When your family owns a strip club and one of your young topless dance employees tells you that she has a message from her mother it's probably not the kind that’s designed to boost your self-esteem.
Aaron Bekkela was in that spot 15 years ago, helping his dad run their erotic dance club in Fort Collins, Colo. He had just finished working the first shift at A Hunt Club, and was wrapping up some paperwork when one of the bar's topless dancers appeared fully clothed outside Bekkela's office door.
“I promised my mom to tell you that she and her friends are praying for you,” she said.
While talking about Christianity was taboo and Christians were mocked in the Bekkela family, Aaron politely thanked the dancer's mother, mentally dismissing all interest in her church and the ladies praying for him.
As a strip club owner, Bekkela had no personal business being inside a church; But, as he later discovered, a professional business deal would lead him to one.
In his 20’s at the time, Bekkela made good money at the club as the youngest of seven children, and he enjoyed the freedom to go on hunting trips with his brothers whenever he wanted. The smell of a locker room, perfume, cigarettes and booze had been with him since age 12.
Bekkela’s pride in working for his dad at the popular bar sometimes clashed with the opinions of others who were - in his words - “very religious but anything but Christian.” He suspected that the praying mother was like others he'd met.
His own mother, who had turned to religion during Bekkela's senior year in high school, announced plans to divorce her husband, who was running the profitable club. After his parent’s marriage ended, Bekkela noticed that his mother's faith had produced positive changes in her.
After his father died in 2006, Bekkela and a brother inherited the strip club and its property. A short time after assuming ownership of A Hunt Club, Bekkela received a gift bible from another brother. Then Bekkela and his wife, Stacy, received fliers from a church, inviting first-time visitors.
By the time the second flier arrived at the Bekkela's comfortable hillside home, Aaron had read some of his new bible, and he admitted interest in the church's invitation.
“What? Am I going to ignite in the seat?” he asked Stacy.
When fire and brimstone didn't rain down on Bekkela's head during the church service, he warmed to the idea of visiting again with Stacy and their children.. Three pastors welcomed Bekkela, talking with him about everything but business at the strip club. One of the pastors invited Bekkela to a bible study, no questions asked. The friendships that ensued with the three pastors gradually shattered Bekkela's negative perceptions from bump-ins with “religious” people.
As a new believer - ashamed, broken and humiliated by his ties to a strip joint - Bekkela desperately tried to sell the club in 2008. He had a pending business deal with a large franchise of clubs, but it pulled out at the last moment. Frustrated and crying out to God for answers, Bekkela sold the bar to his brother in 2009, but remained the legal owner of the property.
Unbeknownst to him in 2010, Bekkela approached the home church of the praying mother he'd learned about years ago. His offer remained the same: Sell A Hunt Club's building and land to the church. The leader told him definitely not now, and maybe never.
For the next three years, Bekkela’s desire to thoroughly wash his hands of A Hunt Club, pursue baptism and enroll in a Christian university intensified. Thinking his property was an ideal home for a church, Bekkela approached several pastors, offering to sell A Hunt Club's building and land.
“I got a lot of 'that's good' and 'we'll pray for you,' Bekkela says. “I couldn't help believe there was one out there, or a group of churches that could get it done”
Today, the 43-year-old Bekkela honors the woman who prayed for him15 years ago when he talks about his journey from the club into a church and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, as well as how he persuaded an Assembly of God congregation to buy the strip club’s building and land in late 2013.
“It was really touching to me to see how God was so real in Aaron,” says Dary Northrop, senior pastor at Timberline Church. “He was so tender-hearted, so broken by all this.”
Northrup and another Timberline leader, Pastor Rob Cowles, were moved by Bekkela's persistence in trying to sell the property to a church. When the two of them met Bekkela at the club in the first half of 2013, Cowles was surprised by the words coming out of his mouth about a new church.
“I want to do this, and I have to lead it,” Cowles said.
That declaration stirred Northrup and Timberline's membership to buy the building in late 2013, and grant Cowles leadership of the Genesis Project church-plant when it opens in mid-2014.
“The thing I see about this building is it's a place where a lot of dreams died, and a place where we can seem them be reborn,” says Cowles.
Like the club destroyed the lives of many patrons and some dancers, Cowles believes the Genesis Project is a metaphor for new beginnings in the lives of people. He’s talked to former dancers, patrons and a drug dealer at the club who’ve turned around their lives through relationships with Jesus. A dancer left unemployed by A Hunt Club’s closing told Cowles she may attend the Genesis Project when it opens.
“Our mission is to create space for people to discover new beginnings in Jesus who makes all things new, a place where stories like Aaron’s (Bekkela) are repeated over and over by reaching the most under-served, broken people, the ones who don't 'do church,' “ Cowles says.
Besides a 200-seat worship center, the 7,200-square-foot building will house a coffee shop and a commercial kitchen where professional chefs will provide meals for those who need them, and train people for careers in culinary science.
Cowles says the Genesis Project shares the spiritual DNA of another church by the same name in Ogden, Utah. Both churches seek to meet emotional, physical and spiritual needs. In Fort Collins, the Genesis Project will provide classroom space for instruction in English as a second language, career counseling and job placement assistance for adults as well as ministry to children.
Already, Timberline and its donors have offered scholarships to medical, business and cosmetology training schools for employees who were let go when A Hunt Club closed in September of 2013. Some received food and monetary assistance for unpaid bills from the church and ministries that support the vision. A website posts job openings.
The Ogden church gave the Genesis Project $5,000 to support the remodel and future operating expenses of the building. Another church in neighboring Loveland, Colo. offered nearly $14,000 for start-up costs.
“When I heard about this, I knew right away this story was bigger than one church,” says Resurrection Fellowship Pastor Jonathan Wiggins, whose church gave $13,600. “This is a kingdom story.”
“The conversion of a strip club into a church devoted to restoring families is something every believer should celebrate,” says Wiggins who, in 2011, befriended a controversial artist much like area pastors and churches have supported Bekkela.
“We felt compelled to support this kingdom initiative, and look forward to the countless testimonies that will result,” Wiggins says.
Bekkela, who is an internship and a couple classes away from a master's degree in biblical counseling from Colorado Christian University, believes in the Genesis Project's mission to restore broken lives.
“When you realize that you've poisoned a community, it's hard to accept,” Bekkela says. “I know that God has paid my debt, but I still feel like I owe a debt.”
Bekkela will get a chance to repay that debt by investing in the lives of people his club destroyed when the Genesis Project opens. When he found the woman who invested in him through prayer nearly 20 years ago, he offered her his heart-felt thanks.