The evangelical women who visit strippers to ‘show God loves them’

Loves Way Out, a ministry that visits strip clubs around Atlantic City, is on an unusual mission: to make strippers feel worthy of love

We sat in a minivan in an otherwise empty parking lot in central Atlantic City. Before going into Bare Exposure, the first strip club of the evening, we read a passage of the Bible aloud. Yet if there is an angel at their side, a messenger, one out of a thousand, sent to tell them how to be right. (Job 33:23.) The trunk of the car was filled with pink cardboard boxes holding cupcakes from a high-end bakery.

This was my introduction to Loves Way Out, an evangelical ministry that visits strip clubs around Atlantic City about once a month not as a means to proselytize, but to express what the ministry refers to as Jesus compassion. The groups members describe the ministry as less focused on conversion than on being a pillar of support for women they perceive to be in need.

Their mission, in other words, is to make strippers feel loved and, therefore, worthy of love.

It was about 8pm and there were five of us. The driver, Cissy McNickle, was about 40, with long blonde hair, small tattoos on her arms and a nose piercing. She lives in Absecon, a small suburb outside of Atlantic City, where she and her husband Buff raise three adopted African American children and run Grace Falls, a Southern Baptist church.

Cissy McNickle. Photograph: Max Burkhalter for the Guardian

We entered the small, dark lobby of the strip club and faced two bouncers. Cissy bantered with them, while everyone else stood back looking shy. I know you want a cupcake! Cissy said opening the box. Both bouncers took one, saying they would save them for later.

Bare Exposure is one of Cissys regular stops, so the bouncers were familiar with her. So guys, is it all right if we go through and see everybody? she asked.

The club was empty except for a lone sequined-pantied woman dancing on a spotlighted platform and the bartender. Cissy waved, then confidently pushed open the Girls door in into a harshly lit dressing-room.

Hello, hello! Cissy announced to about 10 strippers sitting in front of big mirrors, putting on makeup. We have cupcakes! Raven, a newly-married ex-party girl from Florida, clutched the cards she had made for the dancers.

A woman wearing a dark green string bikini and a pair of matching four-inch heels looked up from her makeup. Oh my god, thank you!

The other women looked somewhat baffled, or even annoyed, but eyed the cupcakes.

Morgan, a 28-year-old single mom originally from Alabama, and Pat, a short-haired woman in her 70s, started passing out cupcakes. One of two giggling dancers said: Shush! Dont cuss in front of the nice church ladies!

After about 15 minutes Cissy said: Well, I suppose we should get going. Bye, everyone! leaving a few extra boxes for the dancers on stage.

Back in the car, Cissy debriefed. Did anyone get to speak to anyone? Did anyone ask you to pray for them?

The response was a quiet No.

One of the most common questions Cissy says she gets asked is: How many strippers have you saved? She usually answers: I cant save anyone. I can start by showing love and bringing cupcakes for people to know how theyre loved by God.

The goal of Loves Way Out is complex, said Morgan, and while the process may seem futile, the women are patient. Even getting to the point where clubs let us go into the dressing room and hang out thats a huge thing. It took a lot of work on Cissys part, Morgan explained, referencing the time Cissy put in to gain the managements trust.

A gift box for the strippers. Photograph: Max Burkhalter for the Guardian

We do feel like God has a safer path and healthier path for women, said Cissy. But, of course, we dont lead with that. She stressed the importance of letting the dancers know the ministry is praying for them and supporting them. I just love women so much, and I want them to know theyre loved. My faith comes second to that.

She said that while yes, the church, capital C, does perceive stripping as a sin, that is not what motivates her.

Of course, I think a woman can do whatever she wants with her body and, in theory, I guess theres nothing technically wrong with stripping. But I know a lot of the girls are addicted to drugs or are drunk when theyre on stage. Thats where I draw the line. Not using drugs is always probably a better path.

At the next club, Delilahs Den (The most beautiful show girls in the world and free parking!), the bouncers did not know, or pretended not to remember, Cissy.

Wait, what are you doing here?

Were just members of the community, here to encourage your staff. Cissy had mentioned earlier that she avoids telling bouncers that she is part of a ministry, just part of a group that wants to be supportive.

They looked bewildered. Sorry, we cant let you back there.

