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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.
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.
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.
Melissa soon quit her job. She and that man recommitted their lives to Christ and got engaged. They've been married for 10 years, but she says she has a hard time not treating him like a customer, still putting that distance in their relationship. She's working with Treasures and its over-seeing church, Oasis, to heal. Her eyes filled with tears more than once as she talked and watched the neon-lit clubs pass in the night.
But one club didn't have its lights on-it had closed since the last time the Treasures women had visited. One woman nodded. "That's good." In the early hours of the morning, Dust left the clubs to return home to her sleeping husband and 1-year-old daughter.
For more information on this year's Hope Award for Effective Compassion and to read profiles of other nominated organizations from this year and previous years, click here.
I Am a Treasure
Vision: To reach women who are working in the sex industry of Los Angeles. "Our desire is that these women would experience the breaking of chains and healing of wounds through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."
Reach: Treasures women visit 150 strip clubs in Los Angeles every year.
Budget (2007): $60,000
What's next: Harmony Dust hopes to open a residential program for women, because leaving the sex industry often requires an entire lifestyle change.