Forgive Me Father For I Have Sinned is the memoir of Phil Aguilar, founder of Set Free, a biker ministry based in Southern California. Aguilar became the target of Chuck Smith, founder of Calvary Chapel, after accusations were made against the pastor for running a ‘cult like’ organization.
This book is DIY (do it yourself) which is probably the only way Aguilar’s unique point of view could ever reach the average reader. He does such a masterful job portraying himself as a badass in the early part of this book. So good, in fact, that I am actually terrified to speak of repeated paragraphs and a few grammatical errors. I feel that, at any moment, his boot will kick through my computer monitor and ‘wash its bloody footprints’ on my hardwood floor before returning to cyberspace.
Phil Aguilar grew up in Anaheim, CA and experienced the brunt of racism in a city founded by Klan members who once casually paraded down Main Street. He idolized white culture and tried to fit in at Huntington Beach only to eventually realize the doors would be shut in his face. The first group he joined was The Brotherhood of Eternal Love; the group responsible for bringing LSD to the masses. Timothy Leary was their adopted guru and his honeymoon with them lasted for only a few months since stoners, ultimately, wind up not doing much of anything.
He traveled to San Francisco to be part of the Hippie movement but wound up being a drug dealer, and not a very good one at that. He partook of his own supply and found his way to prison. He accepts Christ in prison and, when he gets out, receives help from a number of sources, and women, only to drop them like hot potatoes for a variety of reasons (heat was on, got bored, grass is greener over the other side, etc).
He drifts in and out of various prisons, eventually getting married in Vacaville and moving on to Pacific Coast Bible Baptist College. This independent Baptist Bible College eventually moved from its location in San Dimas, CA, and is now Heartland Baptist Bible College in Oklahoma City, OK. He is embraced by independent fundamental Baptists and even attends pastors school at Hyles Anderson. Phil does write that Jack Hyles was his hero and he patterned his ministry on Hyles.
It shows! Aguilar rejects the strict rules regarding dress but keeps the strict rules regarding how to handle people! Set Free, his new ministry, is dedicated to helping the derelicts and rejects of society, and since they all live with him in a variety of homes purchased for the ministry, he must instill ‘tough love’ like any protective biker daddy.
His ministry is embraced by a number of respectable high profile personalities: Chuck Smith, Benny Hinn, Paul and Jan Crouch from TBN, the Los Angeles Dream Center, the Assemblies of God, and more.
Set Free helped the City of Anaheim renovate buildings. Cleaned out auditoriums and greeted visitors at churches. Helped operate cameras at TBN. But the moment those ministries start becoming successful and image conscious, they immediately get rid of the unsightly bikers! Too embarrassing! Of course, there is the matter of Phil’s inlaws who became upset after their daughter married Phil’s son, Geronimo (now known as Pastor G). Aguilar blames the inlaws for stirring up Calvary Chapel founder, Chuck Smith, against Aguilar.
Chuck Smith is known as the guru behind the Jesus People movement. He ultimately helped watered down the counter culture movement as every remaining Jesus person seemed to turn Republican or Libertarian. It was during this era when Rupert Murdoch bought out the Christian publishing house, Zondervan. If that wasn’t the final nail in the Jesus People movement, then nails don’t exist.
Set Free took off with a whirlwind of popularity and positive news coverage. Phil argues that the Jesus People movement was reborn through Set Free. It’s hard to argue with that! It did achieve much popularity. Set Free was embraced by political leaders and TBN. Chuck Smith may have got the hippies to cut their hair and join the business world, but Phil did one step better. He let them shave their heads and look how they wanted! Phil Aguilar was on the way to bringing back the ‘Jesus People’ movement in full force. Some religious leaders obviously didn’t want that.
Calvary Chapel hosted a cult awareness-type seminar regarding Set Free ministries back in the 1990s. It was done independently of Cult Awareness Network. Many of the things they would accuse Set Free of doing would eventually boomerang against Calvary Chapel. (see: Calvary Chapel Abuse)
The press dogs went rabid and, with a little help from Calvary Chapel’s Oden Fong, Set Free became the target of a relentless campaign. The ministry was driven out of Anaheim. The Set Free critics, fueled by Calvary Chapel’s emotional (if not financial) support, followed the group to every city they moved. Flyers were passed out and stapled to phone poles and bulletin boards. Set Free became divided.
