The Toronto congregation completed the $1.2 million purchase of the Casino Gentlemen’s Lounge across the road from the church on Wednesday, June 20.
The building immediately stopped functioning as a strip club. Instead, the church intends to use the facility as an outreach centre.
Senior pastor Billy Richards said the church is expecting “tons of walk-in traffic.” He told CC.com “everybody in the neighbourhood” knows about the strip club and it may reach a lot of people the church isn’t currently reaching since “a lot of people have trouble walking into a church.”
The building has about 6,000 square feet of space on two floors plus a basement. The church is spending the summer completely renovating the place.
There will continue to be no windows, Richards said, “for security reasons”; but the church will add lots of lighting. Most of the building will have an open design, primarily consisting of a large coffee shop area, but there will be four or five group meeting rooms and two or three offices for professional Christian counsellors. The church hopes to run a variety of recovery programs, including alcoholic recovery programs and grief counselling.
Richards said the purchase of the building is not a new departure but an extension of the church’s ministry. The church already has a number of outreach ministries. It operates a food bank that serves dozens of families each week.
Richards also said that when the club was operating, some if the strippers would occasionally drop into the church to talk about their problems. At a prayer meeting dedicating the building on that first Wednesday, a woman came who is now in a Bible study in a different part of Toronto with three women who were formerly strippers at the club. She said they were “thrilled” about the development, said Richards.
The church also puts on an annual Passion play that attracts 22,000 people, including everyone from Muslims to Roman Catholic nuns. Richards said that no matter who shows up, the people from his congregation “swarm them and love them.”
Queensway Cathedral is a Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada congregation that was founded in 1953. It moved to its current location on The Queensway, now a six-lane arterial road, in 1962 and opened its current 4,000-seat sanctuary in 1985. Richards estimated attendance has grown 30 – 40 percent in the past year or so. Richards came to the church two-and-a-half years ago after 13 years at another Toronto church.
Queensway Cathedral is in an industrial area. “The nearest house is about a kilometre away,” said Richards. A gas station sits beside the former strip club and an Ikea store next to that. Behind the former club is a Hell’s Angels clubhouse. The church has sent a food basket to the clubhouse — and received thanks for it. If members of the motorcycle club come to the church, said Richards, “we’re going to love them.”
Richards said pastoring in the city of Toronto is “very different.” For one thing, security problems are a constant issue.
Another reality is cultural diversity. Richards said “the beautiful part is that we have people from all around the world in our congregation” — more nationalities than there are Sundays in the year.
As well, many people in Toronto are “very poor.” Richer people tend to move out to the suburbs, but Richards doesn’t know of a millionaire in his congregation of about 1,700. Nevertheless the congregation was able to raise over $500,000 of the purchase price for the new building in a few months.
Torontonians are also used to travelling a considerable distance to church. Richards said a majority of his congregation drive 15 – 20 kilometres to get to church. Some come from as far away as Hamilton, Markham and Pickering. Some take over an hour to get there by subway and transit bus.
Richards said it is also difficult because Torontonians often “don’t feel love from the rest of Canada.” He suggested this antipathy is unwarranted because if the big cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver experience revival, it will surely have a positive effect on the rest of the country.
The conversion of the former strip club is what Richards would like to see happen on a larger scale.
“I am very excited. We have taken something bad and through God are turning it into something good. It’s not every day you get to do that.”
Toronto church turns local exotic dance club into a house of prayer
Globe and Mail, June 22