Published August 27, 2010
WARSAW, Ohio -- Strippers dressed in bikinis sunbathe in lawn chairs, their backs turned toward the gray clapboard church where men in ties and women in full-length skirts flock to Sunday morning services.
The strippers, fueled by Cheetos and nicotine, are protesting a fundamental Christian church whose Bible-brandishing congregants have picketed the club where they work. The dancers roll up with signs carrying messages adapted from Scripture, such as "Do unto others as you would have done unto you," to counter church members who for four years have photographed license plates of patrons and asked them if their mothers and wives know their whereabouts.
The dueling demonstrations play out in central Ohio, where nine miles of cornfields and Amish-buggy crossing signs separate The Fox Hole strip club from New Beginnings Ministries.
Club owner Tommy George met with the preacher and offered to call off his not-quite-nude crew from their three-month-long protest if the church responds in kind. But pastor Bill Dunfee believes that a higher power has tasked him with shutting down the strip club.
"As a Christian community, we cannot share territory with the devil," Dunfee said. "Light and darkness cannot exist together, so The Fox Hole has got to go."
New Beginnings is one of four churches in this one-traffic-light village of 900 people, 60 miles outside Columbus. There's one gas station and a sit-down restaurant that serves country staples like mashed potatoes with gravy and Salisbury steak.
On Sunday, four of The Fox Hole's seven strippers and more than a dozen supporters garnered both scorn and compassion from churchgoers -- and quite a few honks from pickup trucks and other passing vehicles.
One woman offered her skills as a hair dresser to the dancers: "If you or your kids ever need a haircut, give me a holler." Another woman from the church waited on the protesters with plates of noodles and chocolate cake.
Laura Meske -- known as Lola, stage age 36 but really 42 -- hid behind a sign proclaiming, "Jesus loves the children of the world!" as the preacher extended his hand for a shake.
Two nights earlier, Dunfee and more than a dozen churchgoers stood outside the club, one of them calling out Meske's stripper name.
"He who casts the first stone ... ," Meske said Sunday.
The pastor cut her off and repeated, "Lola, Lord bless you."
"Everybody has sinned, and that doesn't mean I'm not gonna get into heaven," she said, the stud piercing in her chin shimmering in the sunlight. "I believe in Jesus. I don't believe what they preach. They preach hate."
Debi Durr, who attends the church, disagreed. "You don't stand up there for four years for hate. That's not hate. That's love," she said. Durr left Meske with a copy of Jeremiah 3:13 -- a Bible passage that urges sinners to acknowledge their guilt.
Inside the church, voices from the 121 congregants seemed to float to the cedar rafters as they sang lyrics projected on a screen. Outside, a man strummed a guitar and sang, "God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in her shoes."
Dunfee has offered to help the strippers pay for food, rent, utilities and gas if they leave The Fox Hole. But many of the women say their jobs are only a stopover on the way to work in cosmetology or the medical field -- a meal ticket that shelters them from another stigma: welfare.
"No little girl is growing up like, `I wanna do a pole trick,"' said Anny Donewald, a former stripper who lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., and ministers to dancers, prostitutes and porn stars.
She and other Christian groups that work with women in the adult entertainment industry have criticized Dunfee's methods of ministry as a means of putting the strippers on the defensive instead of showing support.
"I never saw Jesus with a picket sign," Donewald said.
Community advocacy groups, including Citizens for Community Values in Cincinnati, support Dunfee's protests. But the group's president, Phil Burress, said the strip club has a right to be there.
"It's a legal business whether he likes it or I like it or not," Burress said.
The club operates in a white plywood box of a building. Beer cans and a dollar bill peaked out from the grass like Easter eggs last Sunday.
The Fox Hole encourages customers to check out its $30 private dance special, promoting it on the kind of sign convenience stores use to advertise cheap milk and cigarettes. Out back, letters on a bulletin board have faded away so that "No touching" now reads "ouch."
It's here where dancers strip down to panties and pasties for cash. Meske -- a tattooed mother of four -- said she made $30 instead of a couple hundred dollars last Friday with the protesters outside.
"I'm not the most beautiful woman in the world," she said. "I go out there and I try to make my money."
A few houses and a ribs joint called Peggy Sue's separate the club from another white building, a church where some of the strippers donate blood during drives for the American Red Cross.
"I got a church 900 feet down the street that causes me no problems," club owner George said. "And I got this moron nine miles down the street that causes me more headaches."
Rae Anderson, who heads New Castle Ministries with her husband, says her church believes Dunfee is doing what the Lord called him to do, but her parish takes a different approach.
"You can share the truth, but you can't make anyone believe what you believe."