Housed in a warehouse blocks from City Hall, Set Free Christian Fellowship in Anaheim has been hailed over the years as an unconventional church that works miracles.
According to many–among them drug addicts, ex-convicts, the homeless and others down on their luck who have found refuge from the streets here–they have found a new faith in Jesus Christ that has helped change their lives for the better.
Led by Phil Aguilar, a charismatic ex-convict who rides a Harley Davidson motorcycle with a personalized license plate that reads, “BIKER PAS,” for biker pastor, Set Free has won praise for its community work and chalked up numerous civic awards.
But now, some of the people who have come in contact with Set Free are voicing complaints about the group.
According to some former Set Free members, and the parents of others, Aguilar exercises rigid control over his followers, often prohibiting children who live in Set Free homes from having contact with their parents. These issues got additional attention this month with the publication of an article in a magazine put out by an Irvine-based religious watchdog group. According to the article, Aguilar has told members to move out of their homes, quit their jobs, give up their cars and all their possessions and move into homes run by Set Free.
Aguilar, whose in-laws are among several former church members who have turned against him, denounced the charges as “sour grapes.” “It’s all just hearsay,” he said. “Whenever you have a church going on you have people that will leave disgruntled for whatever reason.”
Still, some criticism persists.
Fred Lambert, an Anaheim businessman, recounted the time when his 19-year-old daughter, Charity, moved into a Set Free home last year. “When we wanted her to come home on weekends, they said, ‘You don’t need to go home, we’re your family,’ ” Lambert said. “A lot of those kids are not allowed to see their parents. He (Aguilar) is destroying families, that’s what he’s doing.”
Lambert said he and his wife were forced to drive to the Set Free ranch in Perris to bring their daughter home.
“What’s really going on at this point is not illegal, so all anyone can do is sit back and watch,” Lambert said. “He’s taken people off the street to build an army, but the person who’s getting all of the glory is not Jesus Christ but Phil Aguilar.”
Aguilar, 43, who says he found Christ while in state prison, founded Set Free in 1982 and has since become widely known as a pastor to the downtrodden. He has received letters of commendation from Anaheim Mayor Fred Hunter, Police Chief Joseph T. Molloy, former state Sen. John Seymour, now a U.S. senator, and other prominent business and community leaders.
Within the evangelical community, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, a Christian television station run by the Rev. Paul Crouch, has been an ardent Set Free supporter. The network frequently features Set Free in fund-raising broadcasts, and owns two of the drug and alcohol rehabilitation ranches that Set Free operates in Texas and Illinois, according to TBN officials.
Since 1982, attendance at Sunday worship services has mushroomed from a few dozen to about 4,000 followers, according to estimates by Set Free officials. It is an ethnically diverse ministry that includes a large number of teens and young adults. Christian rock ‘n’ roll and gospel rap performances are a regular staple of Thursday and Sunday church services.
About 250 of the most devout church members live in 12 communal homes clustered together downtown. Two of the homes are owned by Mayor Hunter, who said he rents them to the church. Others are within the city’s redevelopment zone and are owned by the city of Anaheim. Set Free officials said the city allows them to live in the homes in exchange for rehabilitating the structures.
In addition, Set Free runs three ranches in Perris, Texas and Illinois, where new members with drug and alcohol problems are sent to overcome their habits before entering Set Free homes.
Set Free members such as 31-year-old Raynard Bass credit the church with saving their lives. Bass, a former truck driver who lives in a Set Free home with his pregnant wife and 3-year-old daughter, said he was hopelessly hooked on drugs and alcohol when he enrolled at the Set Free ranch in Perris two years ago.
“I’d been to institutions before where it was isolated and nothing worked,” he said. “But this has changed my life and I thank God for it.” Rick Crawford, 24, another member, said he also found Christ through Set Free two years ago. “I had a problem with coke and pot and I couldn’t have gotten over it without Jesus Christ,” he said. “One thing about the ministry, we have all left ourselves to be used by God whether it’s painting (over) graffiti on walls, or giving food to people who need it.”
Despite these testimonials, some former Set Free followers, including the mother of 18-year-old Stacee Aguilar, who is married to Aguilar’s son Geronimo, said they collected signed statements from 29 witnesses about alleged abuses at Set Free and presented their findings to officials at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa. Oden Fong, a minister of music at Calvary, said he forwarded the testimonies to the Christian Research Institute in Irvine.
Deborah Jenkins, 40, a former Set Free member who moved to Iowa last year, said Aguilar used to discourage her from having contact with her parents.
“One Sunday afternoon, he lovingly put his arm around me and said, ‘I don’t want you to see your mom and dad anymore. They’re going to hell and you’re sending them there,’ ” Jenkins said. “It just troubled me and I decided I just couldn’t go there anymore.”
Set Free’s actions also have been scrutinized by the Christian Research Institute, a nonprofit fundamentalist cult-watching group based in Irvine.
An article in the May issue of its quarterly Christian Research Journal reported on allegations of abuses at the church. Among other things, the article charges that Aguilar tells people who they can date, arranges marriages and requires women to get his permission to use birth control.
On a recent morning, dozens of youths, washcloths in hand, were scrubbing the walls outside the Set Free Church at 320 N. Anaheim Blvd. Others were washing vans and cars out back. A black and white bus emblazoned “Set Free Posse” rolled into the parking lot.
Inside, the spacious warehouse is a flurry of activity. Teen-agers methodically apply white paint to the bleachers. A biker sits hunched over in a corner, scribbling down passages from the Bible.
Meanwhile, Aguilar has retreated to his office tucked away in a back corner of the church. He is a robust man who wears his long dark hair in a ponytail. His jacket is emblazoned with the message “Trained to Serve Jesus.”
“Here we have businessman, lowrider, surfer. It’s like Noah’s Ark of every kind,” Aguilar said, describing his ministry. “It’s like an L.A. church in Orange County.”
He said most of the criticism stems from a vendetta by jealous in-laws and a few disgruntled former church members who have banded together to discredit Set Free.
“They (the in-laws) are upset because their daughters enjoy being at church and don’t want to be around ‘back-slidden’ parents . . . people who used to believe in God but don’t anymore,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar, a self-described former drug addict, says he found Christ while serving time at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville, a state prison.
” . . . I told those men (inmates) that I was going to serve God for the rest of my life,” he said.
According to state prison records, Aguilar was convicted of beating a child in 1977. According to an Anaheim police report, the incident occurred when Aguilar’s girlfriend (now his wife) left him at home with her 3-year-old son. When she returned, the child had cuts, scratches and bruises that required hospital treatment.
Aguilar was sentenced to six months to 10 years in prison for the offense. After serving a year there, he was released on parole in April, 1978.
But Aguilar, who frequently alludes to his troubled past of violence and drugs, says all that is behind him. Today he is a member of the city’s Gang Task Force and serves on the Anaheim Historical Preservation Society. Later this year, he plans to launch his campaign for a seat on the City Council.
“At most churches you just endure,” Aguilar said. “But I saw a sign at Disneyland that said ‘The Happiest Place on Earth,’ and I felt that church should be just like that. By the time they leave here, they’re fired up.”