Thats a pretty normal occurrence, Pat whispered to me. Cissy left some cupcakes anyway. We got back in the minivan and drove to Stiletto, the final club of the evening.

People can be so afraid of Christians, Raven muttered.

I mean, no wonder! said Morgan. You would never see a stripper picketing a church!

This is exactly why I never lead with Im a Southern Baptist, said Cissy. People really attach something to that phrase. Morgan said people often associated it with being conservative or old-fashioned.

Well, were not going to close our eyes and pretend were living in Little House on the Prairie! Cissy exclaimed.

Outside Bare Exposure strip club. Photograph: Max Burkhalter for the Guardian

I wish we were, Pat said dryly, but with a smile.

Pat was born in suburban New Jersey and joined Grace Falls church many years before Buff, Cissys husband, was the pastor. She fought the idea of joining the ministry at first, but eventually, she was gradually brought into Loves Way Out.

At first, she stayed in the car to pray while the others went inside. Once she started actually going in the clubs, Pat explained, my heart was broken for them, because theyre so young! At first, I was really affected by it. Each month we would go, I would really fight the urge to call Cissy and say: I dont think I can do this anymore.

Me being the age I am, theres always that little leftover judgmental stuff. She tries to avoid this feeling as much as possible, and believes its important to be genuinely interested in the dancers and be available for them. She knows it is difficult to build relationships in this situation, but believes being faithful and visiting consistently has made a difference.

Pat said that ultimately she wants the girls to be out of the industry. If Im looking deep down, my goal at least would be to move them out of that lifestyle because I want them to be safe.

The first night Cissy ever went to a strip club was the most terrifying night of my entire life. Its not enough for the church to say: What youre doing is wrong. They need to say: Let us help you be a part of society again. Our ministry will be obsolete unless we consider reality.

Cissy explained that she tends to have a savior complex. Ive been schooled in that from talking to these women. She described a time a stripper told her about her family. Either I can get a job at a grocery store, make minimum wage and never see my children, she told Cissy. Or I can come dance Friday and Saturday night and make lots of money when my kids are asleep at my moms house.

She gets to be with her kids, Cissy added. I really honestly havent been able to resolve that.

Grace Falls, a Southern Baptist church. Photograph: Max Burkhalter for the Guardian

Cissy, Buff and their kids live on a hilly property in Absecon, New Jersey. Their house is in the front and the church on the hilltop.

We went to the church office to print out labels for the jars of home-made bath salts. These would be the gifts for our second strip club expedition. Cissy printed labels: Fizzy Peppermint Bath Salt. Add a few tbsp to a warm bath to soak your tired, weary feet. Come to me all who are tired & carrying heavy loads & I will give you rest. Jesus.

As we walked over to the house we started talking about feminism. Heres the thing, Cissy says. I do believe that Buff is the head of this household. I mean, of course, he appreciates me She trailed off and thought for a moment. It doesnt diminish my role in the family.

At that moment, Morgan arrived and Cissy put Bella, her youngest, to bed.

Mommy is going out tonight, so you have to be very good for Dad. And dont forget, she added, tomorrow is Sunday, so were going to the church building.

Cissy tries not to use the word church to describe the building on the hill behind their house because church can happen anywhere like at a strip club. The church building, as she sees it, is just one place to gather and pray.

Before her first ministry trip, Morgan had never been to a strip club before. But Jesus went to places that made good Christian girls feel uncomfortable. He was judged for it but he went to those places because thats where the need was.

Before moving to Absecon five months ago, Morgan had grown up on a farm and lived in Alabama for her whole life. She is a self-described staunch feminist and supports gay marriage I dont know why that is even a question anymore! Abortion, however, was much harder for her to reconcile.

While Church and faith are a huge part of her life, she has come to learn that Jesus is much bigger than traditional Christian values. She said she couldnt come up with Christian teachings that said thou shalt not strip. But it seems that, unlike other industries, stripping has an underground layer to it that makes it particularly dangerous to women.

The question the ministry needs to ask itself, Morgan said after a long pause, is: are the trips to the strip clubs an avenue to meaningful change, or a means of self-glorification?

Night falls on Atlantic City, New Jersey. Photograph: Max Burkhalter for the Guardian

A few weeks later, the bright red Caesars Casino and Hotel sign towered over an otherwise gloomy Atlantic City. I was the only person walking down the wide avenue and many of the flashing neon signs on Pacific Avenue had one or two letters out.

