ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — 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.