HOLY ROLLERS : Bikers Revved Up Over Religion Attend Church Led by Ex-Con

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Belly bulging, beard flowing, Bert Aguilar turns the throttle on his Harley-Davidson and just for a second the scream of his bike has the sound stream all to itself, belching out a roar that curls the eardrums.

But then another dozen bikers hit the ignitions on their motorcycles and the day shatters into a bellowing, deafening cacophony of noise enveloping men and machines.

The leader pulls out onto Anaheim Boulevard, and the followers trail. The black leather vests emblazoned with the chopper gang's "colors" portend menace, as do the gleams on the cycles' chrome and in the bikers' eyes.

When you see them coming, better step aside; a lot of men didn't and a lot of men. . . . Well, they didn't die, actually. What they did was get religious tracts shoved into their hands.

These men on the two- and three-wheelers aren't Hells Angels, or Vagos, or Hessians. They're members of a motorcycle group called "Christ's Sons"--it says so right there on the back of their vests--and they think of themselves more as "Heaven's Angels," riding forth to save souls.

The "motorcycle ministry" is part of a distinctly unconventional church in Anaheim known as Set Free by Christ. Its pastor, Phil Aguilar, is a 42-year-old ex-convict who found Jesus behind bars, went through Bible school and emerged to found Set Free in a friend's home nearly eight years ago.

Now the church operates out of a building on Anaheim Boulevard that looks like a warehouse, holding Sunday services outdoors in a concrete open space behind the structure. By 9 a.m., an hour before services start, churchgoers have already begun gathering. Most are in their 20s and 30s, dressed informally. They exchange hugs and greetings.

Outside the building, tail-to-sidewalk and snout-to-street, the choppers start to line up. The pastor's is closest to the courtyard; beside it is his brother's; a dozen more fill out the line. Churchgoers chat about motorcycle suspensions and carburetors as easily as about heaven.

Which is just the way the pastor wants it.

"The value of having a motorcycle ministry is this," Aguilar said: "No. 1, it reaches out to bikers; No. 2, but just as important, it gets people who come to church who normally have been intimidated by bikers to get to see they're real people who love Jesus, too. No. 3, it goes into the subculture to where punkers, surfers, lowriders, everybody else says, 'Man, if they can get saved, I can get saved.' "

Set Free members have a number of 1940s cars and lowrider automobiles to attract people favoring such vehicles. The church also rents several houses in Anaheim to shelter homeless families and has a ranch near Hemet that it uses as a detoxification facility for alcoholics and drug addicts.

But it's hard to beat the motorcycles for grabbing attention, especially when they roar down the road in a pack.

Aguilar's brother Bert, 40, was a charter member of Christ's Sons when it was founded about seven years ago, just a few months after Set Free itself opened shop. Now a minister himself, Bert Aguilar figured he'd been riding motorcycles more than 20 years.

"I rode with all the 'outlaw' clubs," Bert Aguilar said one morning before services started. "I rode with the Hessians, the Hangmen, the Hells Angels. . . . I was a drug smuggler 18 years," running the contraband from Mexico back north across the border.

"Three or four felonies before noon was natural," he said. "It also meant I probably overslept." He said he'd been arrested scores of times, yet always dodged a felony conviction. But when brother Phil found God in Chino state prison and emerged to spread the gospel, brother Bert eventually was saved, too.

In the old days, Bert said, "Biking was my hobby and smuggling was my life. Now, instead of selling dope I'm sharing hope."

The Christ's Sons have appeared on the Tustin-based Trinity Broadcasting Network, a religious television network, and have roared up the highway to Bakersfield and down to Escondido for church revivals.

Members also tell of visiting "biker swap meets," often in Costa Mesa, and of handing out their religious tracts.

Many of their swap meet targets are "outlaw" bikers, Bert Aguilar said. "Some of them are in clubs, but they don't wear the colors. Guys with colors, they don't really wear them. It's like a target, especially for other outlaw bikers."

