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HOLY ROLLERS : Bikers Revved Up Over Religion Attend Church Led by Ex-Con

November 03, 1989|JOHN NEEDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Belly bulging, beard flowing, Bert Aguilar turns the throttle on his Harley-Davidson and just for a second the scream of his bike has the sound stream all to itself, belching out a roar that curls the eardrums.

But then another dozen bikers hit the ignitions on their motorcycles and the day shatters into a bellowing, deafening cacophony of noise enveloping men and machines.

The leader pulls out onto Anaheim Boulevard, and the followers trail. The black leather vests emblazoned with the chopper gang's "colors" portend menace, as do the gleams on the cycles' chrome and in the bikers' eyes.

When you see them coming, better step aside; a lot of men didn't and a lot of men. . . . Well, they didn't die, actually. What they did was get religious tracts shoved into their hands.

These men on the two- and three-wheelers aren't Hells Angels, or Vagos, or Hessians. They're members of a motorcycle group called "Christ's Sons"--it says so right there on the back of their vests--and they think of themselves more as "Heaven's Angels," riding forth to save souls.

The "motorcycle ministry" is part of a distinctly unconventional church in Anaheim known as Set Free by Christ. Its pastor, Phil Aguilar, is a 42-year-old ex-convict who found Jesus behind bars, went through Bible school and emerged to found Set Free in a friend's home nearly eight years ago.

Now the church operates out of a building on Anaheim Boulevard that looks like a warehouse, holding Sunday services outdoors in a concrete open space behind the structure. By 9 a.m., an hour before services start, churchgoers have already begun gathering. Most are in their 20s and 30s, dressed informally. They exchange hugs and greetings.

Outside the building, tail-to-sidewalk and snout-to-street, the choppers start to line up. The pastor's is closest to the courtyard; beside it is his brother's; a dozen more fill out the line. Churchgoers chat about motorcycle suspensions and carburetors as easily as about heaven.

Which is just the way the pastor wants it.

"The value of having a motorcycle ministry is this," Aguilar said: "No. 1, it reaches out to bikers; No. 2, but just as important, it gets people who come to church who normally have been intimidated by bikers to get to see they're real people who love Jesus, too. No. 3, it goes into the subculture to where punkers, surfers, lowriders, everybody else says, 'Man, if they can get saved, I can get saved.' "

Set Free members have a number of 1940s cars and lowrider automobiles to attract people favoring such vehicles. The church also rents several houses in Anaheim to shelter homeless families and has a ranch near Hemet that it uses as a detoxification facility for alcoholics and drug addicts.

But it's hard to beat the motorcycles for grabbing attention, especially when they roar down the road in a pack.

Aguilar's brother Bert, 40, was a charter member of Christ's Sons when it was founded about seven years ago, just a few months after Set Free itself opened shop. Now a minister himself, Bert Aguilar figured he'd been riding motorcycles more than 20 years.

"I rode with all the 'outlaw' clubs," Bert Aguilar said one morning before services started. "I rode with the Hessians, the Hangmen, the Hells Angels. . . . I was a drug smuggler 18 years," running the contraband from Mexico back north across the border.

"Three or four felonies before noon was natural," he said. "It also meant I probably overslept." He said he'd been arrested scores of times, yet always dodged a felony conviction. But when brother Phil found God in Chino state prison and emerged to spread the gospel, brother Bert eventually was saved, too.

In the old days, Bert said, "Biking was my hobby and smuggling was my life. Now, instead of selling dope I'm sharing hope."

The Christ's Sons have appeared on the Tustin-based Trinity Broadcasting Network, a religious television network, and have roared up the highway to Bakersfield and down to Escondido for church revivals.

Members also tell of visiting "biker swap meets," often in Costa Mesa, and of handing out their religious tracts.

Many of their swap meet targets are "outlaw" bikers, Bert Aguilar said. "Some of them are in clubs, but they don't wear the colors. Guys with colors, they don't really wear them. It's like a target, especially for other outlaw bikers."

Indeed, the history of motorcycle gangs is replete with incidents of club-against-club violence with distinct similarities to the gang warfare so visible today, right down to drive-by shootings. And even when bikers wearing their colors aren't hassled by other bikers, they are rousted by police. Sheriff's deputies who have worked undercover to infiltrate motorcycle gangs tell of being pulled over six and seven times in an evening by city police in their black-and-whites.

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