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Oasis House offers peace for women

Oasis House offers numerous services to dancers in area strip clubs, including help with getting a GED, food, sobriety or just someone to talk to.
Photos courtesy of Sharon Amos

By Cecile S. Holmes*

Feb. 3, 2010 | DAYTON, Ohio (UMNS)

A sign at the entrance to Oasis House quotes Matthew 11:28.

In local parlance, North Dixie Drive in Dayton, Ohio, is known as the “Dixie Strip.” Home to a seedy assortment of businesses including adult bookstores and strip joints with names such as Sharkey’s Lounge and the Gentleman’s Club, it’s also the unlikely location of a courageous United Methodist outreach ministry designed to help young women forsake drugs, stripping and prostitution for more meaningful lives.

The five Dixie Strip clubs employ about 400 dancers, who usually perform topless and sometimes in the nude. Bad choices, abusive pimps and drug habits trap the women in a lifestyle many say they’d like to leave. Happenstance puts them in the path of the Rev. Sharon Amos of Dayton’s Higher Ground United Methodist Church. Since 2005 she has slowly built a ministry called Oasis House for Women. It is located in a rented stone building in the midst of what some say is the highest concentration of sexually oriented businesses in the state of Ohio.

Amos’ call to serve such a flock started when she met a strip-club dancer. “What I realized was she was just like me,” the pastor says. “She wasn’t some unreachable person. She had the same desires in life that I have. She desired to know that God loved her and knows her prayers.”

So every week, usually on Wednesday nights, Amos and her volunteers bring God’s love and compassion to the Dixie strip. They roll in with culinary gifts familiar to anyone who’s ever attended a homecoming at a United Methodist church: potato chips, brownies, chicken salad sandwiches, fresh fruit, even angel food cake. Soon dancers with happy smiles and little clothing cluster around, chatting with the pastor, who knows most of them and hugs each one.

‘Everything isn’t as dark as I thought it was’

Even the managers of the strip clubs welcome what Oasis brings. They know many of their dancers are small-town girls who headed to the city hoping for better lives, only to be disappointed when they trusted the wrong people. Some women enter the Dayton sex-trade businesses when they’re barely 18. Within a few months, the system and its accompanying addictions ensnare them.

“The sex industry is an addiction,” Amos says. A dancer might start out with good intentions, hoping to pocket good cash over a short period and then move on. “But they get addicted,” she says. “I think what it is is the attention, the fast life, the exciting, on-the-edge kind of life, the money. … And it’s also being on the stage and men looking at you and wanting to touch you. There are a lot of issues there.”

Kathy, a strip dancer who asked that only her first name be used, turned to Oasis House when she wanted out of the sex trade. She longed for a new direction: to get her graduate equivalency diploma and then to find a new job. “I wanted to feel good about myself, and I couldn’t feel good about myself because I knew what I was doing was wrong,” she says.

But Kathy admits she hasn’t chosen an easy road. “It is so wonderful that the creator of the world loves you and died for your sins. I would like to get to know Jesus, and I want to go into the clubs and teach them – I have been there and I know how the women feel. … I didn’t used to trust, but, the stronger I get in the Lord, I have learned that everything isn’t as dark as I thought it was.”

Listen and love

Amos and her volunteers don’t preach the first time they meet a dancer, or any time thereafter. Instead, they listen and love. Oasis serves about 100 women weekly. With food prepared by local churches, two teams go into five clubs, spending about 90 minutes in each establishment to develop relationships with the dancers and the staff. They take in “Get to Know You” forms and prayer cards for the women to fill out. They follow up with phone calls and schedule appointments.

Defining itself as “Women Helping Women,” Oasis’ broad-based ministry includes training toward a high school diploma, help with qualifying for state benefits such as food stamps, setting up businesses, developing resumes and fliers, finding housing and furnishings and much other assistance. Two women have gone on to earn associate degrees. One current client wants to get her bachelor’s degree. Oasis volunteers also work in the Montgomery County Jail as trained chaplains to women arrested for solicitation of sex.

But most significantly, Oasis’ outreach provides hope. Nine denominations now support the work that began one Sunday when a stripper stopped by Amos’ church.

