The drive to Kentucky was beautiful, punctuated with fields of yellowed wildflowers and the emerald green of the lush Southern foliage.
We rolled into the small parking lot of a white building in downtown Louisville and waited to meet the Scarlet Hope girls. Scarlet Hope is a non-profit comprised of many amazing men and women (led by Rachelle Starr) who have been diligently, intentionally loving women in the Louisville strip club industry for over a year and a half.
When the team arrived, we felt welcomed instantly. Hugs were exchanged, food was given, authenticity was evident, and love abounded. The Scarlet Hope team is a study in paradoxes: they are passionate, yet gentle; fiercely determined, yet flexible and easy-going; tough, yet kind-hearted and loving. We felt valued, welcomed, and loved by all.
After an incredible Bible study, hang out time, and an amazing prayer for our own ministry (new name), we were informed that we would be accompanying team leaders Rachelle and Hannah to their two “roughest” clubs. We loaded up the navy SUV with enough food for 30 and hair and makeup supplies and drove off down the highway.
We exited, made a right, and turned into a cracked and crumbling parking lot adjacent to a run-down brick building. Two flickering neon signs that read “XXX” marked our destination. (This club had recently been robbed at gunpoint, by the way). We (Rachelle, Hannah, Megan, and me) each carried a huge, heavy Tupperware bin containing homemade food and plastic cutlery, shuffled up to the narrow doorway of the first club, and walked in.
I was completely unprepared for what I saw next.
A bouncer who guarded the dark doorway greeted us. A petite redhead puffing on a Marlboro approached us and said, “Hello!” She cracked a smile to reveal that her upper jaw was empty except for her two front teeth. The reddish glow that bathed the club’s interior only added to the aura of seediness. Expecting the team, the club manager came up to Hannah and Rachelle and embraced them as she would old friends. She and Rachelle began a lively conversation. Megan, Hannah, and myself located the plastic container of Clorox wipes we brought and began to wipe off the countertop/stage and around the poles. This countertop/bar/stage doubled as our food service station.
We peeled back the tinfoil from large disposable roasting pans to reveal a mouth-watering meal – fresh Italian salad, homemade garlic bread, steaming roasted spaghetti, and an assortment of desserts. The dancers began lining up at the bar as we began serving heaping portions of food on Styrofoam plates. They were thrilled to receive a delicious, hot meal. In strolled Geraldine, the 85-year-old lady who’s been selling Avon in the strip clubs for 30 years. She began scooping spoonfuls of homemade pasta onto her plate.
Scarlet Hope also brought Mother’s Day gifts – dainty pearl earrings in adorable handmade cards – for each of the mothers in the club. Once we gave the women their earrings, they shrieked with glee and said, “OOOOH – thank you, thank you, thank you!” They took out the earrings they were wearing and replaced them with their new pearls. When we left, you could see tiny pearls decorating the ears of nearly every woman in the club. In total, we passed out more than 25 pairs.
We began making plates for the women in the adjacent club. As usual, the Scarlet Hope girls walked right in, greeted with warm hugs, smiles, and “Hey, girls!” The dancers lowered themselves from the stage and began happily eating the delicious food. We struck up a conversation with one of the dancers, “Trixy.” She told me about her young daughter, her love of knitting, herself. She said to us, “God bless y’all for doing this. You know we need somebody to love on us!” When I looked at her and said emphatically, “You are worth every bit of it,” she batted her eyelashes, looked down at her hands clasped in her lap, and grinned. Though it was hard to tell in the dark club, she seemed to blush like a little girl. It was hugs all around and dancers yelling, “I love you!” and “See you girls again next week!” as we left the club and headed to our next.
As we pulled up to the next club, Rachelle advised us to be careful, as there were a lot of “weirdos” that hung around the back gravel lot, and it was rumored that there had been a kidnapping recently. “This is only the second time we’ve been in this club,” she said, so they didn’t know what kind of reception they would get. We walked into the dimly lit club, past the pool table, and up to the bar toting buckets of hair supplies, makeup kits, and a dozen hot pink cupcakes. Immediately, one of the dancers spotted us, and we were greeted with, “HEEEEEY!!!!” as we were led back to the dressing room by the bartender.
We walked into a very small room, decorated with cracked, smudgy mirrors and rows of dented lockers with names like “Snickers” and “Sparkle” scrawled on them with Sharpie marker or nail polish. Hand-written notes instructing the club employees to wear makeup, bathe, and wear deodorant, and warning the women not to leave the club unattended, were taped to the two mirrors.
We opened up the colorful makeup kits, plugged in numerous flat irons and curling irons, set out the nail kit, and waited for the girls. Three women immediately bounded into the small, smoky room as they each teetered precariously on 6” heels. They informed us that they had been eagerly awaiting this visit.
