Jewish Journal

Set Free Ministries bikers charged with attempted murder *

by Brad A. Greenberg

August 6, 2008 | 8:15 pm

Set Free’s leader Aguilar

Bad news today for the Christian biker gang. Set Free Ministries. Six members, along with three members of the Hells Angeles, were arrested in a handful of raids across Southern California. The reason: A July 27 barfight in which members of Set Free allegedly stabbed two Hells Angels.

Among those arrested was Phil Aguilar, Set Free’s founder and leader. Details from the LA Times:

Aguilar’s MySpace page says he is a resident of Anaheim who is also known as the pastor or “the Chief” of the group. Next to his photo is the statement: “Sinner or Saint you be the judge!”

Authorities said the gang has a religious ministry that recruits people discharged from parole, state prison and county jail and has an outreach program for convicted felons.

“It just seems they have a lot of people that have run into law enforcement and the court system,” Schmidt said.

On its website, Set Free Soldiers describes itself as “a group of men who love Jesus and love to ride hard. We are not your normal motorcycle club. Some say we are too good for the bad guys, and too bad for the good guys.

“We don’t argue that,” the statement says. “All we Soldiers know is that we take care of our own and help plenty of others along the way. We try to live right in this wrong world and let our light shine wherever we may go.”

I met a number of the Set Free guys when I was out in San Bernardino. They hosted a weekly Bible study in Rialto that began inside Heroes and Madmen tattoo shop and had grown out onto the sidewalk. I once watched them wash each other’s feet out there as an act of humility.

They were a fellowship of Christian misfits who I thought served a really important niche, though I imagined it was one that often toed the line of lawfulness. Innocent until proven guilty, but things don’t look good today for Set Free.

After the jump is the short vignette I wrote about the group for a package about alternative Christian ministries:

About 25 men, most with leather vests, shaved heads and prominently displayed tattoos, gathered on the sidewalk to wash each others’ feet.

They held Bibles and smoked cigarettes while singing praises to Jesus Christ.

“I see nothing here but the same disciples you see in the Bible,’ said Bryan “Spike’ McGeo, who roared up on his fully loaded, $50,000 Harley-Davidson.

Maybe he’s right. Jesus’ closest followers were a far cry from today’s model Christians. And Jesus did wash the apostles’ feet to set an example of humility.

But most of the people who meet on Mondays in front of Rialto’s Heroes and Madmen tattoo shop on Riverside Avenue would turn heads walking into church.

“We’re reaching out to the outlaw bikers, the people on the streets, the punks those who nobody else wants to deal with,’ said Johnny Neuneker, an unpaid associate pastor for Set Free Rialto and owner of the tattoo shop.

Neuneker joined Set Free last year after starting a Bible study in his parlor’s lobby. He uses his shop to sow the seed of the Gospel on seemingly rocky soil.

Neuneker and others involved with Set Free seem like the kinds of guys and gals you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. But it’s difficult to hold a conversation with them without being asked, “Are you saved?’

They are bent on sharing Christianity with people like Mario Chavez.

When the 36-year-old Colton resident met Neuneker six months ago in a dark alley behind a San Bernardino bar, he wasn’t a resident anywhere.

Chavez was homeless, gangbanging and using drugs. Neuneker handed him a pocket Bible and told him he would become a Christian within three months.

He did.

“They keep it real,’ Chavez said. “All they try to do is show you the way, the truth and the life.’

*Updated: I just spoke with Neuneker, who commented below, and he emphasized that he has not been involved with Set Free Soldiers since shortly after I wrote about the group for The Sun. He’s now working with an organization called beneaththestreets.com.

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