The Underground

3 Dec

Heidi Niemen enters a Bradenton, Florida, strip club in a white button down, Levi’s, and ballet flats. She and four other women proceed to the dressing room with mild trepidation. In the reflection of the bulb-lined mirror they catch a glimpse of a dark-haired woman in her twenties fastening her brassier.  Her lashes and liner are thick so that you are can see the vibrant green color of her eyes, but not her emotions. A second woman leans over her to touch up her lipstick, a third straps on her stilettos from her perch on a barstool in the corner. Niemen has only been at this club for a few days, but she is still an outsider to its culture and its unique beat. She says that every club has its own vibe and its own way of receiving her.  Niemen is not a dancer; she is one of the leaders of The Underground, an outreach for women in the strip club industry affiliated with Bayside Community Church.

When the women are either on break, in between shifts in the dressing room, or without a client, Niemen uses that as an opportunity to share God’s Word with them. “The most important thing is just to let them know they are truly loved and valued,” she said. Usually, Niemen’s team just talks to the girls about their lives outside of the club, which can usually lead to much deeper conversation, which many of the girls have come to embrace.

“The girls are very open. We never try to force our beliefs onto them, but many have ended up asking for us to pray with them,” said Niemen.

The Underground was originally the idea of a male pastor at Bayside who thought this could work well in Bradenton as a women’s outreach. Niemen said that he had a heavy burden in his heart for women to band together and help girls who worked in clubs realize their self-worth. After much prayer, he was approached by Niemen. She has been leading the group for two years now.

“I started by bringing in some of the women from the 6:30 p.m. services and it grew from there. I was honestly not anticipating to be so well received,” she said.

When they first started, Niemen had to contact club managers far in advance and was limited on the time she could spend talking with the dancers. However, as the club owners and managers developed a relationship with Niemen, they gave her more flexibility and have even thanked her for all her time and effort she has spent being involved in the lives of their employees. She started by “adopting” one club, but she has added an additional three to her regular circuit.

“We bring food and cards to the girls, leave little gifts, and one time we even re-painted their dressing room, so that when they came back they would be able to see something new and would have something to look forward to besides their shift,” said Niemen.

On Valentine’s Day, Niemen has made it a tradition to bring roses and cards to each of the girls.

“It is a very special day, and it warms my heart to see a genuine smile on their faces. For some of them, it is the first time they had ever received flowers,” she said. “Most of the clubs love how we hand-deliver them to the girls when they are in between shifts, but one club still only allows us to leave our gifts with the bouncer.”

Niemen always has her arms open to women and young adults who are interested in becoming involved in The Underground. However, there are some requirements. Participants must be female, over 18, attend Bayside on a regular basis, and go to a weekend woman’s retreat.

“The retreat is a small cottage where women break into small groups and spend some time learning more about themselves as well as deepening their own relationship with God. It is ver important for a woman to be strong in her own faith and esteem before going into a ministry such as this,” said Niemen. “In the meantime, we have a prayer group for The Underground that anyone can be a part of, and we greatly appreciate it when people participate.”

Niemen and her team leave a business card for Bayside Community Church and tell the girls about services available online while they are ministering in the clubs. Since beginning her work with The Underground, Niemen has gotten the opportunity to see positive changes within the club employees’ lives. A handful of girls have given over their lives to Christ and attend churches in Bradenton, and one attends Bayside. Two girls have volunteered their time to work the church’s annual Easter egg hunt for children.

“While it is such a blessing to see positive changes in the lives of the girls I get to know, I also enjoy working with newcomers,” said Niemen. “They are a bit leery of me and my team at first, but when they see we are not out for anything but to share love with them, be a shoulder to lean on, and to be their friend, it is an incredible feeling to see them relax and put their guard down and to see the other girls encourage them to speak with us.”

 

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