A strip club called The Manor in Guelph, Ontario is giving new meaning to the concept of sin and redemption. Following the club's typical Saturday nights full of tits and booze, early afternoons on Sundays host a church service. It's 1 PM, and on the stage where multiple women got completely naked the night before under the blue-and-red lights is a four-piece band playing such hymn-hits as "Worthy is the Lamb" and "We Believe" as a crowd of worshippers (the Jesus kind, not the ass kind) sing along to a TV screen relaying God-fearing lyrics, karaoke-style.
Jack Ninaber, a non-denominational Christian pastor, was first given the idea to run a church service in a strip club by his wife, when they were driving past The Manor in 2013. They'd been hosting a church service once a week at their home nearby, but their crowd had grown to about 35 people—leading them on a search for a new venue.
He admits he thought that his wife Sharon's proposal was crazy and laughed it off. But after watching a documentary the owner's son Shawney Cohen had made (The Manor, which opened Hot Docs in 2013), they figured out that the strip club had a transitional housing facility attached to it and had a hunch that the bizarre venue might just work.
Sue's Inn, the housing facility, is The Manor owner Roger Cohen's personal project to help the poor. As someone who grew up in poverty, he wanted to help people who were struggling: recovering from addiction, fresh out of jail, or simply those who were unable to pass credit checks or put down a security deposit. With 35 inhabited rooms directly attached to The Manor, the Ninabers were almost positive they'd found a new audience.
Roger told me: "I thought they were crazy; I thought there were 101 reasons not to do it," he said. "It's a strip club! I figured there was going to be backlash from the community."
After being in talks with Roger for several months, the Ninabers held their first service earlier this year at The Manor on Easter Sunday, with about 75 in attendance. As you might imagine, there are a few details that must be taken care of when temporarily converting a strip joint into a church. The posters of scantily clad women on pillars had to be covered up with images of Jesus, the pole had to be sanitized, the mirrors embossed with images of strippers were covered with curtains, and a pool table was covered and decked out with mini-sandwiches, Bundt cakes, and oranges.
I'll admit that, like Roger originally was, I was a little wary. I was raised Roman Catholic and when a Sunday school teacher told me at the dawn of my puberty that I would go to hell for open-mouth kissing, it kick-started my descent into atheism. But I soon realized that the Ninabers' ministry was as far away from Catholicism as Christianity could get. I spoke with one of the guests who also was raised Catholic.
Tiara Corrigan had a son out of wedlock and was asked not to come back to her Catholic church. Church at the Manor was her first alternative religious experience after this. After getting out of jail for committing arson, she needed a place to live—so she found herself moving into Sue's Inn. When a room opened up on the ground floor (Corrigan is in a wheelchair), she was in luck. The Ninabers delivered flyers around the inn, her interest was piqued, and she started attending the service. "At first I didn't notice the pole, but the one day I was looking and was like there's a pole there."
The stripper pole is a permanent fixture and as such, the church organizers must work around it. Following the opening musical numbers, a guest speaker named takes the stage, playfully swinging around the stripper pole before he says anything. He's clearly enthusiastic; one of the more mobile audience members, he's been walking around the club with his hands in the air singing along (sometimes with eyes closed), visibly vibing with God. As is par for the course at Ninaber's church service, he's sharing his own personal story about struggling with alcohol and drugs.
"What we hear from people who come here is that they feel like people look at them differently when they go to [formal] church," Jack says. "Maybe they don't have anything to wear or they have tattoos or they feel judged—people look at you weird."
I quickly learned that Church at the Manor was a judgment-free zone. When I went, about 30 people were there wearing jeans, sitting wherever they want (even in the VIP area), one woman had her dog with her, and there were entire families there with their kids (I can't say I ever thought I'd see children in a strip club). Jack has been called "one cool fuckin' pastor" by one of the attendees before and I can see why. One guest arrived late; instead of glaring at her, the crowd welcomed her and Jack's wife Sharon said, "Hey, how are you?" on her mic. And rather than assuming that people understood the lyrics to some of the more cryptic gospel songs and bible passages during the service, the Ninabers put an emphasis on explaining in layman terms. "I love this song because it reminds me of just breathing in the holy spirit," Sharon explains animatedly after finishing up singing a track. "God, I'm breathing you in and I'm breathing out all that other crap—because you can say crap on this stage... we're real."
When I asked him about the potential morality issue hosting a religious service in, quite literally, a den of sin could bring up, he said, "It's a nonissue for us. People make up the church, not great, grandeur buildings... It's never been about rules for us."
Hosting church at the strip club hasn't been without incident. Even before it started, the Ninabers had to make a visit to City Hall. The Manor couldn't be zoned as a religious institution, so they had to fight to get it zoned as a "social service." Then came the noise complaints that brought out city bylaw officials when baptisms were taking place in a one-person pool in The Manor's parking lot over the summer (Corrigan was one of the people baptized). They also have an ongoing feud with a formal church across the street, some members of which have criticized the Ninabers' service for not being a "real church."
But for all the criticism, there have been some victories. In addition to working with the Ninabers on getting the proper zoning, Roger made a change to the club this October. He saw how much time the ministry was taking to cover up the posters in his club, and decided to install permanent frames on the walls so they can easily pop images in and out. The Ninabers are working on getting their own biblical-themed posters to put in the frames on Sundays. There's still some covering-up they have to do, such as the clear shower stall dancers use for bachelor parties, which today is covered with a tapestry of Jesus and a disciple.
After the ministry finished up around 3 PM, I watched the club evolve back into its original nefarious form—a sign about bachelor parties replaced in the club's boxing ring, a poster bearing a blonde woman with a boob job and hot-pink G-string popped into place, the gospel-karaoke TV screen switched to advertise "Whiskey Wednesdays." And when the dancers started coming in around 7 PM, their weekly gift from the ministry was waiting for them—a vase of flowers in their change room.
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