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An Unorthodox Goodby : Anaheim Church Says Farewell to Premises With Rock 'n' Roll Celebration

April 12, 1993|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — Evicted from their church by city officials, more than 4,000 members of the controversial Set Free Christian Fellowship said an emotional goodby to their place of worship Sunday with a raucous, rock 'n' roll Easter celebration.

"This is our last service," Pastor Phil Aguilar, 45, said as he surveyed the packed bleachers at the city's Glover Stadium, about a mile from the city-owned site that the church is vacating. "There will be a lot of sad farewells for a lot of people here."

Set Free, whose congregation includes ex-convicts, drug addicts, the homeless and others among the community's downtrodden, has made a home in Anaheim for the last decade, earning civic awards and praise for its community work along the way.

But officials will soon evict the church from a city-owned building at 305 E. Broadway because the city plans to build a Boys and Girls Club, a gymnasium and a community center there.

Several hundred church members protested the eviction in February, marching to the steps of City Hall with placards and six-foot crucifixes in a peaceful demonstration. Many maintained that the eviction amounted to anti-Christian "discrimination," but city officials say they are merely trying to move ahead with local redevelopment plans.

On Sunday, however, many church members struck a different chord, saying that they have become resigned to the eviction and hold no bitterness toward the city, even as they prepare to pack up and vacate the building for good in coming weeks.

"It's the way of the world," said Daniella Duncan, 26, of Downey. She has been a member of the church for 1 1/2 years and attended services Sunday with 10 family members.

Added Patricia Bess, 34, of Santa Ana: "We just lost a building. We haven't lost anything important. We are the church, we are the building."

Set Free members said they now hope to find churches elsewhere in the area to attend. Aguilar, meanwhile, said he plans to travel the region to preach his message of Christianity and hopes to set up a new home for the church in Anaheim in the months to come. But with only $2,000 in the church's bank account, he said, nothing is definite.

Aguilar, an ex-convict who served a year in prison for beating a child, said many Set Free members are accustomed to finding new homes for themselves because they are often branded as "too radical" for their local communities.

Some former Set Free members and their families have portrayed the church as a virtual cult, saying officials there have seized the possessions of its members, exercised undue control over their lives, and even ordered some to perform sex acts. Set Free officials have denied these allegations, and Aguilar blames tensions on cultural differences.

"We minister to a lot of people who are asked to go to the back of the buses, who don't have a lot of money, who may not be wanted (in the community) because of their prison background or because of the way they look," he said.

A single mother, Bess attended the Easter service with her two children, ages 11 and 14, and she said Set Free's strong appeal to youth--through music, dance and straight talk--has helped to keep them off the streets. Otherwise, "they would be out tagging, gangbanging," she said.

Indeed, the church's unorthodox approach was evident at the farewell service.

Along with such traditional Easter festivities as an egg hunt and a cookout, church members kept the crowd dancing through the morning as they performed rock 'n' roll, soul and rap numbers through stereo speakers stacked 10 feet high. Two church performers traded barbs on stage. One teen-ager entertained the crowd with bodybuilding poses.

And as part of one church skit, two men posing as armed gunmen even rushed several dozen fellow church members, demanding to know whether they were "going to die for Jesus."

Most of the group scattered, but the remaining few drew enthusiastic cheers from the crowd as they stared down the supposed gunmen and replied that yes, they would.

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