Former Strip Club, 'Project' Intends To Storm Hell's Gates
By Steve Rees, Special to ASSIST News Service
FORT COLLINS, CO (ANS – Feb. 28, 2105) -- From
breaking up fights between rival gang members as a youth pastor to
planting a “church” in a strip club at age 50, Pastor Rob Cowles is – in
his words – an unconventional, hippie preacher married to a woman who
didn't pray hard or long enough for the right mate.
a juncture where he might consider joining the AARP rather than
starting down a new ministry path, Cowles is heading up a “church” plant
in a renovated dance bar that not too long ago featured naked females.
The neighborhood is a little unorthodox for a traditional church,
too, just like the silver-haired Cowles, who left his Assembly of God
(AG) credentials in an executive office and headed for an exotic
nightclub with a big vision, committed followers, and a handful of
friends in more traditional ministry.
Located in an industrial zone, the Genesis Project prefers not to use
the word church to describe its mission or presence in a building that
nobody thought would ever be anything but a trash pit in northern
Formerly called A Hunt Club, The Genesis Project is now a house of
prayer with worship and common areas where bare-breasted women once
danced and served booze to cigarette- and cigar-smoking patrons. All but
the locker room and spaces for a future commercial kitchen, coffee
shop, and bicycle ministry have been transformed.
from seedy ground to holy ground at The Genesis Project didn't stop
with the club's demise in 2013; the former owner and one of his dancers
have given their lives to Jesus Christ and are now in full-time
Purchased last year by an AG congregation in Fort Collins, Colo., the
bar reopened in early February 2015 with tens of thousands of dollars
invested by other churches, which bought into the vision of turning it
into a house of worship and ministry center for people looking to begin
The distinct smell of perfume inside the locker room is a reminder
the building was once a night club; the lingering odor is also a sign of
God's love for people trapped in less-than-perfect circumstances.
Determined to bring new beginnings to people who've been burned by
religion, Cowles and his band of 20- to 70-somethings are committed to
transforming a community known for its brokenness and spiritual
But first Cowles had to experience a personal transformation, which
took several years. As executive pastor at Timberline Church, a thriving
AG congregation in Fort Collins, Cowles didn't think too much about
people who “don't do church” because of bad experiences with religious
That is until 2008, when he listened to a speaker talk about “living bravely in the way of Jesus.”
Stirred by the International Justice Mission's message, Cowles
wrestled with its meaning for four years while continuing his leadership
at the prospering, Spirit-filled congregation.
Then, in 2012, Cowles was invited to speak at The Genesis Project in
Ogden, Utah, where one of his former youth-group members from Colorado
Springs had formed a place for people who had given up on church but
wanted “real relationships, raw Christianity, and church re-imagined.”
Cowles says he was “wrecked” by the experience, meeting people who,
in the depths of darkness and addiction, were transformed by
relationships with church members and, most importantly, with Jesus
Christ. They were people like Aaron Bekkela back in Colorado, the part
owner of the strip bar, A Hunt Club. Long exposure to the degrading
consequences of alcohol and naked young women – the seedy parts of
working alongside his dad and brothers at the family business from the
tender age of 12 – eventually led Bekkela to Jesus Christ.
Though Cowles didn't know Bekkela at the time, both were undergoing
transformation; Cowles was wrestling with “brave, real, raw,
relationships and Christianity” as executive pastor at Timberline, and
Bekkela was looking for an escape from booze, naked women, and the
excessively pungent smell of perfume.
Unknown to the “wrecked” Cowles, Bekkela began praying and seeking an
exit from A Hunt Club, even visiting Timberlines' senior pastor, Dary
Northrup, asking for practical, biblical advice on changing his life and
he changed further through relationships with Christians and with
Jesus, Bekkela talked to a few pastors, including Northrup, about buying
A Hunt Club and transforming it into a church; most thought the idea
was divinely inspired.
