Instead of picket signs, they carry gift bags containing lotions, jewelry, candy and handwritten notes.
Instead of strident street corner rants, they bow their heads in private prayer.
Instead of attitudes of judgment and condemnation, they reach out with love and gentleness.
They are the members of 410 Ministries, a small group of women who regularly visit Fort Wayne's “gentlemen's clubs” to minister to the young women who dance there. Known affectionately by dancers, managers and other club personnel as “the church ladies,” they draw from the example set by Jesus in John 4:10 when he offered the Samaritan woman “living water.”
“He crossed boundaries,” says Cindy Slick, director of 410 Ministries, explaining the cultural and religious significance of Jesus reaching out to “one whom society had marginalized.”
“She had a sketchy background, yet Jesus offered her eternal life,” she says. “We are stepping outside our comfort zone ... to let the girls know that God really does care about them.”
A change of heart
Tammy Crane used to drive by a local “gentleman's” club.
“I would get a sick feeling in my stomach,” she recalls. “I didn't have a very good attitude about the people in there, and I thought — as a Christian — that was an OK attitude to have, ... kind of condemning and judgmental.”
It was a “Dateline” television broadcast five years ago that changed her attitude — and her life.
“The (interview) was with a girl who used to strip in Las Vegas, became a Christian and then went back into the club because she had a heart for the girls,” Crane says. “As I was watching, God just broke my heart, and I began sobbing, seeing my sinful attitude toward these girls. He laid a burden on my heart to share God's love with them.”
Crane repented of her judgmental attitude and committed herself to prayer and fasting as she asked God for direction. She met with others at her church, Blackhawk Ministries, and in the faith community.
God gave them a heart of compassion for the women in the industry, Slick explains, but no definitive plan for ministry. For two years, they continued to pray and explore ideas for outreach.
“We were trying to minister to them without actually going in,” says Crane, “but we could never find a way.”
Through the door
At Christmas, 2008 the group prepared 200 gift baskets with plans to drop them at the doors of the city's nine clubs and ask that they be given to the dancers. A conversation with a former dancer stopped them in their tracks.
“She said, 'You are going to have to go in, sit down, order something, let the girls come to you, and give them the gift baskets,'” says Crane. “I started laughing really hard. I didn't think I would ever have to go inside — let alone sit there!”
“That December, we went into all of them,” she recalls.
Going the extra mile
Betty Kahlenbeck was in the first group to enter two of the clubs.
“These are women that everyone minimizes,” she explains. “There is no unforgivable sin, and it just breaks my heart when people think that there are those who aren't worthy to go to the foot of the cross. That's why I'm there.”
Last October, Kahlenbeck opened her home to one of the dancers. She welcomes the woman's four children every other weekend, offers parenting advice and dispenses tough love.
“Betty doesn't require her to go to church or quit dancing in order to live there, but this young woman voluntarily goes to church,” says Slick.
Slick struggles with the possibility of communicating the wrong message.
“They may think I'm there to condone their lifestyle,” she says, “but I am there working at building a relationship so we can move past that.
“I have always approached ministry this way,” Slick continues: “Relationships always precede teaching. Always. I don't do any instructing in the club. I save that for the (women) I'm beginning to build a relationship with outside the club. Then it comes naturally.”
“It's unconditional love,” Kahlenbeck explains. “We just have to love them where they are, but love them too much to leave them there.”
As the members of 410 build friendships with the dancers, they attend family gatherings, baby showers, children's birthday parties and fundraisers to cover medical expenses for a former bouncer. They go to movies, meet for coffee and are there in times of crisis.
They are respectful of club personnel, always ordering food, tipping generously and paying the dancers for their time when a girl chooses to sit and talk rather than perform.
“Love means doing, ... making sacrifices for them,” says Slick, who hopes to reduce her work schedule to be more available to the women. “We accept them and love them, but we want more for them.”
Slick is building a network of resources to provide practical assistance for the dancers.
“I have a resource for free counseling and one for free medical help,” she says. “I'm recruiting tutors and mentors.”
For those not called to be “front-liners,” Slick encourages making gift bags, donating money and supplies, or committing to provide prayer support. Transportation, jobs and alternative living arrangements are also needed, she says.
“410 is offering friendship with no strings attached,” says Slick. “Acceptance in the clubs has built because we've been consistent. We have a history, and they know we're not there to cause trouble.
“This is a picture of the church reaching outside its walls without judgement,” she adds. “It's a radical thing ... but then, Jesus was radical.”