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A born-again strip club is now open

ATLANTA, MARCH 6. An Atlanta strip club that made headlines in 2001 for inspiring a goodly number of the seven deadly sins now offers inspiration of a different kind.

In the building that housed the Gold Club, where strippers provided free services to professional athletes, where customers unwittingly ran up $24,000 (about Rs. 10.8 lakhs) tabs in one night and where, prosecutors maintained, a river of receipts flowed to the Gambino crime family, the Christian Church Buckhead has found a home.

``It is all about transformation,'' said Dan M. Garrett, pastor of the fledgling congregation. ``What we did to this building, cleaning it up and fixing it up, that is what God does for us.''

Hundreds of volunteers came to the upscale neighbourhood of Buckhead in January to help ``tear out the den of iniquity,'' Mr. Garrett said. The black and gold hulk is now tan and sky blue. At the big desk that greeted customers, peppy, clean-cut greeters smile and shake hands. In the notorious VIP rooms, walls have been torn out and Sunday school murals have been painted.

The bulk of attendees seem to be long-time churchgoers who heeded local appeals to join, or who knew Mr. Garrett from his youth ministry at a large church in Stone Mountain, an Atlanta suburb. But some of the congregants knew the Gold Club personally.

Michael Celano, 36, a born-again Christian who said he frequented the club, embraces the project and said he could not believe his eyes when he saw what his old neighbourhood haunt was becoming. ``I went in and found Dan Garrett,'' he recalled. ``I said, `what are you thinking? Do you know this place was tied to the mob?'''

In 1999, the Gold Club's owner, Steve Kaplan, and a host of others were indicted on counts, including racketeering, prostitution and credit card fraud. Most of them struck deals for probation. But Mr. Kaplan, whom a federal judge said prosecutors had been ``relatively unsuccessful'' in tying to organised crime, pleaded guilty to racketeering, was sentenced to 16 months, paid a fine and gave the club to the government.

That kind of history still makes a few church members uncomfortable, and some are glad the church, which is renting the building, will probably have to move so the property's new owners can tear it down to build condos, possibly as early as three to six months from now. But most express only delight to be trampling the ruins of sin.

``I think it is hilarious,'' said Emily Downey, 24, a kindergarten teacher who was invited to join the congregation by an associate minister she knew. ``It is a real testimony of what God's grace can do.''

Some of the club's aesthetic remains. The full-wall mirrors in the main room are now covered by taupe curtains, but smaller ones glint in the dim lighting. Brass and wood handrails reflect in glass-panelled balustrades, along stairs that slope down to either side of the stage.

During services, a band cranked out hymns on guitars and synthesiser while lyrics appeared on a huge screen above. As congregants sat in rows of padded convention-hall chairs, Mr. Garrett mixed self-deprecating humour with his sermon. He has called the church ``the God Club.''

Co-opting the club was a brilliant publicity ploy — ``I'm not stupid,'' Mr. Garrett said with a chuckle — but also part of a long tradition.

``That is the foundational story, the Christian triumph over paganism, and that replays itself,'' said Leigh Schmidt, a professor of religion at Princeton University who writes on American religious history. ``It is an emblem of Christian theology that you take a space that is sinful and you redeem it.''

The Buckhead church can look back 1,400 years for precedent. After St. Augustine of Canterbury went to convert the English in 597, Pope Gregory I wrote to him that it was ``essential'' to turn pagan shrines into churches, according to St. Bede the Venerable, to change them ``from the worship of devils to the service of the true God.''

Closer home, American evangelical Protestants in the 1830s needed space and publicity for their revivals, so they sometimes went to theatres, which were then places of ill repute, pointedly saying they would ``convert'' the space, said Jeanne Halgren Kilde, author of the book When Church Became Theatre.

``It worked very well for them; their revivals were enormously popular,'' she said. ``The evangelical agenda of bringing people to Christ is one that needs publicity. You have to get people to sort of prick up their ears and look around.''

For the Buckhead church, the location seems to be paying off. Curiosity brought an initial spike in attendance, but a month later a portion of those people were still coming, and said they did not plan to stop. Mr. Garrett said he would not even mind staying beyond the few months they have got.

``We're kind of praying for more,'' he said. — New York Times News Service

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