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.
This article originally appeared here.