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Jesus & strippers

"Jesus & strippers" Continued...

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

For a time she attended church on Sunday but kept stripping: After three years in the business, she struggled to leave. Suddenly one night at the club she walked out on stage and felt naked for the first time. "Purple Rain" by Prince, the song she first auditioned to at the club, came on and she realized she had been stripping for far too long. She quit on the spot. Over the next several years she garnered a master's degree in social work from UCLA, studying the backgrounds of women in the sex industry. At church one of the first people she met was John, a new Christian who would become her husband. Together they changed their last name to Dust. "God made man from dust," she explained. "It's perfect. It's from the ground up."

In 2003, while driving to the airport to pick John up, she drove by the same club where she used to strip-but she couldn't pass it by. Filled with emotion and conviction, she pulled into the parking lot, and the security guard let her put notes on the women's windshields telling them that they are loved. Then she couldn't pass by clubs anymore, and she and others who joined her work began building relationships with dancers. She saw women eagerly reach for that same love she found in Jesus.

Dust doesn't see her role as trying to get women out of the industry or tell them that their jobs are sinful. No one needs to tell them, she said-anyone in the industry feels a certain sickness in her soul. What they need is someone to extend the gospel through love. But she's quick to say that Treasures volunteers don't see themselves as strippers' "saviors."

"I have nothing-I have lip gloss," Dust said, laughing. "And I probably only have that because of Jesus." The organization functions off a skeleton of a budget-under $100,000 a year-and Dust won't apply for federal funds because she doesn't want anything to interfere with "preaching the Word."

Treasures trains a network of churches around the country on how to accept and support members of the sex industry. Dust works under a board that includes pastors and staff from Oasis, the first place to welcome her when she was trying to get out of stripping. She forbids men to join Treasures' outreach to strippers because of the level of distrust women in the sex industry generally feel toward men, though men in her church, Oasis, do what they can by stuffing gift bags, praying, supporting.

She's seen the gospel soften the hearts of even the most hardened employees of the sex industry: "There's no life that's too 'far gone'-I wouldn't even use that term-for God to do His work." But the Treasures women have had their share of heartbreak. One woman the staff has been mentoring in the industry was drenched in gasoline and set on fire in the parking lot of a strip club several months ago. She is rehabilitating from the brink of death now, and Treasures takes her two children to church. Another woman escaped her pimp only to be drugged and raped shortly after.

One night, before leaving for the clubs, Treasures women prayed for Melissa, who began stripping in Los Angeles at age 21. Melissa had joined Treasures and this night, 11 years later, was her first return to the scene-but she and I sat in the church minibus while others went inside. She could not bring herself to go into any of the clubs we visited, and she still has dreams about her time in the club. "I started to feel slimy," she said about the work. "I would have slime on my skin."

That was a change. Before, "I was filled with lust-not just sexual, but lust for the world," she said. She planned just to make a little bit of extra cash stripping and then quit, but she stayed at the club for almost a year. Melissa's family still doesn't know that she, a lovely Christian from the Midwest, was ever in the industry. She had dropped out of high school, packed her bags, and driven to Los Angeles with only $40 to her name and a handful of McDonald's gift certificates.

One night she broke down, got on her knees, and began praying for God to help her get out. The next night a man came into the club and she approached him as usual to see if he would pay for a dance, but he did something odd: Instead of scrutinizing her body he talked to her about Christianity. They started going to church together, each feeling their own brokenness-him in going to the strip club, her in being employed there.

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