Indeed, the history of motorcycle gangs is replete with incidents of club-against-club violence with distinct similarities to the gang warfare so visible today, right down to drive-by shootings. And even when bikers wearing their colors aren't hassled by other bikers, they are rousted by police. Sheriff's deputies who have worked undercover to infiltrate motorcycle gangs tell of being pulled over six and seven times in an evening by city police in their black-and-whites.

Sgt. Bob Giles of the Orange County Sheriff's Department special investigations division said deputies "started putting the hurt" to outlaw bikers a dozen years ago, and as a result Orange County is just about the only Southern California county without a Hells Angels chapter. The Hessians, founded in Orange County, have also been quiet since one of their founders was jailed five years ago on murder charges, Giles said.

Outlaw bikers "are still around," Giles said, "but they're not high profile like they were." A spokeswoman for the state Justice Department said that many outlaw motorcycle gangs in California are involved in manufacturing and distributing drugs, especially methamphetamines.

But the Christ's Sons don't cause any problems, according to Anaheim Police Lt. Marc Hedgpeth.

"We see their motorcycles parked on Anaheim Boulevard," Hedgpeth said. And although police have had their troubles with other motorcycle gangs in years gone by, "I've seen nothing that involves those people (Christ's Sons). I think their intent is very different. It's centered around their beliefs and the activities of that church."

Bert Aguilar and other church members said that while bikers from other motorcycle groups or gangs might be wary when they see the Christ's Sons show up, they listen because fellow bikers are doing the talking.

Christ's Sons members said they have won bikers to their church, though they had no numbers on how many might have been swayed by the combination of black leather and silver crosses.

"If I went around bikers with a suit on, I'd scare them, because they might think I'm a narc or something like that," said John Robinson, a 39-year-old who recently went to Texas to help run a ranch the church plans to operate as a detoxification facility for alcoholics and drug addicts.

"Some people we win because of the clothes we have," Robinson said. "Sometimes we might scare people off a bit, but once they realize that we're Christians . . . they realize we're there representing the Lord."

"Our bikes are nothing but an instrument," Robinson said. "Of course it's used to win more bikers. We let bikers know that 'hey, you don't have to be an outcast or some radical heathen in order to ride a motorcycle. You can be a born-again Christian and ride a motorcycle.' "

In other words, you can be someone like Richard Eaton.

A 52-year-old father of eight and grandfather of seven, Eaton retired his motorcycle when he and his wife started having children. "I didn't want to go down (crash) and not have anyone to take care of them," he said.

But his children were grown by the time he met a church member ready to sell a Kawasaki. "She needed some money and I had a bunch of cash in the closet and I liked what I saw, so I told my wife, 'I'm getting on my bike again.' " Eaton later traded up to a Suzuki and then to a Harley.

Eaton called the church "a second family." Members of other churches probably would "get a little schizo" at the appearance of the congregation, he said, "but here at Set Free, they look at the inside, not what you look like. They don't care how you dress, what you look like or anything else. That's why everyone's so comfortable here."

Eaton said he rides a motorcycle "because it's, first of all, very enjoyable. You're not part of a herd. It's sort of like a cowboy and his horse kind of thing. You're doing your own thing and you have no strings attached, no sitting in the parking lot on a freeway; you just go through (traffic)." Plus, "I like the feel of the power."

But he almost got off his bike for good in August, when on a Christ's Sons run northward his 19-year-old son, David, and another Christ's Sons member on a motorcycle were hit by a car driven by a motorist that Eaton said was drag racing.

One youth was in a coma for three weeks; David Eaton had part of his leg amputated. Richard Eaton said that judging from the accident scene, both young men should have been dead.

Waiting at the hospital, Richard Eaton said he asked the Lord, "Do you want me to get off my bike?" He said the answer was no.

Eaton figured that the answer stemmed from the club's work to bring people to the church.

"It's a real phenomenal outreach as far as (being) a tool to win souls," he said. "It's amazing the impact this club has."

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