SANGER, California — Before the people at Set Free Church in Sanger, Calif., got involved in Bernice’s life, she didn’t have a bed. She also didn’t have chairs or much food at all. All she really had was a drug-addicted fiancé who wouldn’t let her visit the church, which was just across the street.
But then Jacob Zailian and his family and others at the church started coming to her instead. First, they took Bernice and her fiancé some food, then chairs. Then they gave them some air mattresses.
And it wasn’t long before Bernice’s fiancé had changed his mind about the church, and she started attending. Then, she gave her life to Jesus and was radically changed.
That’s something Jacob can relate to.
A life changed
Jacob knows the exact spot where his own life changed dramatically, in a cell on the fourth floor of D pod in Fresno County Jail.
He’d grown up Catholic, but after the trauma of finding his father dead, he didn’t want anything to do with God. That took him down a path of drug dealing and abuse that lasted a long, long time. Until the day came when his girlfriend visited him in jail and said she was leaving him and taking the kids with her.
Broken, Jacob went back to his cell and prayed.
“I was tired of living my life addicted to drugs and gave up and surrendered everything to Christ,” he said.
And God worked a miracle. Jacob started reading his Bible and grew in his faith. Once he was out of prison, he reunited with his girlfriend, Francine, and married her. God also gave Jacob a heart to minister to the people he understood, those on the margins of society.
Now the Zailians spend their days reaching the homeless, the drug addicts and the gang members of Sanger, people who “would scare people who go to most churches,” Jacob said.
In this impoverished community, much of his audience knows him already. He used to live on the streets too. When he started inviting them to church, some would say, “I’ll come if you start one.”
A church planted
So, in April 2019, Jacob did. With the support of a local church and the North American Mission Board (NAMB), he became a church planter and started Set Free Church, which takes the gospel to the streets and tries to help addicts and the homeless find hope in Jesus.
“It’s pretty much the people that everybody looks at as a lost cause,” he said.
He, his wife and their children along with other church members give out food and serve hot meals several times a week, including after every church service. During the pandemic, they set up tables in their driveway and put fruit, vegetables and bread out like a farmers’ market for people to pick up.
Jacob says those kinds of things are central to what they do. The community created through that act of compassion creates a bridge to talk to, pray and share Christ with them.
When they do share, it’s not always a dramatic conversion experience like the apostle Paul, or church neighbor Bernice or even Jacob himself. Sometimes, they aren’t able to get through to people.
The police recently called Jacob and asked him to come and pray with a family who had lost someone to a drug overdose. Jacob knew the man. He had been talking with him for quite some time about Jesus.
“We were trying to get him off the street, but he ended up dying,” Jacob said. Watching people struggle and sometimes not make it “hurts your heart,” he said.
But the truth does change people; he sees it happen all the time. And in the midst of COVID-19, they started having church in the park, which brought in more new people.
“We want to give them the truth of the gospel,” he said.
A dream for more
They want to give them a path to recovery too. For those who meet Jesus and want a different life, Jacob helps connect them to a Christian recovery ministry. He often drives them there himself.
And after they’re out, Jacob is ready to help them keep growing. Set Free Church recently opened a residential program at a renovated house where men can spend a year being intensely discipled as they continue their addiction recovery.
“We look at it as a chance to equip them and train them to send them out,” he said.
Jacob’s prayer is that one day the church will have its own recovery center, too, called Set Free Ranch, a place where men can go to recover from addictions and get back on their feet.
All along Jacob’s journey, as the gospel goes forward, as lives are changed and as the ministry grows, all of it “is God,” Jacob said. God gave him a heart to help those struggling through the entire process of recovery “because I was there once myself.”
The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® provides half of NAMB’s annual budget, and 100 percent of the proceeds go to serve missionaries in the field. The offering is used on the field for training, support and care for missionaries like the Zailians and for evangelism resources.
Published March 13, 2021