(Paul Crouch names ‘Calvary Chapel’ and advises Phil Aguilar to ‘sue the bastards!’)
Pastor Phil returned to Anaheim for one more try. They were only able to meet once before getting tossed out.
Phil now rejects a key part of the IFB philosophy: numbers.
He doesn’t care about having thousands of worshippers in an auditorium. He wants a lean, mean team of biker Christians who he can depend on. He was with the best! Chuck Smith, Greg Laurie, Benny Hinn, Pat and Jan Crouch. Now all he wants is to be with people he can really trust!
One of his new biker comrades happened to be a TV Producer. He successfully negotiated for Phil to have his own reality show, Saints and Sinners.
This could have been the moment for Phil to show his case to America, but he took a wrong turn into the tourist bar, Blackies, where a fight broke out with Hells Angels and a man was stabbed.
The prosecution over-reacted (are we surprised?) and tried to make it look like Phil called in the Hell’s Angeles. The judge overturned everything and the charges were dropped.
The book ends with Phil and his family living in a house in Southern California where he conducts bible study on his front lawn.
Forgive me Father is interesting in the same manner as A Clockwork Orange. It’s too easy to feel unsympathetic about his story or his ministry. But you can’t go through his journey without realizing there is another ‘gang’ out there that is both hypocritical and potentially more dangerous. That ‘gang’ is made up of the collusion of fundamentalist and evangelical mega church pastors who have covered up the abuse of children, but dress better. The truly dangerous always wear fine clothes with clean fingernails and a Dentine smile.
There are people terrified to speak about their experiences with Set Free. They are not necessarily those who went to Chuck Smith for help. Nor are they the men and women who voluntarily put themselves under the ministry of Phil Aguilar.
I am speaking of the children who, through the circumstances of fate, were born, bred, and fed by Set Free ministries. Some of them are now young adults. Their stories deserve to be told, and they will be heard.
When ABC news began documenting abuses in fundamentalist churches, there was the predictable criticism that these churches are independent. I have always maintained that if you want to find the common link with fundamentalist churches, it will be found in their missionary outreach or college affiliations. Sure enough, Set Free has worked with practically every denomination that has come under fire for collusion regarding child abuse.
(Jack Schaap praising the Aguilars)
Phil Aguilar could be Samson. He could bring the entire temple down upon the Pharisees and himself! Honesty does have a way of cleansing the soul and your reputation. Still, he chooses ‘to forgive’. That can also be interpreted as another form of cover up. He reveals Jan Crouch gave him the dirt on Chuck Smith. In fact, the Crouch’s lasted the longest with Phil Aguilar. He still has fondness toward them.
Phil Aguilar might have the last laugh. With Jack Schaap, and a number of other fundamental preachers in prison for abuse, Pastor Phil might be their last hope when they emerge from prison. The ‘gang’ that was rejected by the Pharisees might, in fact, be the very place the Pharisees will go after they serve their time. Maybe it’s time for the Pharisees to start buttering him up?
(Pastor Falwell praising the Aguilars)
Forgive Me Father, by accident, reveals an abusive subculture that is not even aware it is abusive! What child advocacy does not seem to process is the fact that for millenia, and close to the first half of the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for girls of 13 years of age to be married off to adults.
Most of us can point to grandparents, or other female relatives, who had children at a very young age. This was during an era when unions of older men/younger women was not frowned upon. Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and even Moderate Christians have never truly abandoned that era. Men were in charge. Parents controlled who their children married. Parents were able to break up ‘Romeo/Juliet’ marriages by simply asserting their will over their children (in some cases, until their early twenties).
We did not even start discussing child/adult relationships until the Kinsey Report came out in 1948. What has been happening with mainstream religions, who are being scrutinized for abuse, is similar to what Phil is attempting in his book: apologize without acknowledging the reason behind the apology! Honestly, Phil, would you allow one of your alcoholic residents to stay in your place longer than a week without acknowledging the nature of his problem?
Phil is doing, in a half-assed way, what mainstream religions have not even attempted to do: name their crime, apologize for it, and then try to make amends. He had my sympathies until Chapter 28 from which I quote: “I chose not to write this chapter because I don’t want to go into details about people who made my life a living hell. I also refuse to defame anyone’s character by giving you any juicy gossip.”
In a way, it is my favorite chapter. I do hope that in future editions, in addition to correcting the grammatical errors, he includes another chapter called, “I changed my mind.”