November 4th, 2011
05:00 PM ET
By Richard Allen Greene and Nima Elbagir, CNN
London (CNN) – Sam Childers still looks like the drug-running biker he used to be, rolling a toothpick around his mouth under a big gray handlebar mustache while sporting jeans and a leather Harley jacket. But now when he grabs a gun it's to save children caught up in one of Africa's most brutal wars.
While the transition from tough biker to tough freedom fighter might not be that great a stretch, Childers has made another leap that is in some ways much greater. He has become a Christian preacher.
"I am a preacher. I believe in the right to carry a firearm," he says with a laugh.
Childers found God in the 1990s, he says, the beginning of a journey that led him to open an orphanage in Sudan, giving shelter to children victimized by the guerrilla Lord's Resistance Army - the same group President Barack Obama just sent a small contingent of U.S. troops to help fight.
Childers first visited the region in 1998 on a church mission to help repair homes damaged in war.
The experience changed his life.
"When I went to Sudan nearly 15 years ago and I stood over a small body of a child that stepped on a landmine, I knew I could do something," he says. "I just didn't know what it was going to be."
What it turned out to be was to return to Sudan to help with landmine removal, and then the founding of Angels of East Africa, a charity which Childers says has now rescued more than 1,000 children "from starvation, disease and enslavement by the brutal Lord's Resistance Army."
The Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, is known for extraordinary brutality, including mutilating children in front of their families or forcing them to kill siblings or parents.
The International Criminal Court wants to get its hands on Kony, and United States considers the LRA a terrorist organization.
The group strikes terror into people in the region - but not into Childers, he says.
"I don't get terrified. I got my gun," he says, grinning.
In fact, Childers does not describe himself primarily as a preacher.
"I don't claim to be a religious person. I claim to be a freedom fighter," he says. "I have a tractor trailer that I travel with that says 'freedom fighter' on the side."
In fact, the nickname he attracted in Sudan combines both elements of his character: Machine Gun Preacher.
Childers now shares the name with a movie about his life, released this weekend and starring "300's" Gerard Butler as Childers - though with a considerably less impressive mustache.
Childers says his belief in freedom is tied up with his belief in Jesus.
"There's always them Christians or those Muslims or those Buddhists that believes their way is the only way," Childers says.
He is not one of them.
"If you want to serve Allah, fine. If you want to serve Buddha, fine," he says.
"I believe in freedom. Jesus Christ was all about freedom. So what I'm saying is, I fight for that freedom. I am a freedom fighter, but me and my family, we choose to serve Jesus Christ," he declares.
There's no religious test to get into his orphanage or feeding programs, he says.
"We feed about 3,500 meals a day right now. I've never asked a child, 'Are you Christian or are you Muslim?' Never will," he insists.
In fact, he is about to expand his program to take over what he calls "a struggling orphanage in Ethiopia that is Muslim," and he says he will not seek converts.
But, he says, he preaches across the United States - where he still lives - and to those who want to hear it in Africa.
"I am there to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Anywhere were I go around the world that's what I do," he says, claiming he has "brought the message of hope" to more than 15,000 people in the last year alone.
He talks about his mission as a way of atoning for his past.
"Maybe I've done the things that I've done, helping people over the years, because I hurt so many people years ago," he says.
"I don't know, but I do know that every day I want to help someone, no matter where I'm at," he adds. "Our mission went from working in Sudan, to three projects in Ethiopia now. We have three projects in Uganda, we have the project in Sudan, (and) we have a camp ground in Pennsylvania working with troubled youth."
He hopes the movie will inspire others to serve, he says.
"It's not about Sam Childers anymore," he says. "It's not about Gerard Butler anymore."
"I believe a lot of people are asking and wanting to know, 'What should I do?' and this is what I tell everyone: Educate yourself about what's going on in Sudan - not just Sudan but around the world," he urges.
"Find somewhere that you're comfortable or a non-profit that you're comfortable with supporting, and get behind them and support them."
"Machine Gun Preacher" does not fall into the long tradition of movies about white men who fix Africa's problems, and Childers says that's as it should be.
"If anything, the children saved me. Yeah, they saved me," he reflects. "You know, I wasn't a good person. Maybe they gave me a purpose to live."
– CNN's Raheela Mahomed contributed to this report
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.