The strip club is dark enough to cover faces, but not in the shape of a woman circling on a platform entertaining three men at the bar.
The dancer Simone concentrates on her movements on her hands and knees and does not allow herself to be distracted. Then Joy Hoover, an agent of Jesus, comes by with a pink baking box full of frozen goodies.
“Cupcakes!” Simone shouts, reaching for Hoover. “I want a cupcake. Save one!”
A few minutes later, Simone (her stage name) is in the back room with a cupcake in her hand. She puts her carb-free diet on hold for a pink, sugary moment.
For Hoover, it’s a moment of triumph: pastries trump pies. With her cupcakes, she works in the room, handing out business cards to a handful of dancers who take breaks or prepare for shifts.
“We look forward to your visit,” says Simone of Hoover and her partner in the Pole Ministry, Krissee Danger (her real name). “You are phenomenal.”
Hoover and Danger, both 23, are representatives of the Strip Church nonprofit, the ministry of XXXChurch.com. The “church” serves porn stars, strippers, prostitutes, and anyone who joins the belief that people deserve the love of Jesus Christ without the judgment of organized religion.
34 year old porn pastor Craig Gross started XXXChurch.com 10 years ago to get in touch at porn conventions. There is no physical church, just its desire to bring God’s message to the masses. Gross opened an office in Las Vegas about two years ago and expanded the group’s reach to include strip clubs, brothels, and even the flickering map on the strip. It’s no fun when churches only want to serve religious, says Gross.
They finance their public relations work through donations and retail sales of products like the Strip Church Bible or the book of Bible stories “Jesus Loves Porn Stars”. Like their name, their methods are less than traditional. Some might even say that they are quirky, weird, or downright irreligious.
“Our approach is to ask, ‘What would Jesus do?'” Hoover explains. “Jesus hung out with prostitutes and ordinary people. These women need more love than anything.”
Cupcakes and strippers are an odd mix, Hoover admits. But it works. The approach has helped them maintain relationships with 15 strip clubs. Every Tuesday, Hoover delivers a cupcake to two of them and sometimes accepts gifts for dancers celebrating birthdays.
On a recent visit to Cheetahs and then to Rick’s Cabaret, the reactions are the same: the workers all dip into the cupcakes like children at a birthday party.
With the exception of the calories, the cupcakes are free. No sermons. No proselytizing. No condemnation for being in what many consider unsavory business to be. The point is letting the women know that they are loved and having someone to turn to when they need it, says Hoover.
That is a difficult message. Many dancers are used to despising, especially when it comes to religion. “Because there are these little church emblems on the cupcakes, I thought it was these ladies who tried to poison us,” said a dancer at Rick’s Cabaret of the first visit to the club’s Strip Church.
It is not often that a strip club provides this type of access to a religious organization. Some clubs have burned down in the past – people bought lap dances and then used the time to pray for the women, Gross says – so it’s not surprising that access isn’t easy.
Diana, a manager at Cheetahs who refused to give her last name, was initially reluctant to let Hoover in to speak to the women. Too many bad experiences with religion.
“She told us industry and religion don’t mix,” recalls Hoover.
“I hid people in the bathroom so they could tell the girls they were going to hell,” says Diana, who has been in the business for 29 years.
But there was something about the Strip Church women that made them rethink their policies. You don’t preach, says Diana. They bring treats, offer help to the girls and sometimes help the house mother.
It’s all about trust and the truth, says Hoover. They are open about their intentions and do not deviate from them. They also managed to connect with people in the local porn business by following this philosophy.
After visiting the strip club, they often go to Porn Star Karaoke at Brando’s Bar. It’s a weekly industry event where producers, managers, porn actors, and fans sing karaoke and chat together. Recently, Danger, Hoover, and husband Philip have been hanging out with porn stars Rebecca Love, Monroe Valentino, Gavin Steel, and more. Their agenda is the same as in the strip clubs.
“We want them to feel loved and cared for,” says Hoover.
What does that mean? Well it can be anything from providing a shoulder to cry on, to having hair and makeup for the women.
They also seem to back up their message through their actions. Recently a woman called from a brothel in Reno begging her to help her get out of prostitution. The Strip Church flew her to Las Vegas at their own expense, where she slept on Hoover’s couch until they were taken to a house halfway through. The organization will pay for their first stay, says Gross.
“Nobody really wants to be in this business for a living,” Gross says of those who work in adult entertainment. “For us it’s not hey, here’s my card, call us when you want out. It calls us if you want to get your hair done or have a day at the spa with Joy.”
“I feel like a psychologist,” says Hoover, who moved here with her husband from Michigan five months ago. Both heard a call to do this unconventional service about a year ago. “I wanted to go to school for social work, but decided I couldn’t do it because I’m too emotionally affected by people’s problems. But now I’m here doing this.”
31-year-old Philip Hoover usually supports the nonprofit’s other outreach programs: Free Bus Rides and Burgers. Gross drives on a Wednesday evening while Philip Hoover and Danger jump off the bus to give free burgers and water to the flickering cards that are on almost every strip corner. In the background, the Bellagio fountains explode to the music of Lee Greenwood, who sings “God Bless the USA”.
The point for this effort is to be among the forgotten souls, says Philip Hoover. Sometimes they bring representatives from Spanish-speaking churches with them.
Once the food and water run out, they hold bus stops for potential passengers.
The bus attracts a lot of attention; It’s wrapped in a mural that proclaims “Jesus loves the city of sin” with a huge portrait of Jesus looking out at the world. As they walk down the strip, people point, open-mouthed, or laugh.
There are times when the bus is full, but that night not a single person will accept it, although the ride is free. At a bus stop, a couple walk quickly towards the bus as if to hit the crowd. But when the man sees the colorful Jesus mural, he grabs his companion’s arm and pulls her back. His face wrinkles in disgust.
Apparently the sight of Jesus on the strip triggers a lot of outraged expressions, disbelief, and even the occasional middle finger greeting.
“I always tell them we’re not going to get them to drink our Kool-Aid,” jokes Danger. “Christians sometimes get a bad rap, and rightly so. People think we will try to convert them when they get on our bus. We don’t believe Jesus would do that. He would love people, minus an agenda.”
Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at [email protected] or 702-380-4564.