WARSAW, Ohio - The pastor in his neatly ironed blue shirt stood with arms open, waiting to embrace the crying stripper who repeated that she is not a whore. After a long pause, she accepted.
That emotional standoff yesterday was the culmination of a broader confrontation between churchgoers and strippers that has been boiling for four years in Coshocton County.
The leaders of both factions said yesterday that they will sit down this week to negotiate for the first time.
"It's over. The war is over," said Sheri Brown, who evangelizes to strippers in San Diego. She helped pave the way for the meeting between Bill Dunfee, pastor of New Beginnings Ministries in the village of Warsaw, and Tommy George, owner of the Foxhole strip club in nearby Newcastle.
But the leaders weren't so sure.
Brown flew to Ohio late last week after reading news reports about Foxhole strippers camping out in front of the church during worship services in recent weeks, many dancing in bikinis to music from George's bright-orange Dodge Challenger.
The strippers said their Sunday gatherings are counterprotests to weekly demonstrations outside the Foxhole by members of the church. Dunfee has long said that the club is a nuisance to the community and should be shut down.
Yesterday, though, Brown and Anny Donewald, a stripper-turned-Christian from Grand Rapids, Mich., served as guest preachers at Dunfee's church. They urged the congregation to rethink the parking-lot protests outside the Foxhole and suggested better ways to reach the strippers spiritually.
"It's not our job to tell these women that it's time to get out of there," Donewald said during the sermon. "Just love them. Let the Holy Spirit draw them out."
Donewald and Brown, who know each other but minister separately to women in adult entertainment, went to the Foxhole on Friday and Saturday to meet the strippers.
"Two girls accepted Jesus in their hearts," Brown told the congregation, eliciting affirmations and applause.
The two strippers confirmed that, but they said they won't be leaving their jobs anytime soon.
"Our hearts are with Jesus, but our bodies are at the Foxhole," Gina Hughes said.
She and the three other strippers protesting yesterday outside the church turned down seats offered to them at the service, saying their participation would be misconstrued as a victory for the church. But their criticism was cut short when something happened that surprised even club owner George.
One by one, women from the church began filing into the street, hugging the strippers and apologizing to them, leaving both sides brimming with emotion.
"The girls inside really had an impact," New Beginnings member Kim Johnson said of the sermon by Brown and Donewald. "They made me realize I need to be more compassionate."
Dunfee was one of the last people out of the church. He went straight to stripper Laura Meske, who identified herself only as Lola in a Dispatch story last Monday.
"You think I'm a whore," Meske told Dunfee before finally accepting his embrace. "I'm not. I'm trying to take care of my kids."
Although both sides agreed to sit down together Wednesday, neither leader seemed willing to declare the end of the moral war.
Dunfee said he now has a better understanding of the Foxhole employees but will continue his "ministries" every weekend outside the club and push for the club to close.
George said he wishes Dunfee would walk away and call a truce. But as long as church members try to curb business at the club, George said, he'll keep going to the church on Sundays with carloads of friends and strippers.
"I think this is a very good first step," he said. "But I will be here until they stop."