Ministry reaches out to strippers

A Texas-based ministry reaches out to women who feel disconnected from God and the church with monthly visits offering unconditional love.

By Kaitlin Warrington

Jesus loves strippers, too, but fear of the unknown too often hinders Christians from reaching out to women trapped in the sex industry, a leader in an outreach ministry to exotic dancers said at a recent conference on empowering marginalized communities in Waco, Texas.

“The common denominator between the church and women staying where they are is fear,” Emily Mills, co-director of Jesus Said Love, a Waco-based ministry that she and her husband launched in 2005, said at the Oct. 18-20 No Need Among You community development conference sponsored by groups including several Texas Baptist organizations.

JesusLovesStrippers”The church says, 'I don't understand you, and I'm a little terrified about what it would look like for me to engage a sex worker,'” Mills said. “It's fear. It's what keeps the church from going to reach out to the women. But that same fear is what keeps the dancers trapped in their situation."

Mills said the need to reach out to dancers is great. Many times people think the sex industry is larger outside the United States. But the reality is 80 percent of the world’s pornography is made in Silicon Valley, and the U.S. is the number one destination for sex tourism.

“We are looking at problems that are huge, but when we take a step back, we begin to be moved to compassion,” Mills said.

JSL seeks to build trusting relationships with the dancers, club managers and owners, showing they are loved by Christ and valued by the JSL team. The team prays that through these relationships, life transformation will take place.

“Our calling is to build healthy relationships with women in the strip clubs,” Mills said. “Through these relationships, we want to share God’s love. And then when they are ready to get out, we can be there for them.”

The JSL team visits the strip clubs monthly, taking the women gift bags filled with soap, shampoo and baked treats typically provided by local churches.

Because of the bonds that develop between club managers and their dancers, Mills said, managers are open to the ministry team connecting with the women.

“The managers do try to take care of their girls,” Mills said. “Even though they are exploiting them, they do feel it is part of their role to take care of them. One said that a stripper is not a stripper forever, so it’s nice to know they can call Jesus Said Love.”

In the process, lives are changed for both dancers and volunteers. Lori Warren, coordinator of JSL Dallas, said she encountered a stripper named Kathleen through a club ministry and they formed a very close friendship.

“I believe that the Lord used Kathleen to change me,” Warren said. “She ministered to me in a huge way. I will never be the same because of that woman.”

Kathleen decided she wanted out of the stripping business and Warren and her church were there to support her.

“She came to the Lord, and she called me one day freaking out -- I don’t have money, I don’t want to go back to sex work,” Warren said. “I sent out a text asking people to pray for Kathleen.” Warren said. Within a couple of hours, women at the church gathered more than $700 to help Kathleen and let her know she was not alone in her journey.

Mills said men and women can help with the ministry in ways beyond going into the clubs. When a stripper desires to get out of the industry, often accountants, social workers, lawyers, teachers, health-care professionals and others are needed to help her move to a healthier place.

The ministry’s roots began in the winter of 2002, when Brett and Emily Mills were worship leaders for a conference focused on ministry to sex workers. Moved by the stories of former sex workers, Emily returned home with a burden for the marginalized in Waco.

Within two weeks, the first Easter outreach was organized, and women armed with gift bags ventured into two Waco strip clubs. Both club managers gave the women open invitations to return any time, and the group returned to the clubs every Easter and Christmas for the next few years.

In 2005, the idea grew to the point that the couple decided to branch off of their established worship ministry and adopted the name Jesus Said Love. The group moved to monthly outreaches in the summer of 2007. Ministry teams now function in Waco, Dallas, College Station and San Antonio.

Mills said three main efforts are needed to start a ministry to exotic dancers -- a team that will cover the ministry efforts with prayer, a hospitality team to bake cookies and prepare gifts for the dancers and a club team that goes once a month to deliver the gifts and build relationships with the dancers at the clubs.

“It only happens through humility, and God will use it to teach you that your way is not the only way of thinking,” Mills said. “He will wreck your theology and rebuild it his way. When you do life this way, you can start to make a difference for God.”

Ministry volunteers also should be willing to wrestle with their own walk with God through the journey of ministering to strippers. Mills shared that one way the church can build bridges to strippers is to leave room for questions.

“The gospel, the Bible, is big enough for our deepest fears and questions,” Mills said. “We have to let some of our fear go. We have to let go of some of the black and white things if we are going to do life with the broken.”