MT. JULIET, Tenn. (AP) — Erin Stevens isn't that kind of evangelist who stands outside the strip club with her bullhorn, yelling at the customers to repent or face the flames.
She's inside the lobby with the strippers, feeding them a catered dinner twice a month, giving them Mary Kay Cosmetics gift sets and quietly slipping her cell phone number into their hands.
She brings no Bibles. No tracts. No lectures.
Just love and an unusual mission given to her by God two years ago, she says, after she spent 21 days fasting and praying for a building for nondenominational Friendship Community Church in Mt. Juliet. Launched by her husband, Todd Stevens, in 2006, Friendship has more than 1,000 members but still meets in Lakeview Elementary School's rented auditorium.
"I prayed for a building. I got strippers," Stevens said. Three so far, in fact, who left the business for some unexpected careers.
After hearing the words in her mind -- Strippers are not your enemy, they're your mission field -- Stevens sought counsel from the national Strip Church ministry group and started calling club managers. She's co-written a book about her experience, one published by Nashville's Thomas Nelson and going on shelves mid-June. Its intriguing title is "How to Pick Up a Stripper ... and Other Acts of Kindness."
Perhaps the most unexpected part of the story: The Association of Club Executives, a national trade group for strip club owners, is fine with it.
The association is well aware of the Strip Church effort, where individual congregations send their evangelists into the clubs discreetly — that's part of the deal — to help women get out of the business, confirmed executive director Angelina Spencer. Not every club owner wants to participate. But if the strippers don't want to be there, she said, they shouldn't be.
"We're about entertainment, not enslavement," Spencer said. "There is a contingent of dancers who really have it in their hearts to witness for the Word."
It's not simple to see the ex-stripper in Stevens' converts.
Katherine Holland just collected her associate's degree in criminal justice and is looking for work as a police officer. She's got a verse about faith, hope and love from 1 Corinthians tattooed around her right forearm. Instead of dancing on the stage Friday nights, she's leading a small group Bible study about practical ways to love your enemy. She's usually wearing a conservative blouse and skirt — her stripper clothes literally burned during a burst of Christian passion.
Mary Harvel was in the business the longest, more than a decade. It's so easy to get in, she said. Show the wares and start dancing that night — potentially taking home $500 or more. Soon, customers are giving free drinks, and swilling them helps numb dancers' feelings about how they're earning money. Walking away from that cash in hand was one of the toughest things Harvel has done, she said, but now she's running a day care.
The third, Lisa Ciamboli, is a patient care technician. Several other women have started going to church but aren't ready to stop stripping.
They all illustrate one of the realities of running a Strip Church ministry, Stevens said. If a church is going to start one, it had better be ready with job and education opportunities, child care, housing, food and rent. Because part of the deal of asking women to leave adult entertainment is promising their bills will be paid. To that end, there's a website where supporters can donate money or gifts.
Not everyone is going to be a supporter. Stevens said she frequently gets these kinds of emails: "How can you go in there without the Word of God? That's our shield!"
But the fact Stevens doesn't bring it is the only thing that works, Harvel insists. "She made me feel like Jesus probably would have hung out with me," she said. "He wouldn't have thrown the door in my face. ... And nobody else has ever made me feel that way about church and about God."
So Stevens didn't only get strippers from her prayer and fasting. She got a book deal. And Friendship is getting a new building, opening in 2015 — to all.