Strippers in the pews -- er, news

The strippers are back. Back at church. And back in the news.

Three weeks ago, I gave a mostly negative review to a Page A1 story in The Columbus Dispatch on strippers demonstrating outside an Ohio church that, for years, has protested their livelihood.

I liked parts of the Dispatch story but felt that it relied on cliches, presented the main characters as cardboard figures and failed miserably to explore the religion angles in any meaningful way.

Now comes a follow-up story on the same topic from The Associated Press:

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 fundamentalist 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.

Immediately, the AP description of how the church members were dressed impressed me as better than the way the Dispatch put it. For one thing, the AP's "men in ties and women in full-length skirts" just sounds less pejorative than the Dispatch's "polyester and pearls." It also struck me as more accurate based on the video and photos I have seen of church members.

In general, the AP also eschews the cliche-ridden nature of the Dispatch piece, although not entirely. We do still get "Bible-brandishing congregants" and "a higher power" tasking the minister with shutting down the strip club. And a reference is made to churchgoers greeting the strippers with "both scorn and compassion," although the story provides no evidence to back up the "scorn" assertion.

But in general, the AP story uses fresh language to show, not tell, the story -- from the "nine miles of cornfields and Amish-buggy crossing signs" that separate the strip club from the church to the "mashed potatoes with gravy and Salisbury steak" served at the only sit-down restaurant in the small town. (Suddenly, I'm hungry!)

Basically, the AP reporter steps back and lets the story tell itself.

We get dialogue and description that help us better understand the figures on both sides. They are not cardboard characters. They are real people with nuanced and sometimes conflicting beliefs and positions.

You've got a pastor protesting but also offering to pay for food, rent, utilities and gas if the strippers will give up their lifestyle. You've got a stripper who says she made only $30 -- instead of a normal couple hundred -- on the last Friday that the church protested outside the club. These are not cliches. These are real, important details.

Consider this compelling section:

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.

AP also goes outside the two protesting groups and provides input from outside observers.

We hear from a former stripper who ministers to dancers, prostitutes and porn stars but doesn't see protests outside the strip club as the right approach. A community values advocate, meanwhile, supports the protests but says the strip club has the legal right to operate. Finally, a leader of a church closer to the strip club explains why it takes a different approach than the one featured.

Context, it's called. Thankfully, the AP story provides it. All in all, it's an excellent 925-word report.

That's not to say that it answered all my questions. Like the Dispatch, the AP failed to engage the religious issues to my satisfaction.

The church is labeled as "fundamentalist," but no real insight into the theology or beliefs is provided. The reporter ventures inside the worship assembly as congregants sing "lyrics projected on a screen." But no mention is made of the contents of those lyrics. Are they old-style hymns or contemporary Christian praise songs with seven-word choruses?

As with the Dispatch story, we hear vague pronouncements of belief in Jesus from the strippers but never really learn about their faith or the role it plays in their lives.

The strippers are back.

And once again, they brought a few religion ghosts with them.

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