By Yvette tenBerge
It is 6:30 p.m. on a Sunday, and
the normally quiet corner of 29th Street and Newton Avenue in
Logan Heights is alive with the sounds of electric guitars, bongo
drums and synthesizers that pour from a nearby whitewashed building.
Step inside, and you will find that, although this lively mixture
of rock and roll, blues and hip-hop would be at home in any local
bar, it is coming from the choir pit of Set Free Logan Heights
Church, a ministry that specializes in outreach to a segment of
the population that is usually simply ignored.
The musicians bring their worn instruments to a grinding halt and Pastor David "2 Dogs" Zamora leans closer toward his microphone. He wipes the sweat from his forehead, straightens his black leather biker vest and peers at the congregation through his sunglasses.
"Sometimes in life, we go through things, and we try and take the easy way out. We go for the quick fix," says Pastor Zamora, smiling knowingly at the sea of heads that nod back at him. At that, he picks the strings of his guitar and the band breaks into "Our God Is An Awesome God," a song that brings the majority of the congregation to their feet, swaying and clapping.
Although the Set Free Logan Heights Church only opened its doors this month, the work of this ministry that serves the "bottom one percentile" of the population has been going on at the Set Free Church in City Heights, on the corner of Estrella Avenue and Orange Street, for the past two years. Pastor Zamora, himself an ex-con and former heroin and cocaine addict, becomes visibly moved as he describes the beginning of the ministry to which he belongs. Set Free originated in Anaheim in 1982 thanks to the dedication of an ex-convict named Phil Aguilar.
"Pastor Phil was saved in prison. Once he got out, he went to seminary and eventually became an Associate Pastor at a church in Anaheim. He had been an outlaw biker all of his life, and he never forgot where he came from. After getting out of prison, he went back into these neighborhoods and started reaching these people who others did not feel comfortable outreaching to &SHY; the dregs of society," says Pastor Zamora, recounting Pastor Aguilar's run-in with the church hierarchy. "The Pastor of the church told Pastor Phil that he was bringing in the wrong types of people and told him to stop what he was doing."
Rather than stop, Pastor Aguilar continued to bring even more "outlaws" into the fold. As a result of his non-standard ministry, his congregation was taken away from him. Determined to continue his work, though, he began Set Free in his mother's garage. Within a few years, his congregation grew to over 7,000.
Pastor Zamora is quick to frame the basis of Set Free's mission. "What good is a shepherd if he only leads the 99 and does not go after the one sheep that is lost? We want to target the areas that have high crime rates and set up shop in the parts of town that churches are flying out of. They have forgotten that there are people in the inner-cities who need to hear the gospel, as well," says Pastor Zamora, explaining that Set Free specializes in working with people with "life controlling problems."
"We help people whose lives are out of control, people who are making bad choices. Ex-convicts, people who have problems with drugs or alcohol, people who are homeless. If you go fishing for certain kids of fish you have to use certain kinds of bait, right?" says Pastor Zamora, alluding to the reason behind Set Free's remarkable success. The men and women who run Set Free understand the problems that plague the members of their congregation because they, themselves, have lived through those same hardships and have overcome those same temptations.
But concert-like church services are not all that Set Free has to offer its congregation. Since "people don't just have crises between 8:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.," Pastor Zamora and other members of the ministry actually live on site. Another integral part of Set Free is the Training Center, a 12.5 acre "ranch" in east San Diego County where individuals struggling with substance abuse or other life-controlling problems can be separated from their "old lives." Set Free is also well known among City Heights residents for a food pantry and meal program that leaves most church food pantries in the dust.
Every Tuesday starting at 8:00
a.m., hundreds of City Heights residents line up to take their
pick of fresh fruits and vegetables like watermelon, cantaloupe,
grapes, spinach and bell peppers, loaves of wheat bread and dinner
rolls, breakfast pastries, cartons of milk and eggs, and items
like sour cream and yogurt.
Pastor Jon Cabrera, head of the City Heights Church, and Pastor Zamora shrug their shoulders as they see members of the same family take separate numbers and get in line. Although getting more than one "food package" per family is normally forbidden at most church food pantries, the philosophy at Set Free is different. The way they view it, Set Free is given the food to disperse to the people of the community. As long as there is a need, people are welcome to whatever amount of food they decide to take home, regardless of whether or not they even attend the church.
