The Daughters of God
Amid the pulsating rock music and flashing strobe lights of a New Hampshire strip club, exotic dancers perform on stage.
The club’s clientele are men, but on this night, two women in the audience, dressed in regular clothes, are not there for the show. One of them is Captain Deborah Coolidge, a Salvation Army officer and pastor.
“We’ll sit as if we’re chatting, but what we’re really doing is praying for the Holy Spirit to invade the place,” Coolidge says. “No one would know that because we’ve got our eyes open and we’re looking at each other.”
More than three years ago, Coolidge and a Christian friend from a local church began their outreach ministry to the strip club near Portsmouth, N.H. Coolidge goes there to show the love of Christ to the dancers, but it’s also her way of fighting human trafficking.
Girding for battle
“Traffickers go to clubs to traffic girls,” she said. “We’re always mindful of that.”
Two weeks before each visit, Coolidge and her prayer partner prepare for the spiritual warfare they know is ahead.
“We park across the street from the club and we just pray,” Coolidge said. “We pray for the girls and the ministry and the outreach.”
On the last Tuesday of each month, they actually go into the club and sit as any other customer would—except they are prayed up and ready.
“The night we go, we’re singing worship songs in the car and we’re praying,” Coolidge said. “We park a little bit away from the club and we have some real time of specific prayer before we go into the club.”
The two women pray for “loving conviction” for the dancers. They also pray the customers will realize that the entertainment they are seeking is “degrading” to women.
Coolidge does not wear her Salvation Army uniform when she goes to the club.
“It’s not about The Salvation Army,” she said. “It’s about these girls. We just want them to know they’re loved and that we have resources, if they want assistance. A lot of them are single mothers.”
Coolidge said the women’s ministry at the corps helps her provide the dancers with gifts, including homemade sugar scrubs, nail polish, candy, and roses. She also gives them pocketbooks containing a New Testament, ChapStick®, and a pad and pen.
At the club, the gifts are laid on a table as a welcoming gesture to the 40 dancers.
“They think the gifts will cost them money. We tell them they’re donated in love and that we want to help.”
Coolidge, who is single, said she and her fellow prayer warrior often get “odd looks” from the dancers and customers. They wonder what the two women are doing in the club.
“They’re curious,” Coolidge said. “They seem to know where we’re from because they call us the ‘church ladies.’ We see a lot of new faces. It seems like every month there are new girls who have never seen us.
“All their lives, these girls have been exploited. They feel suspicious and unsure. It’s taken a few years for some of them to trust us. A lot of them will get their gift, thank us for being there, and give us a hug. But because they are so mistrusting, they don’t share much more than that.”
Because some women feel comfortable confiding in Coolidge, their lives are being changed.
Coolidge befriended a dancer who now allows her children to attend a corps in another New Hampshire town. The Salvation Army even helped the dancer attend cooking school.
“We let her know she had a support system that would help fulfill her dreams,” Coolidge said. “The system is there for her, if she wants it. We wanted her to know that.”
Another dancer was distraught about her runaway 16–year-old son, whom she had not seen in three weeks. In tears, the dancer approached Coolidge and her Christian friend. Coolidge, who is careful not to push her faith, asked the dancer, “Do you want to pray?”
Coolidge recalls, “She dropped to her knees and said, ‘Please, please, do!’”
When the dancer told a customer what had happened, he gave Coolidge $60 and said, “I love what you’re doing for these women. Put this money toward the outreach.”
The Salvation Army helped another dancer who needed home heating assistance, meals, and Christmas gifts for her child.
Still another dancer has been away from the club for a month. Coolidge is encouraged by the woman’s absence and hopes she is pursuing a new life. “She really wants to get out of this business, but it’s all she knows. It’s what’s comfortable to her,” Coolidge said.
At the doorstep
“I hope people understand that these women are the daughters of God. I believe people sometimes think, That’s what they want to do. But for some of them, they do it because it’s all they know.”
Coolidge admits that the “spiritual heaviness” can weigh her down. She often cries after leaving the club.
“It’s a dark, twisted, evil place,” she said.
Coolidge first learned about human trafficking while preparing to establish a Bridging the Gap program. One day, a woman who was being trafficked showed up in the corps chapel. She later helped police bust a trafficking ring in Portsmouth.
“That’s what really started me doing further research,” Coolidge said.
An open door
Coolidge attended an anti–trafficking workshop, where she met a Portsmouth woman who now goes to the club with her. The woman, who attends church, called the club manager to discuss her outreach idea. Both were stunned when the manager agreed to let them in.
“We wanted to give these girls the hope of doing something else,” Coolidge said. “We knew a lot of them were going to stay in this business, but we loved them regardless and prayed they would realize better hopes and dreams.”
At first, the Portsmouth woman already had a partner, so Coolidge agreed to back them up with prayer. “For six months, I stayed in the vehicle and prayed while they were in the club,” she recalls.
“Trying to recruit other women to help has been a challenge,” Coolidge said. “It’s not something a lot of people feel comfortable doing.”
Coolidge said if anyone feels called to a similar ministry, but doubts they have the courage to do it, they should trust God.
“It’s not about me,” she said. “Regardless of my fear and anxiety, I have to trust that, if God is calling me to do this, He’ll equip me to do it. It’s all about Him. I’m just a willing vessel. There’s nothing special about me. It’s all about me being open enough to allow Him to use me.
“I’ve been called to love people. I know I have to be an administrator and do everything officers do, but I never want those duties to take me away from the true call on my life—to be like Jesus.”
A lifelong fighter
At her first appointment in Berlin, N.H., Coolidge battled slum landlords. Since then, she has made a life of speaking for the voiceless.
“I guess there’s an anger that rises up in me when I see injustice and unfairness,” she said. “With human trafficking, I don’t like how some people take advantage of other people’s vulnerability.
“Even as a girl, I always fought against injustice and unfairness. Fairness was so important to me. I was always looking out for the underdog, the kid who the other kids didn’t like. I would go and befriend that kid. I know Jesus got angry over injustice and unfairness. I’ve always had that kind of heart.”
All things are possible
Coolidge recently began a new appointment in Malden, Mass., but she hopes her work in Portsmouth will have an eternal impact.
One night, as Coolidge sat in the backseat of a car in the club’s parking lot reading her Bible and intensely in prayer, she saw a vision of a church steeple atop the club.
“The Holy Spirit said to me, ‘Deb, this is figurative. One day, this place will be closed and used for My glory.’ I hang on to that. I believe that with all my heart,” Coolidge says.
“I don’t know if I’ll see that day, but I’m allowing God to use me in any way He chooses to bring it to fruition.”
by Robert Mitchell