His position at Set Free Church, Riverside, doesn’t allow for much time behind a desk, as his congregation is in his care full-time. Set Free ministers to “the homeless, the addicted, the afflicted, the lost and the hopeless.” One “joins” the church by moving in. And it is one of a small percentage of congregations that actively works to help people leave the church.
Set Free utilizes a three-phase system to help people turn their lives around, Carter said. The first phase, “The Ranch,” is designed to help individuals “separate from their old lives and begin to focus on God,” he said.
For 30 days, residents hand over all of their personal items — including cell phones — and submit to a schedule of daily work and Bible study. “They are completely cut off from society,” Carter said. “They get one call — we ask that they please call family members to let them know they are safe.”
After the 30-day time period — which may be extended for up to 60 days for those needing extra help — residents move to the “Discipleship/Work Home” phase. During this phase, residents have an equal balance of spiritual study and development of positive work habits, Carter said.
Residents are encouraged to begin to seek employment. As they find jobs, residents are asked to pay program fees to help offset the cost of the ministry. They are also expected to tithe, “teaching them biblical financial responsibility.”
Carter said he encourages residents to stay as long as they need. Since program fees are considerably less than the cost of living elsewhere, remaining at Set Free gives them the opportunity to save money to help them be financially stable.
Staying also helps residents develop the strength and discipline to be on their own. “I advise some to stay a year, maybe,” Carter said. “They gotta know they are strong enough to face trials, and not just take the easy way by using again.”
Carter said 942 individuals were housed by Set Free last year, with 125 graduates and 132 baptisms. “I don’t do no saving — God does it,” Carter emphasized, adding that lives are being changed through Set Free.
Carter is passionate about the program because it gave him a new start years ago. His cocaine addiction left him homeless in Los Angeles, Calif., and eventually landed him in jail.
It was Carter’s parole officer who introduced him to Set Free, which started in California in 1993. Carter thought, “I’ve tried everything in life, why not try this?” So he moved to the “ranch,” expecting chickens and hogs, and instead found a life-changing relationship with God, he said.
Every day, he woke up at 5 a.m. for Bible classes. After completing the first two phases of the Set Free program, he continued on to the third phase for vocational ministry training. Until that point, if you’d told Carter he would become a pastor, “I would have laughed at you,” he said. “But God raised me up.”
Set Free has its own vocational training program that takes five years to complete. Carter worked running the ranches in Riverside, Calif., before being asked to move to Riverside, Mo. “It’s not been no easy road,” Carter pointed out.
The church is sponsored by Northland Baptist Church and housed at First Baptist Church, Riverside. Set Free Ministries requires a church sponsorship until the church is self-supporting. Residents are housed in an apartment complex just down the road from the church. While the building has space available for both a men’s and women’s ministry, Set Free doesn’t currently have the financial resources to run the women’s ministry, Carter said.
The church does run Set Free Christian Lawn Care, using donated equipment, to help become self-sustaining. “We’re praying God would fruit and let that grow,” Carter said. He is looking for options of work to do during the winter months.
He emphasizes that he is thankful for all the volunteers and churches who assist with the ministry. “I thank God for bringing these men and women to help,” he said. “I can’t do it alone — God knows that.”
Approximately 20 men go through the Set Free program at a time. As residents are in the program voluntarily, they can also leave any time they choose. “They can say ‘I’m done,’ and leave,” Carter said. “We’ll not stop them,” although they do try to help the men think through the decision they are making.
“For every batch of 20 or 40, maybe two devote themselves,” he said. “The only way they can make it is they gotta give up everything, allow God to come in and work everything out.”
Jennifer Harris is news writer for Word&Way.