Saved by the Stripper
Former sex worker Theresa Brown aims to save souls through her stripper ministry
THERESA BROWN HAS SEEN the American experience from both sides. Growing up in Clairemont, the brunette with dark brown eyes was attractive and alert. She had two older sisters, a kid brother, and she did well in school. In many ways, she was the prototypical California girl.
But behind the cheery veneer lay a childhood scarred by her parents’ broken marriage, alcohol abuse and codependency. The future became less a dream and more a plan for escape. And then, when she was 21, an unexpected pregnancy.
“It wasn’t planned,” Brown says with a smile. “But then, you never regret the kids you have.” Her son is now 9 and one of the foundational elements in her life——along with God and her work at the stripper ministry.
At its etymological level, “ministry” is derived from “minister”——to give aid or service. Brown defines the stripper ministry as an organized group of people with a common goal. It comprises more than 150 women who reach out to other women in the adult-entertainment industry. The target group is strippers and dancers, but outreach is widening to those in the escort and soft-porn industries——populations that have intimate ties to stripping, Brown says.
The 30-year-old launched the San Diego chapter of JC’s Girls (JC is for Jesus Christ) through the Rock Church last year. She was drawn into the underbelly of America’s thriving adult-entertainment industry 11 years ago through what appeared to be a benign introduction to striptease dancing. It’s almost impossible, however, to stay in the industry without being drawn into an associated profligate lifestyle, Brown says.
An addict usually has to hit bottom before recovery begins, and it was no different for Brown. For her, it wasn’t drugs (though that was part of the lifestyle she’d been seduced by) or sex (part of the job) but the money: the designer handbags and expensive dresses, the nice car and the monthly salary to her little brother for her son’s childcare (a single mother with halftime custody, she needed the help). She recounts bottoming out in a Hollywood hotel room, waiting for a call she would parlay into more cash, and feeling the kind of penetrating solitude born of being completely alone in a city full of people.
In the depths of that loneliness, she got a random and unexpected call from her father. “What are you doing to yourself?” he asked.
It was like a sign from God, Brown says, an undeniable indication it was time to change her life. Religion hadn’t been a part of her upbringing, but she’d been introduced to God when she was 21 and had been giving a lot of thought to her life’s purpose. From that pivotal point, she began amending the arrangements and obligations that defined her, fighting the dark pull of the adult-entertainment world. The biggest challenge, she says, was learning to live without the green.
It was the money——and the example of her older sister, an exotic dancer——that got her into stripping. A hard-working single mother, she thought she’d give the job a whirl, and the easy money was like a narcotic. Taking one’s top off in front of a group of men is innocuous enough, Brown says, but it’s nearly impossible to separate the harmless parts of the job from the destructive.
Most dancers she knew fell into the cycle of late nights and alcohol and drug abuse. What’s more, she says, the terrain one finds entering that world is steep, and the slope is slippery. She saw many women graduate, as she did, into the escort and/or soft-porn industries.
“I got caught up in that lifestyle,” she says. “I was living the high life, making $30,000 a month, driving a Corvette, putting my son through private school and supporting my brother and family. I was doing what I thought I had to do.”
She’d found God while going through her divorce (Brown married before having her son and divorced not long after) but felt too guilty about her work to even pray. She was spending loads of money, making it back with morally suspect work and slipping deeper into the clutches of the industry. She’d become hardened by its pressures and bitter toward the men she was entertaining. Then two years ago, she says, God put himself in her heart.
BROWN HAD JOURNEYED into the world of self-help, looking for a way out of the lifestyle she was caught up in. On CNN one day, she saw a report about Lori Albee, who started the JC’s Girls Girls Girls Ministry near Los Angeles. Suddenly, everything fell into place. “I knew right then that was my calling,” Brown says.
Albee is part of a larger ministry called Matthew’s House, which is run out of Sandals Church in Riverside. Albee’s hairdresser, Heather Veitch, was a former exotic dancer and began telling her, during hair sessions, about a former stripper friend who died depressed and alone. Veitch said she wished she’d been able to tell her friend about God before she died, and the idea took hold with Albee, who asked, “Why can’t we do that for the girls still dancing?” On Good Friday in 2005, the two organized a group of six to go to a local adult-entertainment club and buy lap dances from strippers.
