Sam Childers is known in these parts, and back home in Pennsylvania, simply as the Reverend Sam. He is not your typical evangelical Christian missionary, nor, as a white American, is he your typical African warlord. Childers is a former drug dealer and outlaw biker, with tired eyes framed by grizzly muttonchops and a walrus mustache. He claims divine justification for what he does. In firefights, he says, God sometimes tells him when to shoot. He speaks country-singer American, with plenty of grit, and he recounts, over and over, the same stories from his bar-brawling days. He lifts weights, favors army fatigues, and keeps a .44 Magnum tucked in the small of his back. Harley tattoos stretch down his thick arms, and “Freedom Fighter” is airbrushed on the back of his truck. He once owned 15 pit bulls. He seems suited more to bending steel in a motorcycle shop than to saving souls in Sudanese villages.
In 1992, Childers was born again, having promised his wife he would come to Jesus if God granted them a child. A child was born. Leaving behind a life of drugs and crime, Childers set up a hardscrabble church in rural Pennsylvania. In 1998 he used his meager savings to take his first missionary trip to Sudan. He ended up near the border with Uganda, where a complicated and bloody conflict—one of Africa’s so-called forgotten wars—has been raging since 1987. At the center of the fighting is the Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerrilla group led by a Ugandan named Joseph Kony. The L.R.A.’s stated goal is to overthrow the Ugandan government and install a theocratic state based on the Ten Commandments. That effort has entailed systematically ignoring at least one of the commandments, Thou Shalt Not Kill. Most of the others have been breached as well. This forgotten war is the continent’s longest running. It spills across the border from Uganda into Southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo as the L.R.A. scours the region for conscripts and supplies.
What transformed Childers into a zealot was, as he later wrote, “a metal disk about the size of a dinner plate.” A land mine had been placed along a road near the town of Yei, and a child made the mistake of stepping on it. Childers happened upon the torso. 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. He has been trying for years. But this specific ambition has led to a broader entanglement in the region’s conflicts. Childers is now helping to feed and supply the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (S.P.L.A.), and he has made his home in Uganda available to the rebels for a radio-relay station. An arms depot stands at the heart of his orphanage. Childers also maintains his own paid militia force—a platoon of seasoned fighters recruited from the S.P.L.A.—and for his efforts, he says, the government of Southern Sudan has named him an honorary commander, the only white man to achieve that distinction. The Ugandan and Southern Sudanese militaries give Childers wide latitude to roam an increasingly bloody militarized zone.