June 17, 2002

Baptist women venture into topless nightclubs with gospel
___By Sue Jones
___Illinois Baptist
___SAUGET, Ill.--Wearing little more than G-strings, the young women danced on well-worn table tops for men sprinkled in the chairs around them, dressed as if they had just left the office or a church meeting.
___ Backstage, in the dressing room of this exotic-dance club, two Baptist women found themselves in a world they couldn't have imagined. They were talking to a dozen scantily clad dancers about God.
___ Like a pride of lions, the dancers lounged in the room before their next routine at Diamond Cabaret in Sauget, an industrial town just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. They preened in front of mirrors, dozed on cushioned chairs, chatted on cell phones. Two bare-chested women shared a bowl of pasta.
___ The Baptist women--Becky Arnett of First Baptist of McLeansboro, Ill., and Sandy Wisdom-Martin of Springfield Southern Baptist Church in Springfield, Ill.--said they were not there to judge, criticize or preach. They came to offer gift bags and let the dancers know they are valuable to God.
___ Arnett and Wisdom-Martin, who is the Illinois Baptist State Association's director of women's missions and ministries, were among three dozen women who visited 10 clubs June 7 and 8. Their visits were part of Crossover St. Louis, an evangelistic outreach preceding the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention June 11-12. After late-morning training and lunch at Winstanley Baptist Church of Fairview Heights, Ill., the Baptist women loaded into vans to drive to their assignments. Armed with a gift basket for the manager, a man assigned to each team went into the clubs first to get permission for the Baptist women to enter. They were allowed into seven of the 10 clubs, and two of the remaining three took the gift bags to give to the waitresses and dancers. The bags held scented candles, toiletries, gum, candy, mints and Premier jewelry earrings. They also contained New Testaments and gospel tracts.
___ The women went into the clubs cold, a change in strategy from when similar nightclub ministries were held prior to the SBC's annual meetings in New Orleans last year and Orlando in 2000. In those locations, club owners or managers were contacted about a week or so in advance to secure permission. There was some uncertainty whether the Illinois women would have been able to get into any of the clubs this year.
___ "Only God could have done this," said Linda Gonzales, a member of Westview Baptist of Belleville, Ill., and a local organizer of the ministry to dancers. "We've been told over and over there was no way we could get into these clubs."
___ Two or three women ventured into each club, while the rest of their teams stayed in the air-conditioned vans to pray. At some clubs, the women paid the cover charges and ordered soft drinks. At others, managers waived the entrance fee and gave them free beverages. Most teams gravitated to a quiet table and waited for the waitresses and dancers to approach them so they would not disrupt their business.
___ Entering Diamond Cabaret, Arnett and Wisdom-Martin's assignment, was like walking into a dimly lit, upscale restaurant. A well-dressed man in a vest stood at the entrance behind a cash register. It took a few minutes for the women's eyes to adjust to the inky interior. As they walked to the dressing room, Arnett didn't see the images around her--images Wisdom-Martin said she would have been glad to forget--because she had to watch her steps in the darkness to keep from falling.
___ Arnett, a retired schoolteacher, talked to and prayed with a trio of young women. One had learned her grandmother had just been diagnosed with cancer. Another said she didn't want to go back out to dance.
___ The Baptist women gave gold coins to the dancers. They pointed out that the image of Sacagawea, a strong-willed Indian woman who had been sold into slavery, on one side was a reminder that they, too, were enslaved without Christ. If they accepted Christ as Savior, they could soar like the eagle on the coin's flip side, the Baptists explained.
___ Karen Conner, a member of Steelville Baptist Church, talked to a dancer, a college student in her early 20s with a 6-year-old son, at PT's in Sauget. Although she told Conner she had made a decision years ago to become a Christian, she indicated she was not fully sure of her salvation. Other dancers said they danced at the club to work their way through college; one was studying psychology, another literature.
___ The dancers were open to discuss their spiritual beliefs with the Baptist volunteers. One said her child attends a Baptist school. Another invited one of the women to her church's block party. A third dancer sported a "God is good" tattoo.
___ "It was just like talking to my niece," one of the volunteers said. "They're young--oh, so young."
___ And yet some attempted to shock the Baptist women, including a dancer who told one group she was bisexual and wanted to see if she could "hit on" any of the women. After visiting with the Baptist women, the dancers went back to work. Some work in a club where, for an extra $20, a patron may have a private session of "full access" for one song.
___ The Baptist women knew it would be unlikely any of the dancers would make on-the-spot decisions to become Christians. That's why they gave out the coins, to serve as a reminder in the days or weeks ahead. The New Testaments in the gift bags also bore labels on their back covers with the phone numbers of two local pastors.
___ Money is the reason many women go into this profession, explained Lura Sheppard with the SBC's North American Mission Board. "It is more important (in our society) to have money than to degrade your body for anyone to see," she told the Baptist women during orientation. "But Satan is a great deceiver."
___ The two-day Crossover event wasn't all about clubs. Other teams traveled to nearby lower-income neighborhoods to hand out gift bags and chilled bottled water with customized labels explaining they would never thirst again spiritually if they had a personal relationship with Christ. At least two women prayed to become Christians as part of the street ministry.
___ All involved prayed their witness would bear a lasting impact.
___ In that spirit, Gonzales and Wisdom-Martin will meet in a few weeks to see if their trial ministry to night-club dancers might become an ongoing outreach.

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