Robert Webb, 53, has run the food ministry for the past year and half. Like the majority of those who are a part of Set Free, he found their church when he hit rock bottom. "I came to San Diego from Cincinnati. I was trying to get away from my addiction to cocaine. After a while, I backslid, and I lost my place and my job at San Diego State. I used to come to Set Free to eat free meals, but one Saturday, I came for something to eat, and I never left," says Mr. Webb, whose friendly smile, expert cooking skills and quick pace lend the Set Free kitchen and food pantry an air of professionalism. Since Mr. Webb boasts a resume loaded with hospitality industry experience, he stepped up to help. He now holds titles such as the Director of Food Ministry, Board Member for Food Recovery and Community Service Director.
Mr. Webb names Keil's Grocery Store in La Mesa and Food Recovery, an organization of churches, as the biggest donors to the Set Free food programs. He pauses before sharing what he gets from his work with Set Free. "I grew up in a middle-class family, and I never had to work for anything. You would be surprised at how many people can't afford a $2.75 container of yogurt. Being able to help people in my community is my way of giving back," says Mr. Webb, scanning the room to make sure that there is enough bread out on the table. "This is my way of doing God's work."
Although Set Free helped the majority of their parishioners at a time when they were in an obvious state of crisis, there are dedicated members who discovered that Set Free's commitment to "walking the walk" rather than just "talking the talk" filled an empty space in more than just their stomachs. Charles Roberts, 30, a native of Boston, Massachusetts, left a lucrative investment banking job and his place in a popular San Diego band to minister for Set Free full-time.
"The thing about me was that I thought I knew so much about life. When I came here to San Diego, I realized I knew very little. I had books marked, but I did not have the character that it takes to lead a good life. I went to school and got a job out of college because it was the thing to do. I though that if I went out and did these things that life would be perfect. I worked for an investment banking firm. When you think about it, your whole purpose in life is for people to be able to horde money," says Mr. Roberts, shaking his head at the memory. "When the stock market goes down, all the happiness and joy goes down with it."
Mr. Roberts admits that his Roman Catholic family back home is skeptical, but he shares what spoke to his heart about Set Free. "It wasn't what Set Free said that got my attention, it is what they did. It's not what they say about God, it's what they actually do to show the love of God," says Mr. Roberts, who has spent the past few months helping to set up the new Training Center in east San Diego County. His dream is to return to Boston to set up a Set Free ministry of his own. "So many churches are caught up in talking about God and the Bible, but they get new people in the church who smell funny or who don't have enough money to put in the collection basket and they give them the cold shoulder."
Although the men living at Set Free Logan Heights and Set Free City Heights Churches keep their facilities immaculate, nobody in Set Free is surrounded by luxury. Every bit of money, except for a small stipend set aside for their two pastors, is pumped back into their ministry. Although their finances are expertly managed, Set Free, who helps so many others, often finds itself in need of help. It is the San Diego Southern Baptist Association who has been there to lend a hand.
Pastor David explains that it was the Association's financial help that allowed Set Free to open the San Diego ministries. The Association pays Set Free's gas and electric bills, partially funds the Training Center and allows them use of the City Heights church free of charge. "I have to tell you, when I used to think of Southern Baptists, I thought of the good old boys and cross burning. It has been a learning experience seeing that these men really care about other people. These men are not perpetrating the oppression of minorities; they have their own style," says Pastor Zamora, who blends his spirituality with his own Native American and Mexican heritage.
Wade McKinley was the Director of Missions for the San Diego Southern Baptist Association two years ago when the idea of bringing Set Free to San Diego was first proposed. "At the time, they had 15 Set Free Churches in Riverside that were pastured by men who had been converted in prison or when they got out of prison. Some were convicted of murder or drug dealership, or they suffered from drug abuse and other problems. I said, `Oh my goodness, our own city is filled with people like this." I was thrilled; except I could not handle the music. It was too loud, and it hurt my ears," says Mr. McKinley, laughing. "But, I knew that they would reach the inner-city, and they have."
"It is not uncommon to see over a hundred people at the Sunday morning services. What excited me is that most of these men that Set Free reaches have degrees. They are engineers, former football players and construction contractors - drugs do not discriminate. These are very intelligent, sharp men," says Mr. McKinley, before getting to what impresses him most about Set Free Ministry. "All they get for their service is a place to sleep, food and very few clothes. They are truly servants. They are as New Testament as New Testament can be."
Set Free Services are held in City Heights at 4189 Estrella Avenue at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays and in Logan Heights at 1045 South 29th Street at 6:30 pm. on Sundays. A dedication ceremony for the new Logan Heights church will be held on September 1 from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Set Free Logan Heights can be reached at (619)232-0742. Donations can be mailed to: Set Free Ministries, 1045 South 29th Street, San Diego, CA 92113.