ANAHEIM — 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."