Dancing on a Prayer
The Walrus|June 2021
Why a struggling strip club opened its doors to God

AT THE MANOR Adult Entertainment Complex, the only strip club in Guelph, Ontario, you can feel the end coming. Some nights, the dancers outnumber the customers. The women perform pole dance moves with evocative names — the Genie, the Hot Cherry, the Boomerang, the Hello Boys, the Static Chopper — to thin, scattered applause. The top forty that blasts from the speakers becomes a soundtrack of almost unfathomable loneliness: “Nothing lasts forever / but wouldn’t it be nice to stay together for the night?” The ceiling is low and black, the lighting a gloomy throb of oranges and blues. There are no windows. Maybe you think strip clubs are fun; maybe you believe they’re degrading; maybe you see them as just another workplace. The Manor doesn’t feel like any of those things. Instead, the mood is mostly funereal.

Guelph, population 150,000, is a suburban university town about an hour’s drive from Toronto. I grew up here, and the Manor is a local landmark, a source of both notoriety and wry civic pride. The club, once a stately Queen Anne–style mansion, is stranded in a bleak expanse of parking lot, bordered by the slash of the highway, on one side, and a residential neighbourhood, on the other. Above the front door looms a giant, glowing M, gripped by a suggestively silhouetted woman in high heels. Ugly concrete additions extend around the old house like the reclining corpus of a sphinx; neo-Gothic towers erupt in congruously heavenward. Attached to the club is a complex of apartments called the Manor Motel, whose tenants tend to be precariously employed, receiving government assistance, or struggling with addiction.

The Manor has had many lives. It was built, in 1891, as the residence of local politician and beer baron George Sleeman, complete with vermiculated amber limestone, stone cornices, stained-glass windows, verandas, fish ponds, and a footpath made from the bottoms of glass bottles. By the 1920s, after a failed investment in electric streetcars and the passage of the Ontario Temperance Act, the Sleeman family fortune disappeared, and the Bank of Montreal seized the house. According to Historic Guelph: The Royal City, the fallen clan was permitted to continue living there in exchange for a dollar a year in rent. In 1957, when the last of the Sleemans moved out, the Manor became a hotel and a family restaurant, then a honky-tonk. Three decades later, a man named Roger Cohen bought the building for $725,000 and turned it into a strip club.

But, now, strip clubs everywhere are dying. With unlimited hours of free pornography online, there isn’t much incentive to shell out hundreds of dollars on lap dances. For people who prefer a more personal touch than porn offers, there are always webcam performers; for those who trawl strip clubs looking for sex, escort websites allow for a more straightforward transaction. Meanwhile, as downtown real estate booms and low-income neighbourhoods gentrify, municipal governments are making life difficult for strip club owners. And covid-19, of course, has decimated a business whose entire model is anathema to social distancing.

In Guelph, local bylaws forbid any other adult entertainment facilities. If the Manor closes its doors for good and becomes, say, a condo development, the city will never see another strip club. But the Manor, ever the chameleon, isn’t finished changing. In 2014, it underwent its strangest iteration yet: every Sunday, a church service started meeting in the club, pole and all. When I first heard about Church at the Manor, it seemed so literal — sin and salvation, the sacred and the profane, side by side — that I decided I had to see it for myself. In the years since, I’ve come to know the remarkable community of outcasts who, in one way or another, call the Manor home. It isn’t just a strip club to them — the Manor is a sanctuary. “I don’t think it’s going to last,” one dancer admitted to me. “But hopefully it stays, because I honestly love this place.”

ONE DANCER at the Manor per-forms only to new country. “Let me put some country in you,” the song went one night, a couple of years back, as she swung around the pole like Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. On the television screens behind her, the Red Sox were walloping the Blue Jays. A customer remarked that this particular dancer was a graduate student in a prestigious field; strippers at the Manor include medical students, law students, nurses, marketing managers, single mothers, and full-time dancers. That evening, a woman in black lingerie hunched at the bar, picking at a plate of nachos, waiting for the night to get going. Another wondered loudly about scoring some coke. At a nearby table, a man protested the price of the soda he’d just ordered for a dancer. “Ice is expensive these days,” the dancer deadpanned.

A few days later, on a Sunday afternoon, the Manor’s emergency exit doors were thrown open, letting the light in. A vinyl poster of Jesus half-covered the glass shower stall where, normally, strippers would bathe before audiences of leering customers. In the red-white-and blue foxy-boxing ring, intended for erotic fighting matches, children rocketed around, bouncing off the ropes like blips in a game of Pong. Most of the explicit signs had been temporarily taken down, but one behind the bar still advertised Amateur Tuesdays, and you could buy Genuine Horny Goat Weed and Big Boy Hard-On Tablets from an ancient vending machine in the men’s restroom.

This was Church at the Manor. Lunch was laid out on the pool table: spaghetti with chicken, Greek salad, Nanaimo bars, Rice Krispies squares. A few members of the ministry team were strumming guitars and singing — “We believe in Jesus Christ / We believe in the Holy Spirit” — while the congregation ate.

“How’s everybody doing?” a singer asked the crowd, hype-man style.

“Shitty!” someone yelled back.

On any given Sunday, the attendees at the Manor services were a mélange: middle-class Christians, mostly friends or associates of the church organizers; Manor Motel residents, there for a few hours of diversion; and those who lived elsewhere but had heard about the free food. Confused strip club customers sauntered in, looking for an afternoon lap dance. There were occasional baptisms in the parking lot. Through all of this, a small team of dedicated volunteers sang, prayed with congregants, and discussed the Bible.

Today, at the front of the room, a short brunette woman named Jen Lewis was discussing David — the sinful king of Israel, who shed much blood and lusted after Bathsheba bathing on the roof, but whose son, Solomon, went on to build the First Temple. Lewis was trying to make the point that, despite his flaws, David was still a man of God. Amid all the chaos, though, I had a hard time following her lesson. Partway through, paramedics showed up because one churchgoer was having a minor heart attack. They loaded him onto a stretcher and hooked him up to an IV. Apparently, this man had cardiac episodes at church with some frequency, so it wasn’t a big deal, but the congregation took a break to pray for him anyway.

Then Lewis picked up where she left off. “So, what is a temple? There’s no right or wrong answer.”

“God’s house,” someone said.

“God’s house,” Lewis repeated.

“A place you can pray,” someone else called out.

“Yup,” Lewis said. “So, is the strip club a temple?” There were scattered murmurs of assent. “Of course it is. Because we’re here. And the Bible says that, where two or more people are gathered, there he is.”

Jack and Sharon insisted that their ministerial approach was nonjudgmental: they think that lecturing people about sin is no way to bring them to God.

SHARON AND JACK NINABER, who started Church at the Manor, have been married for thirty years. They’re in their early fifties and have four children. Jack is low-key and boyish-looking with utilitarian wire-frame glasses and receding grey hair; Sharon is loud and gregarious with bright blue eyes and a wide-open face.

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