Tommi Halvorsen Gatlin: A timely gift in the little town of Elma

Set Free ministry reopens doors to help women and teens in crisis.

By Tommi Halvorsen Gatlin

Regardless whether Jesus Christ was born on the date we celebrate his coming, Christmas is centered on giving.

The Bible says he came to give eternal life to all who will accept it. Presents we give others are reminders of the gift that arrived long ago in that “Little Town of Bethlehem.”

In the little town of Elma, Set Free Christian Fellowship has a renewed gift that took 11 years to deliver.

Since 1992, the live-in discipleship ministry’s been helping people find freedom from addictions and other crises. Though some former residents have left before reaching that goal, literally hundreds have graduated from Set Free and set foot into more-meaningful, more-productive lives.

Many still live and work in the community, some running their own successful businesses, Set Free Senior Pastor Mike Tallman says.

Residents at Set Free, at 427 W. Main St., have at times included men, women and teens. But because the women’s director married and moved away in 2007, it could no longer serve women and teens, said Debbie Tallman, the pastor’s wife and current women’s director.

That changed in October when two women were welcomed to a cozy home Set Free owns on South Fifth Street. A third woman joined them last month at the House of Ruth, where eight beds are available for women in crisis.

“We provide a platform for people … to recover from whatever their crises,” Mike Tallman said last week. “We get people that are struggling with all kinds of stuff. … We provide that atmosphere of love and accountability while God does the work on the inside. And that works across the board.”

There are people “trying to escape all different dysfunctions … false belief systems. They’re living in a fantasy,” he said. “And it doesn’t work in the real world.”

“People want to know what their purpose in life is, and they want to be free from the bondage that holds them captive from pursuing whatever that purpose is,” Debbie Tallman said. “If they’re willing to do what it takes to get better, we’re willing to get in the trenches with them.”

“I don’t sugar-coat it,” she said. “I let them know it’s going to be difficult, and there will be days when you’ll want to walk out. But if you choose to stick it out, we’ll be there right with you.”

Residents rise at 6 a.m. and have a schedule that includes church services, group sessions, chores, class sessions and homework on problem behaviors, thinking and recognizing triggers. They also are required to give back to the community through volunteer work, she noted.

The program fee is $400 a month, with a sliding scale for those who qualify. More on Elma’s Set Free can be found at



The Elma ministry was begun and pastored by Kenny Rice, who served two combat tours in Vietnam and understood hard times and crises.

“God led me to radically change my life from a life of violence and pain to a life of service to Him,” Rice wrote on the website of the church he now pastors in Georgia.

In Elma, the burly Rice was known for his tough-looking exterior, his biker duds, his Harley — and his teddy-bear heart. After helping start several West Coast churches, Rice headed to Georgia in 2005 to do the same. He has since established three churches in Georgia.

Mike Tallman also has known firsthand crises, arriving at Set Free in 2001 desperately needing healing. His grandmother, who was his best friend, died, his wife left him, then his concrete business failed.

“And I ended up discovering methamphetamine in a tavern, and I began a lifestyle for two years of running with bikers and outlaws. And after two years in the dark, I wanted out,” he said.

The meth had “scrambled my synapse ends. My processors were broken,” he said. “I could think, but by the time my thoughts reached my lips, they were garbled.”

Tallman said he “ran into a man” who brought him to Set Free. “They told me Jesus was the answer, and it was hard to believe. I thought they were fanatical.”

But when he began practicing what they were teaching, he said, “I saw the light.”

He completed Set Free’s year-long recovery program then volunteered for a second year. By then, he was free to go and come, and “it was just a safe place for me to re-establish my life.”

When Rice left, Tallman helped direct Set Free, then began pastoring.

Currently, about 45 men are Set Free residents. Though having a place and program for women again will involve hard work, it’s also a blessing at a particularly wonderful time of year.

Call Debbie Tallman at 360-292-8878 for information on the women’s ministry and Pastor Tallman at 360-310-0577 for the men’s ministry.

Tommi Halvorsen Gatlin can be reached at

Angel Callahan, front, and Christina Watkins, fix dinner at House of Ruth in Elma, where they are two of the first residents of the women’s ministry, which returned after 11 years to Set Free Christian Fellowship. Photo courtesy Tommi Halvorsen Gatlin

Angel Callahan, front, and Christina Watkins, fix dinner at House of Ruth in Elma, where they are two of the first residents of the women’s ministry, which returned after 11 years to Set Free Christian Fellowship. Photo courtesy Tommi Halvorsen Gatlin