He Shall Be Set Free

Phil Aguilar’s brand of outlaw Christianity made him an evangelical powerhouse—and has law enforcement calling the pastor a criminal

“Phil was getting frustrated, and that’s when the intimidation started,” Fong recalls. “Once, he sent, like, 80 guys to my Bible study. These were 80 kids from the homes, and they were really disruptive, yelling, making noise.” Another time, Aguilar reportedly sent a group of Set Free Soldiers to wait for Fong outside his church. “They all tightened in a circle around me so that the only way I could get out was to push my way physically out of the midst of them. They probably figured I wouldn’t do that.”

Aguilar’s tactics only deepened Fong’s suspicion that something was seriously amiss within Set Free. “It was just the strangest vibe,” he says. “All of my senses were telling me that there was something wrong, but it was just this nebulous thing.” But more dissidents came forth. One former member of Aguilar’s biker club told Fong that physical abuse was part of the Set Free Soldiers’ program. “He was one of the biggest guys in the motorcycle club,” Fong says. “He said that Phil would have the guys beat him up, just to help him a little bit. Things like that—they were just really rough people, and they didn’t seem transformed by their faith to be kind and loving, like Christians are discipled to be.”

Other problems began hounding Aguilar. He and Set Free were named in a lawsuit alleging one of his ministers sexually abused a teen and smoked crack cocaine with him at a Texas ranch owned by TBN but operated by Set Free; details of the settlement weren’t disclosed. Another lawsuit claimed an Aguilar pastor assaulted a Set Free member who wanted out. The negative press precipitated a rapid downturn in Aguilar’s efforts to turn Set Free into a worldwide church. Among other things, it led TBN to cancel Aguilar’s TV show and dismiss him from the board of directors. It didn’t help matters that Aguilar publicly claimed he was just a figurehead on the TBN board, a token minority whose presence allowed the Crouches to purchase more television stations around the country.

Aguilar’s affiliation with TBN and the controversy swirling around Set Free were covered extensively in the Christian Sentinel, a Philadelphia-based watchdog newspaper published by Bill and Jackie Alnor. “We felt that TBN was a threat to Christianity, and we still believe that,” Jackie Alnor says. “We also became big critics of Phil. He was a useful idiot for TBN. They used him because he had a nice, Hispanic last name, and they wanted to expand from 12 major networks to 14. They tossed him aside when he was no longer useful to them.”

Alnor has since had a change of mind about Aguilar, she says. “He’s scary, okay? You can look at Phil and be intimidated,” she says. “But he reaches people that other people will not go near. He has passed the test of time by continuing to reach out to the dregs of society.”

In 1993, Set Free lost its lease for the large warehouse where it had held services for a decade, and Aguilar decided he’d had enough of Anaheim. More than 6,000 people attended his farewell service at Glover Stadium. After an abortive run as a street pastor in Venice Beach, he headed east to Echo Park to operate the Dream Center at the defunct Queen of Angels Hospital. Aguilar’s new ministry catered specifically to inner-city youths seeking to escape the gang life.

Aguilar’s son Matthew was a teenager during Set Free’s Los Angeles stint. “We started a basketball league in the church,” he says. “We were cool. We knew how to make friends.” Hip-hop served as the icebreaker, he adds, in the form of a rap-and-breakdancing posse called Set Free (West Coast Flava). “We would go to all the high schools—Belmont, Dorsey, Roosevelt, you name it—every high school, junior high and elementary, two or three times a day, showing them how we can be positive through music and do it without drugs or gangs.”

The act soon went national, and then, thanks to a boost from the military, overseas. “The first place we were invited was Bosnia,” Matthew says. “We went to Macedonia, Kosovo, the Balkans.” Recent trips brought him to the active war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. “It was so close to the action you could see the rockets at night and hear the sounds and see the shrapnel that hit the base the day before,” he recalls. “These guys come back screwed up. They’ve seen stuff that nobody should see. We went there because we care about those dudes. We did it to help them get their minds off these things.”

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Back in Anaheim, Set Free increasingly ministered to biker gangs through the Set Free Soldiers. Matthew, who aside from his hip-hop work also made videos for the church, often filmed weddings and funerals for gangs such as the Mongols while his father officiated.

The club’s outlaw image didn’t go unnoticed by the cops. In Buena Park, police detained Matthew after he finished filming a Mongol funeral at a local cemetery, figuring Set Free worked security for them.

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