Northrup and his AG congregation agreed to buy the strip club after
it closed in 2013 with money donated by a generous supporter of
Timberline and The Genesis Project. Other churches in Northern Colorado,
Colorado Springs and Utah contributed tens of thousands of dollars to
remake the bar into a house of worship, which will offer culinary
training and other job skills to people in need of new beginnings.
“We exist to create space for people to discover new beginnings,”
says Cowles, who baptized two women at The Genesis Project's first
worship service Feb. 8 in the former bar.
As she stepped into an inflatable tub near the altar, the woman's
video testimony revealed years of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse
prior to accepting a friend's invitation to The Genesis Project.
The women are prophetic types of people The Genesis Project intends
to help recover from traumatic events that contribute to brokenness in
spirit, soul and body, says Cowles. Baptism, he says, represents a new
beginning, leaving an old life behind for the new one Jesus Christ
Michelle Ramus, a victim of sexual abuse as a child, was called
“trailer trash” by friends who judged her poor surroundings. Healed of
childhood traumas through relationships with Jesus Christ, her husband
Rick and other sexually abused women, Ramus is preparing to lead a
recovery group at The Genesis Project, which already offers support to
12 women in two small settings of six each.
Echoing her pastor, Michelle Ramus says, “The desire of Genesis
Project is to embed itself in part of town characterized by brokenness.”
Cowles, grateful for chairs donated by the Genesis Project in Ogden,
Utah, says if people intend to park their butts in a building while
spiritual darkness blankets their city, they've come to the wrong place.
They know, he says, their mission is to storm the darkness, invading
the gates of hell outside the four walls of their new
Previously, Cowles and his dedicated band of spiritual warriors met in a
coffee shop closer to Fort Collins' financial district.
have not signed up to be comfortable consumers who take up chairs at
The Genesis Project,” says Cowles, who thinks it's ordinary for
disciples of Jesus Christ to be called to dark, infested places to love
people who feel “unlovely.”
Matt Roberts, who leads one of two Genesis Projects in Utah, says the
unorthodox movement into places where the smell of spiritual death is
haunting now encompasses Colorado and two “projects” outside New
“It's our project to bathe everyplace we go with the light and life
of Jesus Christ,” says Roberts, “and to be haunted by the smell of death
Roberts isn't the only one to talk about distinct smells when he
talks about spiritual things. Former owner Bekkela returned to his old
haunt the day The Genesis Project opened – this time to worship God and
to remember the stench from which God delivered him.
“Be patient. Whatever mess you have yourself in, you didn't get there
overnight,” says Bekkela who, since walking away from A Hunt Club, has
earned a degree in biblical counseling and hopes to use his training to
help people begin new lives.
Bringing his wife and children back to The Genesis Project – this
time to worship God - begins a new legacy for Bekkela's family which, he
says, understands his pain. Saying the family business “poisoned” a
community, Bekkela knows God's grace is greater than the harm A Hunt
Club inflicted on employees and patrons.
At some point, he says, the Bekkela family may choose to call The
Genesis Project its “church” home so that he can be closer to people
who, like himself, need a new beginning in life with God and others.
A former dancer at the club, Lauren Bedola, recently returned to Fort
Collins, telling the small but growing congregation – it went from one
to two services in the span of a week – that she's now in full-time
ministry in Southern California with One Voice Student Missions.
Bedola's new beginning after leaving the dance bar didn't surprise
her, she says, because God and the church were part of her upbringing.
Bedola says her employment at A Hunt Club wasn't the best choice she's
made, but she retains fond memories of the girlfriends with whom she
danced at the bar.
Having completed an intensive discipleship and systematic Bible study
program with Youth With A Mission, Bedola is currently in Thailand on a
missions trip with OVSM, the California-based high school Christian
outreach to student campuses.
So now, this most unusual 'Project' aims to bathe the city where it is based, in light and love.
Photo captions: 1) A sign outside the A Hunt Club. 2) A sign that
greets visitors. 3) The building. 4) The inflatable pool inside the