one that will linger afterward," Soderlund said. "Whether you want it to or not, it will bring up a lot of questions. You'll be thinking about it for a while. ... You can't pretend you didn't see it.
"It will inspire people, give them hope that people can change and make a difference. Do something. Anyone can make a difference."
Childers also wants the film to challenge and inspire those who see it.
"When they leave the movie, it's not about Sam Childers," he said. "It's about them. What are they going to do?"
"Machine Gun Preacher" is rated R for violent content including disturbing images, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality. It opened last Friday in New York and Los Angeles and is scheduled to open in this area on Oct. 7.
For more information on Childers and his mission, visit www.machinegunpreacher.org.
Mirror Staff Writer Cory Dobrowolsky can be reached at 946-7428.