The season of Lent is a time when some Christians give things up as they journey toward Easter. For the six weeks leading up to Easter, they go without chocolate or pizza or a favorite television show as part of their spiritual preparation.
At Set Free Baptist Fellowship of San Diego, Lent comes every day of the year. The men and women of Set Free are giving up alcohol, drugs, homelessness and other afflictions that have taken them into devastating detours.
They turn their lives over to Jesus — and to the program. The Set Free formula: Take the addicted and conflicted, get them into a controlled environment, shower them with Christ and then slowly introduce them back into society.
The reward for this surrender?
“They get their lives back,” says Dwight Simpson, director of missions for the San Diego Southern Baptist Association, which helps fund the local ministry and was instrumental in bringing it to San Diego.
This month marks the sixth anniversary of Set Free San Diego, a branch of an Anaheim-based, evangelical Christian network launched in 1982 by Phil Aguilar, a tattooed, Harley-riding, sometimes-controversial minister who himself is an ex-con.
“We’re a bunch of people who know that drugs, alcohol and violence can’t be part of our life, and we have to discipline ourselves daily to fight the good fight,” says Aguilar.
Aguilar was converted in prison, where he was serving a sentence for physically abusing the 3-year-old son of a girlfriend. “My life was so messed up with drugs and violence,” he says. “When they told me I could receive peace by receiving Christ, that I could receive forgiveness for all my guilt and shame, man I just jumped at it.”
Participants, gathered from the streets and the beaches, as well as referrals and word of mouth, spend a couple of intensive months in residential “ranches” in the backcountry. Later, they are moved to the Fabulous 7 Motel, which is run by the ministry, with the aim of eventually graduating into independent living. Some elect to go through the program’s pastor-training school and become Set Free ministers.
“It’s been very successful,” says Simpson, of the Southern Baptist Association. “Literally hundreds per year” have been helped.
Part of what makes Set Free work are the pastors who lead it, he says. The ministers aren’t coming in from the suburbs to talk about how people should behave. These men have been there, done that and turned their lives around, he says. “They know what’s ahead.”
Pastors kicked drugs
Set Free San Diego began in a church in City Heights. In 2003, it moved to El Cajon, where it runs its program out of the Fabulous 7 Motel on Main Street and holds Sunday church services three miles away in the East County Ministry and Arts Center.
In November, Set Free began operating Emma’s restaurant, which is next to the motel; it also oversees two residential ranches in Alpine and Dulzura and conducts a handful of other worship services and other outreaches elsewhere in the county.
Jon Cabrera, senior pastor of Set Free San Diego, says he kicked heroin, alcohol and a lifestyle that supported the two. Harold Brown, who pastors the El Cajon church, also was addicted to drugs and booze. Both got saved and sober in separate Christian-based recovery programs — and now they’re trying to help others do the same.
The first 60 days are tightly controlled and intensely focused on Bible learning, says Cabrera. Men and women, who are taken to separate facilities, can receive mail but can’t make phone calls or have visitors.
“They need to separate themselves completely from family and friends,” says Cabrera.
Even after that, their comings and goings are monitored, and their calls are limited. “You got to earn it,” Cabrera says.
As for the religious emphasis, Cabrera is convinced that is what makes this program effective. “You actually are, spiritually speaking, born again, you come into a new reality.”
He says he spent 20 years going from program to program. “They’d clean me up for a little bit, but I’d always go back to the same thing.” When the approach became spiritual, he was transformed. “Once you make that connection, things start happening,” says the 59-year-old minister who has worked with Aguilar since the 1980s.
Brown got cleaned up through the San Diego Rescue Mission, another Christian-based recovery program. The 47-year-old father of four worked for the Rescue Mission before joining Set Free San Diego’s staff.
“When we get to the place where you’re totally broken before God, he can come into you,” Brown says. “And the light goes off inside.”
Brown says Set Free hasn’t tracked the recidivism rate, but he estimates about half slip up along the way. “When that happens, they go back to the ranch.”
