Story by Emily Underwood
Photos by Emily Underwood and Maegan Moore
Inside they sipped drinks and dreamed of anything but Jesus.
This scene, formerly a foreign world, is now commonplace for Emily Mills, a Baylor alumna and founder of Jesus Said Love, a local nonprofit ministering to strippers.
Jesus Said Love, founded in 2005, sends a team of women volunteers into Waco gentlemen’s clubs once a month to form relationships and share the Christian faith with strippers.
“Our purpose is to not only meet their spiritual needs, but to provide them with basic resources as well,” Mills said. “Doctors, lawyers, counselors and accountants all volunteer through Jesus Said Love to help these women establish a well-balanced life.”
Mills also opened Yarnivore, a knitting store, four months ago to help the dancers develop valuable knitting skills and provide them with the confidence to leave the clubs. The classes are also open to others interested in the skill.
Mills, a traveling worship leader with her husband, began her journey into the strip clubs after singing at an Austin worship conference that focused on ministering to the marginalized in 2003.
“It was then that I saw there was a disconnect between what we were singing in our songs and how we were living,” Mills said.
“The words of the songs were talking about serving the brokenhearted and I knew we as a church weren’t doing it.”
Her holistic view of Christian living came alive and took motion the moment she experienced her first night walking into a strip club two weeks after the conference.
Jesus Said Love coined the phrase Jesus Loves Strippers. Splashing the phrase across the front of the purple volunteer shirts turned heads and provoked stares.
The shirts elicit varied responses from onlookers, Mills said.
“When we wear the shirts in the clubs, men see the phrase Jesus Loves Strippers and immediately get up and leave the club,” Mills said.
“However, the dancers love them and most of them ask if they can have one.”
The shirts serve as immediate identification of the purpose of Jesus Said Love.
When Mills went on an outreach on Good Friday in 2009, she met a beautiful, blonde exotic dancer who saw their shirts and responded, “I know Jesus and I talk to Jesus, but I don’t think he hears me because of all the bad things I have done,” Mills said.
Mills immediately refuted her claim and told her that Jesus hears all people when they pray no matter what our past looks like, a conversation that has led to the development of a special friendship.
The stripper’s name was Laura and she calls Mills her best friend.
The number of stories of changed lives, redemption and forgiveness abound as a result of the Jesus Said Love ministry, Mills said. Even the club owners have donated toward the ministry in appreciation for the ways it has improved the lives of the dancers.
Laura, a former stripper of 28 years, had gallbladder surgery at Providence Hospital immediately after her first conversation with Emily at the club.
No one had visited Laura during surgery and she was elated to know that someone, let alone a stranger, came to see her, Mills said.
“Emily knew I was a dancer in the strip clubs and she still loved me. She showed me friendship and then showed me God,” Laura said.
“I laid my body down, flat on my face at the foot of my bed and imagined myself at the foot of the cross,” Laura said. “It was then that I fully gave my life to Christ.”
Laura stopped dancing in the strip clubs after she became a Christian on Feb. 28, 2010.
She previously suffered from multiple addictions but is now clean and comes over to the Mills’ home to pray while the volunteers go into the strip clubs.
“I’m a prayer warrior now and I pray for the dancers,” Laura said. “God is my provider, my husband of my soul and my way out.”
Laura walked into a prayer meeting at the Mills’ home Feb. 11, 2011, before the Valentine’s Day outreach, carrying a large, black trash bag over her shoulder filled with her old stripper outfits.
“These clothes were my identity,” Laura said. “They were who I was and by giving them away, it is a representation of me being completely through with dancing.”
Mills is confident in Laura’s ability to recover from the experiences in her past.
“I truly believe that God is jealous for Laura and is committed to giving her an abundant life,” Mills said. “It has been a gradual healing process for Laura, but just as beautiful as Laura’s recovery process has been watching the body of Christ being a support for her.”
Jesus Said Love’s most recent outreach occurred the Friday before Valentine’s Day.
Through the eyes of a stripper, Valentine’s Day isn’t filled with the warmth from a dozen red roses and chocolate-covered strawberries, but with cold men longing to see nudity.
The stripper’s heart on Valentine’s Day doesn’t simmer with the giddiness and innocence of a little girl, but instead is filled with loneliness, according to the Jesus Said Love prayer team that went into the strip clubs.
“Our last trip to Showtime on Valentine’s Day is a relatively lonely day for strippers,” said Heather Burke, a veteran Jesus Said Love volunteer of seven years. “Our team made chocolate-covered strawberries, went into Showtime and talked with the dancers in the dressing rooms while they got ready to perform.”
After talking to the girls and understanding their backgrounds, Jesus Said Love volunteers began to fight the misconception that strippers dance out of selfish conceit or vanity.
“These women are dancing out of necessity. They are somebody’s mom, wife and daughter,” Burke said. “They need love. They need to be heard. They need to know that God loves them.”
One single mom lost her job, had two rounds of cancer, experienced a divorce as well as a miscarriage and lost her health insurance. Dancing at clubs seemed like the only way to provide for herself. She was desperate and abused, Burke said.
These types of women are not typical churchgoers and will not be the ones spotted at a women’s spring tea held at the church.
Instead, Jesus Said Love brings the message of Christ to the dancers. After seven years of building trust through the outreaches, the single mom consistently began going to church.
Mills is a witness to the transformation in the lives of dancers, but is also keenly aware of the change within herself.
“I have changed in the midst of all of this,” Mills said. “I didn’t realize how much of myself needed healing until I started this ministry.”
Anytime one embraces the gospel, the changes are twofold, Mills said. When somebody embraces the gospel, the gospel embraces them.
“I began Jesus Said Love because I knew that life was messy,” Mills said. “We are all imperfect. I am imperfect. The strippers are imperfect, but the imperfection propels us to love deeper.”
Mills, mother of three children under the age of 8, graduated from Baylor in December 1999 as a communication specialist. While at Baylor, she was involved in Pi Beta Phi and was the lead singer in a worship band on campus. Her husband, Brett Mills, was a band member.
Brett Mills graduated from Baylor with a bachelor of arts in communication and began Touchstone Ministry, a ministry that resembles Vertical Ministries, while at Baylor and it is still the current student-operated ministry at Baylor.
The Mills’ jobs as worship leaders are intricately intertwined with their mission at Jesus Said Love.
Emily and Brett Mills are releasing an album in the spring of 2011, where each song will feature a story of a specific dancer they have met through Jesus Said Love.
“The songs can be played in a church or in a bar,” said Emily Mills. “They are versatile and embody redemptive themes, but are not necessarily worship music.”
A ministry in the strip clubs is not a career one usually hears about at a career fair. However, Emily Mills, a woman with a gentle countenance and an even greater internal strength claims that as her career and vocation.
“Whenever I tell people what I do, I get an interesting reaction,” said Mills as she smiled. “My ministry is a great conversation starter and an intriguing icebreaker.”