For the next two and a half hours, we (Hannah, Rachelle, Megan, and I) proceeded to file, straighten, curl, spray, apply, and pamper these women in any way we possibly could. Rachelle did a pedicure on “Cassidy”, a tattoo-covered brunette in a black Jim Beam halter-top, as she took deep drags of her cigarette and chatted openly about her difficult life. Hannah applied a fun purple polish to “Diamond”’s fingernails as they talked and laughed. She introduced herself, and I began running a flat iron through “Bambi”’s thick blonde hair.
The girls were thrilled! They commented several times that “No one has ever pampered us like this before!” and about how beautiful they looked and felt. “Honey” got a makeover – newly styled hair and freshly applied makeup – and couldn’t wait to take pictures because she looked so pretty now.
At midnight, (the girls hardly left the dressing room for the entire 2 ½ hours), we began to pack up our things. The women were already excitedly planning the next time the Scarlet Hope girls would be back to visit. Numbers were exchanged and friendships were made. As we walked out of the dark club, even the male bouncer said, “Next Wednesday, right?” We all piled in Rachelle’s SUV to make the drive back home, tired, happy, and reeking of smoke.
In spite of all my attempts to learn about the strip club industry, and my exposure to the sex industry, I have never, ever seen this side of it. These clubs are gritty. Mirrors are cracked, dressing room doors are punched through, and the smell of stale cigarettes hangs in the air like a fog. The women working in these clubs are not the towering plasticized glamazons portrayed in movies like “Showgirls.” They are missing teeth, sometimes overweight; they are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. They are cellulite-dimpled and C-section scarred. They are often abused, alone, and addicted. They struggle to pay rent, get evicted from their apartments, are mercilessly pimped by men who claim to love them, and are in dire need of basic needs, like working appliances and dental services. Make no mistake: They are strong, they are resilient, and they all are survivors. But they are hardly the women the world deems “beautiful” by its own standards.
Now, have you ever thought about the hands of God? We see them in Michelangelo’s famous painting “The Creation of Adam.” We see them on Christian bookstore cards and in advertisements, and as children we sing, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” But do we truly think about the hands of God?
The reality of this washed over me as I stood in a hot, cramped strip club dressing room as sweat dripped down my temples while I clutched a small flat iron. Amidst the smell of cigarette smoke and fried chicken, the Lord spoke to me. As I hunched over Bambi’s head, and alternately ran my fingers and the flat iron carefully through her thick blonde hair, I was dumbfounded with the realization: This is exactly where the holy, nail-scarred hands of our Savior would be. THESE WOULD BE HIS HANDS. They would be tenderly, lovingly caressing her hair as only an infinitely loving Father would.
Because He sees HER.
He doesn’t see her as some stripper; He sees her as one of the most beautiful things He ever created. He sees her as she is now: in her Lucite heels and cheap lace costume in the dank back room of a strip club – and she is beautiful. He sees her as she could be: healed, free, whole – and she is beautiful.
She is the one He left the ninety-nine for.
She is the one He pursues with reckless abandon, to whom He says, “I love you passionately, and I will never let you go.”
She is the one that He longs for, to woo and to love and to make whole.
And I find it to be the most beautiful thing in the world that the Lord made Himself so real to me in the back of a strip club. That He is THERE. That He has always been there, and He is not leaving anytime soon. His daughters are in there, and thought that any of His precious girls would be lost shatters his heart into the tiniest pieces.
But not only did I feel the presence of the Most High in that dressing room; I also saw Him. No – I did not have a vision, and I am neither prophet nor saint. But I saw, through the Scarlet Hope girls, the crazy, reckless, jealous love of the great Lover pursuing his Beloved. Week after week after week, meal after meal, club after club, they faithfully enter the clubs and minister to these women. They feed them. They wash their feet. They paint their nails and style their hair. They make them feel valued, special, beautiful. They LOVE them.
On the outside, it’s no different. They have lunch with the dancers. They babysit their kids. They find them jobs, places to live, transportation, resources. And when they don’t show up to their jobs, leave their kids for much longer than they said, relapse, and don’t pay rent, the Scarlet Hope girls don’t give up. They keep finding them jobs. They continue to care for their children. They pay their rent. They continue to say, in both words and actions, “You are loved.”
They. Do. Not. Give. Up.
They are living life with these women, walking with them on their life’s journey, and quitting is simply not an option.
I am so inspired. I am inspired to lead new name into being the kind of ministry that Scarlet Hope is – one of dedication, of fierce loyalty and commitment, of never giving up. I am inspired to push past what I do and don’t “feel” like doing and to turn my head, my hands, and my heart upwards instead. I am inspired to truly, passionately, relentlessly love.
And just as the Savior reached his pierced hand into the murky darkness of my world to claim me as His own, I am inspired to go into the darkness, time and time again, to be the hands and feet of Jesus, and once again to gently stroke the thick blonde hair of one of His precious, beautiful girls.
“You make me beautiful
You make me stand in awe
You step inside my heart, and I am amazed
I love to hear You say
Who I am is quite enough
You make me worthy of love and beautiful…”
– Bethany Dillon