ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- A popular strip club that once beckoned customers off a busy highway leading into Anchorage is now a church offering salvation — instead of temptation — thanks to a daughter of a former exotic dancer.
Linda Dunegan believes divine intervention played a hand in transforming the building that housed Fantasies on 5th into the start-up Open Door Baptist Church, turning the show floor into a sanctuary and trading the dancer’s pole with a pulpit.
"This church came about because I prayed for five years,” said Dunegan, who tried to buy the building before but walked away — for good, she thought — when she and the owner couldn’t come to terms. Then the owner gave a real estate agent a week to sell it and suggested the agent call Dunegan. This time, the deal went through.
“God has been very good to me," Dunegan said, “to give me a family, a wonderful husband, food on the table, a place to live.”
The journey to savvy real estate investor with 19 properties in three states seems implausible for a girl barely surviving on a daily bowl of rice in her native Vietnam.
Dunegan grew up in a small village near the Cambodian border, where most homes were on stilts and the surrounding water was everyone’s fishing grounds — and toilets.
Her mother and father had an arranged marriage that Dunegan said failed when her mother didn't produce a male heir and was sent back to her village with her two daughters. With no other skills, her mother took a job as a waitress in a bar, where she met an American who would become her husband and help the family flee the war-ravaged country in April 1975 on a military transport when Dunegan was 8.
The family struggled financially and moved around a lot, flitting from Los Angeles to Hawaii, Florida, Arizona and all over the East Coast.
In the early 1980s, her mother and stepfather divorced. Friends encouraged her mother to move to Anchorage, where they said there was good money to be made working as a waitress in the bars filled with oil industry workers.
Once in Alaska’s largest city, her mother quickly found out that there was better money to be made dancing at different bars, though Dunegan wasn't sure if Fantasies on 5th was one of them. She and her mother had a falling out recently, and attempts by The Associated Press to contact her for comment were unsuccessful.
As a child, Dunegan said she escaped into literature, reading a book a day. She studied hard, made the National Honor Society and went to college, eventually earning a doctorate. She also had a nearly three decade military career with service in the Air Force and Navy reserves and the Alaska Air National Guard.
Along the way, she married Gerry Dunegan, a longshoreman, and together they built their real estate holdings.
Dunegan's path to devout Christian took root when she was a child in America and a woman at one of the churches they attended ostensibly for the free food decided to take her under her wing.
“I was dirty, unsightly, and she took me to Sears. She bought me three dresses,” Dunegan said.
“I work to pay that back today,” she said of the gesture that meant the world to her.
Pastor Kenny Menendez said God called him to start a new church in Anchorage; he just didn’t know he and others would have to excavate through the detritus of a strip club to find it.
The electricity was off on his first visit, but cellphone flashlights exposed black and red carpeting, booth seating, private showrooms, poles, a catwalk, a stage, huge bar tables and chairs among the Halloween decorations still displayed after the club abruptly closed a few years ago.
“I looked at it as, ‘Yeah, it could be a church,’” said Menendez, who gave up a career in purchasing at an aerospace industry manufacturing plant in his native Oregon for his first ministry. “It just needed a facelift,” which included turning a private lap dance room into the youth ministry.
Seventy-six people showed up for the grand opening, some to see what a church inside a former strip club looks like. Now they average about 45 people every Sunday, a decent crowd given it’s competing with about three dozen or so other Baptist churches in Anchorage.
He also believes the Almighty approves of the work they are doing.
“I would say God is pleased to have a change, a transformation in the building, a place that really ultimately points more people towards him instead of away,” he said.
He has hopes that the church — which is situated between a marijuana retail store, a sex shop and downtrodden motels — will help improve the neighborhood.
“One would hope that, yes, this is the beginning of just putting some light right here,” he said.
The church, which will have its first anniversary in October, isn’t the only benefactor of the three-story building. Dunegan intends to use the second floor for fundraisers and as a reception rental location, and the third floor as a base for her Children’s Benefit Foundation.
Here, she plans to bridge the gap for Anchorage youth, setting up cultural exchanges for them to visit Vietnam. She also intends to raise funds to help provide medical professionals in Vietnam with needed supplies, with a dream of possibly someday opening a hospital there.
She said in an Air National Guard magazine article that it was her mother who planted that seed in her over two decades ago.
“We’re starting out small," Dunegan said, "but our heart is big.”
Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.