If the program works, it’s usually a yearlong journey to graduation and independent living.
In the transitional phase when participants are working at paying jobs and staying at the Fabulous 7 Motel, Set Free requires that a third of the paycheck go to the ministry for room and board, while another third is put in a savings account for when they graduate. The participant gets to pocket the remaining third.
In all, Brown estimates that nearly 300 men, women and children are currently a part of the Set Free program. He says half of the ministry’s funding comes from outside contributions — including local Southern Baptist congregations such as Shadow Mountain Community Church — and the other half from the ministry itself — including tithes and offerings collected at church services.
The main church service is held noon Sundays at the East County Ministry and Arts Center in El Cajon, which also houses other churches and community events. On one recent Sunday, some 200 people filled a theater-style auditorium for a 2112-hour service that included a concert of rock-style Christian music; testimonies from people who have been helped by Set Free; a sermon about doing it God’s way; and a Communion of juice and bread.
David Diehl, 49, heard about Set Free from a San Diego police officer. “I’d been picked up for being drunk in public too many times,” he says. He was offered a choice of programs. “The Lord sounded to me to be the best way to go.”
That was more than a year ago. Set Free, he says, “has really been a true blessing.” Without the religion part, he doesn’t think he would have made it. “I didn’t give that up,” he says of the drinking. “The Lord took that away. I didn’t have the power in me.”
What has he received in return? Diehl thinks about it before answering. “Peace,” he says.
Terasina Hanna, 27, hopes her reward will be reuniting with her 7-year-old son, who has been living with a friend because of her drugged lifestyle. She joined the program last year.
“I think it’s the best thing that ever happened in my life,” she says.
The Set Free program has encountered controversy over the years.
In the 1990s, critics complained that Set Free’s rules and authoritarian control made it more of a cult than a church. Sociologist Ronald Enroth, who teaches at Westmont College in Santa Barbara and is an expert on cultic groups, raised similar concerns in his book, “Churches That Abuse.”
Aguilar also was the target of a civil lawsuit in Orange County, which alleged that he allowed the sexual molestation of three boys who were part of the church. Aguilar denied any wrongdoing, and most of the allegations were dismissed. The suit was later settled.
It was a rough time, says Aguilar, who relocated his “biker ministry,” as the media dubbed it back then, to Visalia. But that didn’t last. He then moved to Los Angeles and finally returned to Anaheim in 1998 and “got things rolling again.”
Counting San Diego County, Aguilar estimates that Set Free Worldwide Ministries has about 70 affiliates internationally, reaching out to upward of 9,000 people. And he still has a biker ministry, called Set Free Soldiers, which is an extension of Servants for Christ Motorcycle Ministries.
“I think Set Free will always be controversial,” says Aguilar, who is 57 and a grandfather. “Tough love is probably a good word for what we’re doing. These people aren’t really housebroken, most of them. They’ve had heavy alcohol and drug problems … there’s a great measure of tough love that’s got to be enforced.”
Locally, observers worry that the program relies too heavily on religious faith and not enough on social and medical treatments.
“Set Free has a very limited approach, not that it’s a bad approach, but it’s limited,” says JoAnne Bushby, executive director of the El Cajon Collaborative, a family resource consortium of social service, government and faith representatives. She says the ministry also tends to be standoffish. “They do not come to the table to look for ways to partner.”
El Cajon Police Department figures show that in a three-month period, officers made 17 service calls to the Fabulous 7. That’s roughly twice as many as other motels in the area.
Cabrera thinks most of the criticism stems from misinterpretations of what Set Free is trying to do.
“This is the only thing I’ve ever been excited about in my life,” he says. “If I didn’t believe in this, I’d be out of here.”
Their Lent continues, as participants pledge to give up one lifestyle for another.
“I’m a totally different person,” says Cabrera. “My life is blessed. I’m happy. Man, I look forward to every day. Hey, it really works. It will work in your life.”
Library researcher Beth Wood contributed to this article.