‘Miracle No. 1’

For years, Amos says, she drove down Dayton’s North Dixie Drive, pretending “the strips clubs there didn’t matter to me.” Then a strip-club dancer walked into her church. Amos calls that Miracle No. 1, since workers at sexually oriented businesses usually are not churchgoers. Many let shame overshadow personal need, she says, and they believe they’d feel so out of place in church that they decline to darken the doors.

But on that portentous Sunday several years back, a woman Amos simply calls “Angie” came to services. She willingly discussed the difficulties of living as a strip dancer. Angie said she was in jail the first time she attended a church service and that she remembered how good it felt to hear someone read the Bible aloud and pray, Amos recalls.

Angie stopped by Higher Ground Church, after driving up and down, up and down Dixie Drive. As she drove, she prayed, asking God to tell her where to go to church.

The pastor and the stripper met over the next several months. Amos discovered that she and Angie had much in common. Like Amos, Angie had dreams: having a good job, marrying and raising a family. Slowly the importance of Angie’s needs and those of women like her coalesced into the idea that became Oasis. For nine months, Amos and her volunteers worried and prayed. During the day, they would pull their cars into the strip clubs’ parking lots and sit and pray. Eventually they began reaching out in person, talking to the dancers one at a time.

‘They are reachable’

Every woman reached by Oasis – whether or not she leaves the sex trade –has a story. Many are like Jessie, who asked to be identified only by her first name. A bartender and dancer for six years, she says her life was one unending interval of drinking, eating Vicodin and “wandering and wasting.

“I had low self-respect and didn't take my future seriously,” Jessie says. “I didn't realize how much I was affected by what I was doing. I would drink at work and get drunk on my days off. If I sat and thought, I couldn’t have told you when the last day that I hadn’t been drinking was. I was on a self-destructive path.”

She fantasized a “Pretty Woman” movie dream where a “nice guy” would “sweep me off my feet and get me out of dancing.” But a good-looking bloke like Richard Gere plays in the movie – who meets, falls in love with and saves the Julia Roberts character from a rotten life of turning tricks – never came along. Jessie knew she was stuck.

She finally spotted a way out when Oasis volunteers hauled teddy bears into the club where she pranced and gyrated before leering men. The bears had little tags on them insisting: “Jesus loves exotic dancers too.” Jessie says, “I received counseling that impacted my life where I learned that I deserve self-respect.”

The loving, supportive atmosphere at Oasis House coupled with the “motherly,” nonjudgmental attitude of staff and volunteers made Jessie trust them. “I came from bright lights and loud music, to a place that is serene and peaceful.”

Carey, who also declined to give her last name, danced in strip clubs for seven years. A self-described alcoholic and drug addict, she lived without plans and goals or hopes and dreams. “What good would it do?” she remembers asking herself. Then she became part of Oasis House.

“God has kept me alive through all this,” Carey says, “by being my Father and my best friend. He's always watching over me keeping me safe. I wish my own dad hadn't disowned me. He doesn't talk to me like you would a daughter.”

Eventually, Carey would like to have some contact with her four children. Two are permanently adopted, she says, “and one will probably end up in jail and one doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.”

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Oasis helped Carey furnish an apartment when she found a place to live after three years of being homeless. She’s leaned on the ministry in many ways. She talks about Amos, the regular volunteers and the volunteer licensed professional counselor who assist the women.

“They give me bus tokens so I can get to my doctors’ appointments,” Carey says. “They counsel with me, talk, laugh, listen, ride the ‘roller coaster’ of my life with me. They have a big impact on my life. They invited me in when I had no money, no nothing. I have the best counselor in the world. To feel loved … to take on a goofy, walking time bomb, drug addict like me. … Are you kidding? I have cleaned up off the drugs and I have come a long way. I can't thank them enough.”

Statistics show that 80 percent of “sex workers” were abused as children, Amos says. “They are reachable. They’ve just had such horrendous childhoods. They don’t see themselves with any value or worth.

“We love them and respect and value them. We don’t tell them they’re doing anything wrong. They know they’re doing things wrong. They know this isn’t what God intends for them.”

*Holmes is a religion writer and associate professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. This story originally appeared in Interpreter Magazine.

News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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