A Christian motorcycle gang with a checkered past of outreach and controversy.
Set Free Soldiers emerged as a unique blend of evangelical Christian ministry and motorcycle club, founded in 1982 by Phil Aguilar in Anaheim, California. Aguilar, an ex-convict turned pastor, aimed to reform lives marred by drugs and violence through a relationship with Christ, employing unorthodox outreach methods that included rap, hip hop, low-riders, and motorcycle culture. The group has been a subject of both praise for its effective evangelism among the marginalized and criticism for its methods and internal practices.
Origin and Development
The ministry, Set Free, was established with a vision to reach out to those on the fringes of society—drug addicts, alcoholics, and the homeless—offering them a new path through faith in Jesus Christ. Phil Aguilar’s own transformation from a life of crime to one of service became a cornerstone of the ministry’s narrative, inspiring many to join or support the movement.
Controversies and Legal Challenges
Despite its successes, Set Free Soldiers has not been without its controversies. In the 1990s, allegations arose from former participants regarding the group’s authoritative control and strict rules, leading some to describe it as more cult-like than church. Prominent sociologist Ronald Enroth included Set Free in his examination of abusive religious practices in his book “Churches That Abuse.” Furthermore, Aguilar faced lawsuits alleging that he allowed sexual abuse within the church, although these suits were settled outside of court.
The group also faced legal challenges, including charges of conspiracy to commit murder against Aguilar and other members, highlighting the tensions between its stated mission and the actions of some of its members.
Ministry Activities and Impact
Set Free Soldiers operates several facilities, including the Fabulous 7 Motel, which serves as a residential community for those undergoing the ministry’s rehabilitation program. This program includes a rigorous regimen of Bible study and community living, with participants often coming from backgrounds of severe addiction and criminal activity. The ministry claims numerous success stories of transformed lives, though its methods have been critiqued for being overly reliant on religious conversion as opposed to comprehensive social and medical interventions.
A notable aspect of Set Free’s outreach is its biker ministry, “Set Free Soldiers,” which has garnered attention for its blend of motorcycle culture with evangelical Christianity. This unique approach has allowed the ministry to connect with a demographic often unreachable by traditional churches.
Criticism and Support
Critics argue that Set Free’s approach is too isolated, focusing narrowly on religious salvation without adequately addressing the complex social and medical needs of its members. Supporters, however, point to the undeniable impact the ministry has had on many individuals’ lives, offering them a sense of belonging and purpose through faith and community.