"Set Free" Ministry, a history of controversy

News Summary/February 17, 2007

By Rick Ross

March 2005 marked the sixth anniversary of "Set Free" San Diego, a California-based, evangelical Christian ministry founded in 1982 by Phil Aguilar, a tattooed, Harley-riding, ex-con.

Aguilar's says he was converted in prison, while 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 told the San Diego Union Tribune. "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."

And Set Free has its critics.

In the 1990s former participants said that its rules and authoritarian control made it more like a cult than a church. Sociologist Ronald Enroth, who teaches at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, an expert on cultic groups, specifically included Set Free in his book, "Churches That Abuse."

Aguilar was sued in Orange County, it was alleged that he allowed the sexual molestation of three boys who were part of the church. The suit was settled.

Amidst such controversy Set Free has moved to different locations within California including Visalia and Los Angeles, but in 1998 moved back to Anaheim.

"I think Set Free will always be controversial," said Aguilar. "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."

Aguilar claimed in 2005 that he had about 70 affiliates internationally that included thousands of people. He also runs a "biker ministry," called "Set Free Soldiers."

Set Free recruits from the streets and beaches and by word of mouth.

The ministry runs the Fabulous 7 Motel, as a residential community or participants. Some later elect to go through Aguilar's unaccredited "pastor-training school" to become Set Free ministers.

Set Free San Diego began in a church in City Heights in 2003 and then moved to El Cajon, where it runs the Fabulous 7 Motel on Main Street.

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.

Sunday services are three miles away at the East County Ministry and Arts Center.

Set Free also runs Emma's restaurant next to the motel and has residential ranches in Alpine and Dulzura.

Jon Cabrera, senior pastor of Set Free San Diego, says he was once a heroin addict and alcoholic.

Harold Brown, a Set Free leader pastor in El Cajon, was also once addicted to drugs and booze.

The first 60 days at Set Free are tightly controlled and intensely focused on Bible learning. Men and women are housed separately and virtually all communication is cut off by phone, mail and outside visitors.

"They need to separate themselves completely from family and friends," says Cabrera who has worked with Aguilar since the 1980s.

Even after that, their comings and goings are monitored, and their calls are limited," Cabrera says.

One member described the "Set Free" program as being "totally broken before God."

Set Free has not statistics such as its rate of recidivism, but one member admitted to a reporter that half of the participants "slip up" before completing its program.

The program takes one year before "graduation."

Participants must have a paying job, but are required to give one third of their paycheck to Set Free.

Some funding for Set Free comes from churches, such as Southern Baptist congregations like Shadow Mountain Community Church.

Some say Set Free relies too much on religion and not enough on social services 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 operate largely alone. "They do not come to the table to look for ways to partner."

Note: This news summary is based upon the article titled "Set Free Fellowship emphasizes Christ to reform the addicted and conflicted" By Sandi Dolbee published by the San Diego Union-Tribune March 10, 2005

Copyright © 2007 Rick Ross.

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