A dozen black Harleys are lined up in the parking lot of an unassuming building in Anaheim. Burly guys in leather jackets and tattoos hang out on the small grassy lawn. It looks like a Hells Angels rally, but actually, it's a church.
On this particular Saturday, about 100 members of Set Free Soldiers, an evangelical motorcycle ministry, are gathering for their annual men's retreat to fellowship and hear the Word preached.
"People see these scary toothless guys ride up on motorcycles and no one expects us to be Christians," said Stephen "Pitstop" McClain, one of the bikers attending the retreat.
Set Free Soldiers is a outreach group attached to Set Free Worldwide Ministries, a sometimes-controversial church founded by the charismatic convict-turned-Christian, Phil Aguilar.
Aguilar, who is known as "the Chief" to his biker brothers and "grandpa" to his 21 grandchildren, became a Christian while doing time for assault in Chino State prison. He then decided to turn his back on a life of addiction and violence and instead "get high on Jesus."
After attending Bible college, Aguilar realized that he didn't fit the traditional church mold: He wore too much leather, had too many tattoos, and rode a Harley instead of driving a car. So in 1982, he started Set Free Ministries in an Anaheim garage to reach people like him. Since then, the church has grown to over 100 churches in the United States, Australia, South Africa, Jerusalem, and Spain.
"This is not your mama's church. We're not a soft church, but we keep our hearts soft, staying in prayer, and staying in fellowship with other believers," Aguilar said. The skull emblem on the Soldiers' jackets signify that they are soldiers for Christ; they describe themselves as a group who loves Jesus and loves to ride hard.
But the church's culture has often clashed with others. In the 1990s, Calvary Church in Costa Mesa Pastor Oden Fong accused Set Free of being a cult, and urged other churches not to interact with it. In response, Set Free allegedly intimidated the pastor, then sued the church unsuccessfully for slander.
In 2008, seven members of Set Free Soldiers, including Aguilar, were arrested after a bloody brawl with members of another biker gang, Hells Angels. While Aguilar didn't participate in the fighting, one Soldier was sentenced to eight years in prision for attempted murder after stabbing two Hells Angels.
Because of the melee, more than 150 police officers raided Aguilar's compound in Anahiem looking for drugs and weapons. All they found was one pistol and brass knuckles.
The arrest and raid hurt Set Free's reputation, but even critics admit that Aguilar's ministry reaches people who wouldn't get within one hundred yards of a traditional church.
"We go where a pizza man doesn't deliver," Aguilar said. "We get out there with the people on the highways and the byways of life. We tell them that if God took us, He'll take anybody."
Aguilar calls his church a "last stop" ministry for the gang members, bikers, and the outlaws of society. Many members of Set Free had addiction problems, spent time in prison, and lived on the streets.
Pitstop, who has been riding with the Soldiers for four and a half years, found a calling in the group: "I'm just serving Jesus and trying to help people who were in the same places I've been. I was a dope addict and now I'm serving others."
Set Free Ministries offers a drug rehab program that combines the detox process with studying the Bible. Tammie Clarke said this is what set the program apart: "Never ever in my life have I ever been impacted like this. One week and I was completely detoxed. And just full of joy, full of goodness. It was the Lord."
Aguilar says that Set Free is rough and raw, but it still has its unique function in the Body of Christ: "The Church worldwide is like a big giant tossed salad, you got croutons, you got cucumbers. Set Free is like a little TapatÃo hot sauce on top. Not many people put TapatÃo on top of their salads, but the way the America is becoming, the mayo and mustard are going out."
This story first appeared in WORLD California.