“Outrageously providential”: how a struggling Anchorage strip club turned into a Baptist church
There’s one word that comes up often if you ask realtors, the building owner, and the pastor, how they turned Fantasies from the 5th Strip Club near downtown Anchorage into a church: providential.
Real estate agent Mike Gailey, who conceived the idea, said that when the project turned from pipe dream to reality, things fell into place.
âEveryone, at one time or another, has succumbed to this sense of Providence and direction that was undeniable,â he said.
Just over a year ago, Gailey was approached by the owner of the 5th Strip Club’s Fantasies, who was forced to shut down after a lawsuit over unpaid wages and problems with a liquor license. After seeing the club closed for two years, she wanted to sell.
âMy first thought was that it should be a church,â he said. It was an unusual thought, but he said it provided the necessary space and created a lot of traffic on the Glenn Freeway, which might make advertising easier. But more than that, Gailey saw a story that could resonate with the townspeople.
âIt was sort of a story of redemption. And I knew the churches, the Christians, they like this story, âhe said.
Perhaps. But the owner said she had had a similar thought of converting to a church, but was unlucky.
â’I even stopped by some of the bigger ones. But I don’t think I got past the receptionist, âshe said,â Gailey said.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which struck at the time, did not help. Gailey found herself asking the owner for a week extension to find someone to occupy the property. She gave him an extra week and suggested that Gailey speak to an acquaintance who might be able to help her fill it up.
âThis is how she described this person: She said, ‘She is a tough Eastern military woman and she will not pay you a commission. But it’s your problem, deal with it. ” he said.
Gailey researched this woman and discovered an unlikely series of coincidences in their life. They were both former servicemen, both had spent time in Vietnam, and both even knew the same Vietnamese doctor there. Incredibly, Gailey realized that they met 10 years ago at a random dinner in Hanoi.
âAt that point, the coincidences were so statistically improbable, so outrageously providential, really,â he said.
The woman was Linda Dunegan. After some coaxing, she agreed to meet Gailey in the building. They entered to find dark, dusty floors filled with stakes and podiums still decorated for Halloween since the day the joint closed more than two years ago. It was dark except for the flashlights on their phones. Dunegan turned to her real estate agent to reveal a secret connection she had to the place.
âI said, ‘Do you know why I want to buy this place? It’s because my mom was a stripper. “” Dunegan said.
Dunegan’s mother, an immigrant from Vietnam, had undressed in clubs around Anchorage. She is not sure, but thinks her mother may have worked at Fantasies. Dunegan, who left Vietnam as a child in the 1970s, said she was sometimes ashamed of her mother’s job as a child. She said the club’s conversion project is healing work.
âIt was very difficult for me to see these strip sticks,â she said, fighting back tears. âIt was really difficult for me, because I had the condemnation in my heart of my mother. So I think the story of redemption is not for the public. It was for me and for my mother.
She decided to buy the building, but her real estate agent, Nate Baer, ââneeded to be convinced.
âI was like, ‘Well you’ve got the traffic tally. You have the stages, you have the poles, you have everything. But you know, for a church – it just wouldn’t work. “
But he said Dunegan was persistent.
âFrom my experience working with Linda, I always say, ‘My God, I don’t think this can work’. She said, âWell, why not?â He said. âAnd you know, she’s going to push and push and push and a lot of times things work one way or another,â he says.
But there was still the question of finding a pastor and a church in the midst of the pandemic.
2,000 miles away and a few weeks earlier in Oregon, Kenny Menendez was leading a normal middle-class life, working his day job and serving as a deacon in his church on Sundays.
âI lived a comfortable and successful life, I worked in an aerospace industry, buying for the company there. And, you know, I had it all, âhe said.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, he and his family had time to reflect.
âWe had to decide as a family what was important to us and what was important to us was the church in general,â he said.
It was around this time that her pastor received a call from a woman in Anchorage. It was Linda Dunegan. His church was looking for a pastor. Weeks later, Menendez, his wife, and young children were on a plane to Alaska with their entire lives in tow. It was right.
“He is a quick change of life, but you know things that are impossible for man are possible with God. And the Bible also says that without faith it is impossible to please Him. So we took that leap of faith, so to speak, âhe said.
He arrived and had already started regular Bible studies by the time the church sale was finalized.
The main stage is now clean and bright with faux wood laminate floors and dark finished cross beams and a well-lit podium for the pastor.
For Menendez and his wife, who plays the piano for the church, the move to Anchorage seems providential, as does the rest of the story. It’s a story of redemption for all of Anchorage, he said, which he hopes will come to fruition through the growth of the church.
For owner Linda Dunegan, it’s also a personal story of redemption of turning the shame of her childhood into a project that she hopes she can benefit the community.