Instead of a lap dance, of course, the JC’s Girls told the dancers they just wanted to talk. They reminded the girls that God loved them and accepted them and that they were welcome at church—where everybody’s a sinner. The response from those dancers was more than they’d expected. A ministry was born. Soon they developed a Web site (the Internet can reach many more girls than direct out reach can, Albee says), which they say now gets up to 15,000 hits a day.
When Brown saw that interview, she contacted Albee, and the founder of JC’s Girls gave her blessing for a chapter in San Diego. Around that time, Brown attended a religious retreat and ended up—unexpectedly—giving her testimony, her story, in front of a group of women. To her surprise, she was approached by women who sympathized with her plight and wanted to help—her first volunteers.
Brown opened the JC’s Girls Ministry last year through the Rock Church —a progressive outlet with a mission to engage youth (the majority of its 10,000-member congregation is under 30), and she says she’s been blown away by the program’s success. A number of women currently in the ministry are former strippers who were approached and persuaded by JC’s Girls. There are many more who lend behind-the-scenes support but don’t venture out to the clubs. The most effective mediators, Brown says, are those who have been there and can relate to the girls they’re trying to help.
Trisha Teves, spokeswoman for the Rock Church, talks in glowing terms about Pastor Miles McPherson. McPherson was a defensive back with the San Diego Chargers in the 1980s, and though he was living a dream, he’d become caught up in the gritty side of the professional sports life, particularly cocaine, and felt his life spiraling out of control. In 1984, two teammates sat him down and told him about God. McPherson was converted. After the NFL, he went back to school and pursued a master’s degree in divinity. In 1991, he began ministering. The Rock Church began in 2000; by 2007, the congregation was one of the largest in San Diego.
All of it, Teves says, is attributable to a higher power.
Theresa Brown’s story, too, is a story of power. For a girl who came from a rocky home life, without the affection or positive reinforcement of a healthy upbringing, a girl who felt marginalized in the world—and found herself with a child and penniless at 21—the idea of turning sex or sexual allure into money was irresistible.
“At one point in my life, I was very proud of what I did,” Brown says. “I was proud that I was so powerful, and that I could use my body to make so much money, and that I had power over these guys. It’s a rush, but just like any rush, if you abuse it, it becomes a prison. The same thing that can exhilarate you can entrap you.”
ON A FALL AFTERNOON, Brown sits down for coffee in Normal Heights. She’s just satisfied a deadline at work (she’s in sales for an auto publication), and she exhibits that frazzled-but-glad-it’s-over glow known to the industry. Her dress is smart, stylish and sexy in a refined way. She may have given her life to God, but she hasn’t forgotten what it is to be attractive.
Brown is easy and affable in conversation and quick to laugh. She seems happy to be struggling through the throes of the 9-to-5 life and earning an honest buck—but she hasn’t lost her street smarts. She’s a woman who understands the basic forces that shape the secular world, as well as the base motivations that rule society. She’s ecstatic to be part of a ministry that’s exploded in the past year; evidence, she says, that God’s working through her.
Even her view of the Divine is down to earth. In deeper conversation about God and religion—and when challenged about some of the negatives associated with contemporary organized religion—she pauses and smiles. It’s the hesitation of a woman who feels a higher power has entered and sanctified her heart . . . but who has also intimately known the corridors of some of the seedier institutions of the profane world. The reluctance of a woman who, years earlier, came to understand Christians as the pious people who looked down and judged her for her line of work.
“I don’t really consider myself religious,” the devout born-again Christian explains. “I’m more spiritual than religious.”
Asked about her son’s understanding of her work with the ministry, and the questions that will surely arise about her former life, she says she’ll be open—to a point. She’ll tell him all he needs to know, she says, but worries that sometimes full disclosure is perceived by a child as permission to push those same boundaries.
In a deeper conversation about prostitution and the booming sex-trade industry (which has existed throughout recorded history) in the contemporary world, Brown is realistic. Given the depth of human desires and carnal instincts, its doubtful those industries will ever be eradicated, she concedes. But she says tolerating them is different than condoning them.
“It’s in the Bible. Jesus loved prostitutes,” Brown says. “There are so many prostitutes that Jesus hung out with or ministered to or talked to; they go way back. But Jesus isn’t paying them money to have sex; Jesus is loving the soul of them, looking into their hearts and knowing the goodness that’s in there. He’s not saying, ‘Let me exploit you and pay you for it.’
“He loved prostitutes, but he didn’t buy them. I sure hope not,” she says with a laugh. “That would ruin the whole theory.”