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Hollywood turning self-proclaimed hillbilly into global brand

| Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011

Hollywood's glow is helping turn the Rev. Sam Childers from a self-proclaimed Pennsylvania hillbilly into a global brand. It's also shining the glare of international scrutiny on his once-obscure Somerset County charity.

The new movie "Machine Gun Preacher" portrays Childers, 49, of Central City as killing paramilitary terrorists with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades to rescue children in an African war zone.

His group, operating under several names, including Angels of East Africa, runs orphanages and schools. With help from Hollywood backers, it's raising money and expanding programs like never before.

But the attention brought new criticism. Neighbors claim his flagship orphanage in South Sudan is neglecting children, leaving them hungry and crammed into small rooms. Portrayals of Childers' violent tactics in the movie and his autobiography ignited uproar among advocates and aid workers over whether he might cause more harm than good.

"Anybody that's getting any type of notoriety, this is just something that comes with it," Childers told the Tribune-Review on Friday by phone from Sudan. "Look at Jesus Christ himself. What was he called• He was known to be a rebel. So I don't see why we feel we deserve any better than he got.

"But I can tell you this much, our compound is probably one of the top of the line."

The movie tells the story of Childers' transformation from a violent thief and drug addict who ran with biker gangs to a self-taught evangelist and founder of Shekinah Fellowship Church. His family mortgaged their house and cars in 2000 to set up his first African mission, a mobile health unit to help people whom rebel soldiers had raped, set on fire or hacked with machetes, Childers told the Trib in a 2007 interview.

That mission expanded into an orphanage on the South Sudan-Uganda border with a security team of Sudanese soldiers who followed Childers into firefights against African terrorists from the Lord's Resistance Army. Nearly 200 children live in that orphanage, but the group serves hundreds more at schools, orphanages and feeding programs it opened in Uganda and Ethiopia through recent growth, Childers said.

"A lot has happened," he said. "The more God blesses us, the more we try to bless everyone else."

Some neighbors around Nimule want Childers removed and the orphanage turned over to local leaders. While Childers was on an American publicity tour, Nimule community leaders told a reporter for the magazine Christianity Today that he dishonored his agreement with them. The resulting story detailed a local government inspection that found the orphanage with no food, little medicine and shelters on the verge of collapse.

Those problems are real, said the Rev. Juma John, director of Cornerstone Children's Home, another American-backed orphanage located less than 2 miles from Childers' Children's Village. Community leaders are upset by guns at the compound and that Childers does not stay long to lead it.

The children "don't have diets. ... They only eat beans," John said when reached by phone in Sudan. "That's the problem I've seen. The rooms are small. There are many in each room, and their diets are bad. The problem has been there, and slowly they were starting to address it."

Orphanage officials told the Trib that the children are in good condition. They said nine to 12 share rooms, and they eat beans, vegetables, fish and meat. Christianity Today's reporter observed no "significant problems" and said "the children seemed happy and healthy" during a visit for the report published on Sept. 22.

Childers blames the problems on a local man he fired as director this summer for stealing "a couple thousand" a month from the charity.

The reverend long has had detractors among the community of aid workers and advocates operating in the region or following the conflict.

His gun-toting vigilantism undercuts humanitarians there, ultimately worsening the region's strife, blogger Brett Keller wrote in a special column for

"We don't want to perpetuate the mentality of a white savior from the West coming in to save the day," said Lisa Dougan, director of field outreach at Washington-based Resolve, an advocacy group that tried to moderate debate surrounding the movie. "There's an empathy with that feeling of 'I can't believe no one's doing anything; I need to step in.'"

Yet Childers has supporters, often people inspired by his willingness to take action against the brutality of Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army when raiding villages and abducting children for fighting or sex slavery.

It's common there for religious workers to drive around with guns on their laps, said Jamie Soderlund, one of Childers' newest workers. Her parents are Finnish missionaries who worked in Africa for most of her life and have known Childers for years.

"It's easy to sit back on your couch and blog about things and talk about things, but (Childers) says what he does and does what he says," said Soderlund, 26, his personal assistant in Central City. "He just says, 'Forget it; I'm going to go and do it because otherwise we're just wasting time talking about it.' That's something I really, really respect."

Soderlund handles media requests and mans a storefront and office the organization opened in May in a former gym and motorcycle dealership. The orange and black building -- painted in homage to Harley-Davidson colors -- is half biker hangout and half retail shop, showcasing shot glasses and T-shirts with the "Machine Gun Preacher" branding. One shirt reads "Save the Children"; another, designed by a church member, "The Machine Gun Preacher For President." Both have bullet holes.

Detractors say that glorifies violence and makes Childers a dubious character to support. For Childers, it's just an icebreaker.

"You know what everyone asks• 'Are you really a preacher?' " Childers said. "It gives me the opportunity to give the message of hope around the United States."

His charities brought in nearly $900,000 in donations in 2009, according to the most recently available tax forms. That is an increase of about $300,000 from 2008. Childers said donations have increased, but he would not provide numbers.

Soderlund said binders that once held each year's donation receipts now barely hold a month's worth of paperwork.

Childers wants to expand his facilities and talks about building throughout East Africa or fighting sex trafficking in the United States. But the organization has to determine how to help the children as they near adulthood, and how to deal with a growing workload in Pennsylvania from people offering to help or asking for Childers' attention, Soderlund said.

Advocates hope the attention -- even the controversy -- leads more people to care and contribute.

"It's difficult to digest in the sense that he raises a lot of questions that we don't necessarily have to deal with," said David Lusk, 24, of Bethel Park, a youth director at Lebanon Presbyterian Church in West Mifflin after viewing "Machine Gun Preacher."

"But once they're raised, you can't just say, 'Whatever; that's nice.' It's a question of why more people aren't doing something," Lusk said. "If you're going to say, 'That's not the way to do it,' you have to deal with the question, 'How should we deal with it?' "

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