American Pastor Helps SPLA Battle LRA in Sudan

ASSIST Ministries introduces a fascinating character (link added):

Pastor Sam Childers, founder of World Missions, which operates orphanages in Southern Sudan and Uganda…In the last eight years, Childers and his organization have rescued over 300 children caught up in the conflict between the North and South. Most of the children he rescues and houses at his orphanages were part of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group operating in Uganda and Sudan.

Childers was also profiled by the Sudan Tribune back in October:

This titan, who could easily pass for Hulk Hogan’s younger brother, sold hard drugs in the late 70s and early 80s and was a rider with the Outlaws, a motorcycle gang in Florida . He has since put his notorious ways behind him and now uses his muscular prowess to save lives in Sudan and Uganda.

This is interesting: an American Christian tough guy who actually walks the walk, rather than boring us all with a posturing “media ministry” (Doug Giles, Dave Daubenmire, I mean you). But while you have to admire a guy who’s willing to actually pull his finger out and do something about the victims of the truly horrible LRA (a “Christian Khmer Rouge”, as Christopher Hitchens recently put it), there is cause for concern. Here’s Childers’ take on Indonesia, for instance:

World Missions was on site in Banda Aceh early this years [sic] working to help those in crisis from the devastation of Tsunami. We are now looking for people to return with us to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ with no fear. We need to rescue the people and children from the Islamic faith and teachings and begin to teach the people about the freedom we have in worshipping Christ Jesus. The entire area of Banda Aceh is all Islamic faith and Christianity is strictly forbidden.

Firstly, that’s not actually true. Yes, life is doubtless hard for Christians (and for converts from Islam, near impossible) but it’s simply not the case that “Christianity is strictly forbidden”. Here’s a recent report from the Malaysian National News Agency (chosen more or less at random):

BANDA ACEH, Dec 24 (Bernama) — Christmas this year is expected to be more meaningful for some 1,500 Christians in Banda Aceh after last year’s Dec 26 tragedy caused by the tsunami.

In this city where 93 per cent of the population is Muslim, there are four churches, including a Catholic church beside the Regional Military Commando (KODAM) base camp and a Protestant Church in Jalan Pocut Baren…

So why would Childers make such a claim? That itself suggests an unfortunate lack of judgement. There’s also a whiff of opportunism. We all know that evangelicals are looking to make converts, and I would say that anyone should be free to join them; but the way some Christian groups have been using post-Tsunami relief efforts to evangelise is, in my opinion (and as I blogged here and here) ethically somewhat problematic.

A report from CBN gives some more details about Childers’ work in the Sudan:

For some of the children orphaned by the fighting, Childers has opened a small children’s village in Nimele, just inside Sudan.

Here some 30 children live in relative safety, and many embrace the same Christian faith that motivates this Pennsylvania preacher.

Back in Uganda, Childers urges youth to follow Christ. The appeal may be familiar to many in this audience. Uganda has a high proportion of Christian believers.

But another worry is Childers’ closeness with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA); an aspect of his ministry which is underplayed in the various Christian media reports of his work (ASSIST makes a brief allusion). Back to that Sudan Tribune profile:

For the past five years, the SPLA has been assisting the Ugandan Government in fighting and capturing LRA soldiers. As both a pastor with Abundant Life Ministries and a SPLA commander, Sam can be seen praying with a group of soldiers before they go out and attack areas where the LRA are active. He stockpiles weapons for SPLA soldiers at his orphanage. Many of his soldiers are also pastors. According to Sam, one of the reasons why the orphanage has remained untouched by the LRA is because the LRA knows it is well protected.

That’s actually very worrying. First off, should an orphanage be doubling up as an arsenal? And Human Rights Watch noted the following, back in 2004:

In 2000, the SPLA made a commitment to UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy to end its use of child soldiers. The following year, the SPLA cooperated with UNICEF and other organizations in the demobilization of over 3,500 children from its forces and their reunification with their families. By 2003, however, the process of demobilization had stagnated. UNICEF estimates that 7,000-8,000 children remain with the SPLA, and that some recruitment continues, including re-recruitment of children who had been previously demobilized.

That was before the peace agreement which ended the Sudan Civil War in 2005; but with continuing conflict (and perhaps a new civil war coming?), the future of Childers’ orphans is far from secure.

And is a man fired up by the “need to rescue the people and children from the Islamic faith” really the best kind of person to be pastoring SPLA soldiers?

UPDATE: As it happens, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has just profiled some other American missionaries in Sudan (hat tip: Christianity Today Weblog):

Five years ago, [Dennis and Lillian Klepp] left their jobs, sold nearly all their possessions and moved from northeastern Wisconsin to create the 15-building complex where they, [Kelly] Schill and three other missionaries offer discipleship, hope and healing to orphans and widows in a war-torn land.

…Southern Sudan is populated by black Africans from different tribal communities, including many followers of traditional African religions and a dramatically increasing number of Christians, said Dick Robinson, senior associate pastor at Elmbrook Church in the Town of Brookfield, where Schill is a member. The mega-church spends about $1.7 million a year to help support about 70 Elmbrook missionaries and 30 other missionaries worldwide.”

Southern Sudan has been the area in the global Christian movement that has seen the most dramatic growth in the last 15 years,” said Robinson, who visited Schill in December while traveling in Africa and South America.

…Harvesters Reaching the Nations, the organization the Klepps started to support their mission work, is “really taking off,” and they are in demand as speakers at churches, Lillian Klepp said.