Bare Exposure, however, was surprisingly busy that night.

The economic prospects of the stripping scene in Atlantic City are unpredictable, so women often switch between clubs. This meant that many of the dancers in the dressing room didnt know the church ladies. But a woman called Envy knew exactly who they were. She wore a bright pink fishnet dress with pink underwear and no bra, exposing her nipple piercing.

I thought they were kind of weird, but they did bring us a bunch of nice stuff, she said slowly as she chewed bubble gum. Wrestling with her pink legwarmers, she listed the various gifts they had brought in the past: Crumb cakes, snacks, perfumes, they even brought us condoms once. They spoke to the girls and asked personal questions, and Ive never seen that before ever. So even though its pretty weird, its cool and very generous.

A woman wearing nothing but a tiny blue plaid skirt interjected: Oh come on, theyre so annoying.

As she put on her shoes, she explained: I go to church every Sunday, so I can tell. Even though theyre technically doing this from the kindness of their hearts, I know they dont think were on the same level as them.

Jesus hates me! yelled a woman called Chloe, laughing hard at the prospect. Im a sinner!

Chloe was a 27-year-old mother of three who was around 5ft 4in and probably weighed about 100 pounds. She had plenty of tattoos, the most striking of which was the eye of God on her ribcage.

But yo, look, they actually approve of what we do, and theyre just trying to be nice, she said in a raspy voice. Im Episcopalian, I believe in all gods! Except Satanism, I dont fuck with that. So, I can go to a Muslim church or a Jewish synagogue and I can appreciate everything. Im open the church ladies, theyre not that open. But theyre still pretty chill.

A green-haired woman named Love looked up from her McDonalds fries. At my old club in Philly, we used to have church ladies, and theyre way more accepting here. In Philly they just come in, look nervous and leave. Here they try to stick around and talk to us.

Lucy, a thin woman in purple underwear, straightened her hair and said nervously: To be honest, I always thought it was pretty weird. Like, obviously theyre coming here to make it seem like people care about us and to give us comfort, but its not like they really know us! They just give us stuff and leave.

Across the room, Layla, who is dancing to pay for her graduate degree in entrepreneurship, was getting her makeup done. I think its cool, she said. A lot of the girls in the industry are on drugs and they benefit from that sort of thing. But do we all take them seriously? Not really. Weve ended up calling them stripper fairies, she laughed.

Layla pulled me aside to the kitchen area. You should know that not all the girls in here are fucked up. And a lot of people in here are already Christian. Im a good Christian! Im just here for my daughter and my degree.

As I left, the woman in nothing but a blue plaid skirt was upside down all the way at the top of a pole. A few men surrounded her and cheered her on, and so did some of her friends.

Cissy is unsure of whether to call herself a feminist. She is concerned that on the one hand, if she advocates it, she would be lumped in with the entire liberal movement. On the other hand, she is often afraid that if she has any overlapping principles with the horrible Christian picketers with the derogatory signs on street corners, she would be equated with them.

Another of Atlantic Citys numerous strip clubs. Photograph: Max Burkhalter for the Guardian

Of course, it is never ok to bully anyone, she stressed. But is there a place in American culture to disagree? What if the church loses its voice entirely? Will there be a day where my husband is forced to conduct a gay marriage? she asked.

I really hope you dont think Im a bigot just because of my conservative viewpoints, she said speaking seriously and passionately, reminding me that some of her best friends are gay. Being a Christian and being American is a really hard thing to do.

A few days later, it was a chilly evening and the combination of heavy rain and fog was making the drive to Luscious and Sweet Gourmet Bakery somewhat unnerving, but we arrived, and tried to avoid getting too wet as we ran into the sweet-smelling store with pink and white stripped wallpaper. The cupcakes were already prepared and boxed up. Cissy did her best to quickly fit them all in her trunk before they became too wet to eat.

Once we all made it to the familiar parking lot off Pacific Avenue and the rain poured down outside, Cissy led a prayer:

God, we thank you for the opportunity to come back. You know what were about to walk into, so, God, I just pray that you would settle our nerves a little bit, give us some confidence, because I believe that you know each one of these girls. You know their stories, you know their names, you know their situation and you love them and care about them Give us boldness. We pray these things in Jesus name. Amen.

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