Annie Wells/Genesis Photos

Jesus & strippers

Hope Award | I Am a Treasure lavishes the love of Christ on women in the sex industry

Issue: "Africa, Inc.," Oct. 10, 2009

LOS ANGELES-Los Angeles. Near midnight. Industrial buildings. Empty streets. Full parking lot. Men wander into a nondescript building, "Fantasy Castle." Bouncers stand at the door. Inside, on stage. women dance to earn their rent. Men watch in the dark. Booze, perfume, and loneliness.

A group of young women with fistfuls of flamingo pink gift bags approach the bouncer and offer him cookies-yes, cookies. This is the second strip club they have visited, pulling up in a church minibus: They have five more on their list as they canvass neighborhoods north of Long Beach, south of Compton. The bouncer takes the cookies and lets them inside to the bar, the customers, and the dancers, who are all lined up on the stage.

"I hated lining up-like a cattle call," remarks Harmony Dust outside the club. Dust, a former stripper, started slipping notes on the windshields of dancers six years ago telling them "you are loved"-and her ministry, I Am a Treasure, was born. Along with other women including former strippers, she lavishes love on women in the sex industry and teaches that Jesus loves them too. On this night, several of the dancers turn away from customers to give the gift-baggers bear hugs and tell them their real names.

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Treasures-that's what most people call the ministry-has a simple recipe: Bring gifts of lip gloss, jewelry, and handwritten cards into dressing rooms in strip clubs. Wait for phone calls, texts, or emails from the women that often come in just hours after the visit. "This is largely a seed-sowing ministry," said Dust-and when sprouts appear, volunteers help with childcare and rides to church. They listen, talk, mentor, wait, and hope.

The world of strip clubs, prostitution, and pornography, underground by design, is also sprouting. The United States by one count has 2,700 strip clubs. The $13 billion-a-year pornography industry has 200 production companies in its epicenter, California.

In an unscientific 2007 survey taken by XXXChurch, which addresses pornography among Christians, 70 percent of Christians admitted to struggling with porn in their daily lives. Another poll by Rick Warren's pastors.com in 2002 showed 54 percent of pastors had viewed pornography within the last year. Eric Schlosser's book The Business of Pornography estimates that the number of strip clubs in the United States has doubled since 1987, and that Americans spend more of their money on strip clubs annually than on ballet, theater, opera, and classical and jazz concerts combined.

For three years men threw money to see Harmony Dust on stage. Her background was all too common in the sex industry: molested as a child and later raped, abandoned by her father, and repeatedly abused by other men and women. As a teenager she entered the foster care system. In her early 20s she was desperate to keep one man at her side, an abusive boyfriend, and would give him any amount of money to keep him happy, until there wasn't any left.

Dust was a college student, studying psychology. When she considered stripping to make ends meet, she asked one of her professors if he thought it would jeopardize her professional future if she went into the sex industry. She isn't just a pretty face; Dust is really smart and never stumbles over her words-in fact, she'll finish your sentences for you if you struggle to be articulate. She hoped the professor would say she shouldn't do it, tell her she was better than that, but she recalls his response: "I don't see a problem with it-you don't have to put it on your resumé."

She started stripping under the name Monique at a club by the airport and managed to complete her undergraduate degree even while she was working in the sex industry at night. "You do everything you can to disconnect. I would literally be dancing and in my head be studying for a test I had the next day. . . . My life felt like a withered branch."

She would want customers to cross the line-touching her-so she could physically beat them, which she did with her stiletto. A few months after she started, she was pole dancing on stage and saw her professor in the audience.

Dust danced to pay the bills, and she brought her work ethic to stripping-she would come to the club and do 40, sometimes 80 dances in a night, only pausing for bathroom breaks, then leave with aching feet from the high heels-and go to class the next day. That life went on for three years, then in 1998 a friend brought her to a Los Angeles church, Oasis Christian Center, that meets in the Oasis Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard, one of the original United Artists theaters. She recalls being mortified when she heard that the pastor had learned she was in the industry: "I didn't know much about Christians, but I was pretty sure they didn't like strippers." On Sunday, though, the pastor simply greeted her and said he was glad to see her back-no discomfort in his bearing, and no once-over either-a simple interaction that broke her hostility.


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