Kevin Riordan: Evangelists carry message to A.C. sex convention

Carl Thomas of Deptford , who organized the South Jersey team, offers a sticker and Bible to a visitor to the outreach at eXXXotica. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Carl Thomas of Deptford , who organized the South Jersey team, offers a sticker and Bible to a visitor to the outreach at eXXXotica. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 22, 2013

Before walking onto the floor at eXXXotica, which bills itself as "the largest event in the USA dedicated to love and sex," Mandy Ingram said a prayer.

"I asked for the wisdom to respond to the people here with love," says the Mount Holly youth pastor, 25, straining to be heard above the thumping party tunes inside Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City on Friday.

A cluster of ripped dudes and stripper-heeled babes breezes by Ingram's XXX Church booth. It's got a corner location, not far from the spanking seminar and a couple of aisles from "Weenis," the enormous mechanical penis ride.

"Jesus loves them," says Ingram, as connoisseurs of sex toys and fetish wares for any occasion/persuasion mill around. "That's why we're here."

I've come to the eXXXotica trade show's opening night to watch Ingram and her allies offer pocket Bibles and hot-pink "Jesus Loves Porn Stars" stickers to anyone who wants them.

XXX Church is a national Christian outreach to performers, producers, and patrons of the $14 billion adult-entertainment industry, which the ministry sees as damaging to performers and addictive to consumers.

This show, which ends Sunday afternoon, is one of 200 the church has done over the last 11 years.

The church's savvy brand of evangelism has become an accepted presence at predominantly heterosexual porn shows like this one.

"We're taking the light of the Gospel into the darkest places," says XXX Church pastor Ryan Russell, 38, who lives in Phoenix.

"It isn't quite Sodom and Gomorrah," adds Deptford father of two Carl Thomas, 41, the organizer of the 12-person team from South Jersey. "But it's close enough."

The church volunteers are resolutely nonjudgmental about the show's offerings of panel discussions, pole-dancing demos, and porn-star photo opportunities. "We're not here to tell people they're going to hell," Russell says. "We're here to build relationships."

Perhaps it's working.

"They've never been anything but awesome," says Jay Handy, the affable owner of the Philadelphia-based company that produces eXXXotica shows annually in Chicago, South Florida, and New Jersey.

The church's approach appears to be genuine, says Handy, 34, who equates freedom to worship (or not) with freedom to pay upwards of $70 for a VIP eXXXotica ticket. Or not.

"Everyone who comes through the door is over 18 and wants to be here," he says, adding that hardly any patrons object to the church. And if outsiders look askance at the notion of Atlantic City hosting a porn show, Handy notes that adult entertainment is penetrating popular culture as never before.

I'll say. At eXXXotica, postmodern porn star James Deen, whose semicelebrity gained him an animated appearance on The Simpsons, hosts a Q&A.

Nearby, a bearded salesman extols the virtues of a wraparound contraption to a beaming couple, he covered in tattoos, she in thigh-high boots and rubber hot pants.

One booth offers fetish makeup makeovers, another, a service called "Chaturbate." Upper Darby artist Jon Loveless skillfully paints around the pasties on model Nina Franco's breasts; porn actresses with names like Alexis Texas meet and greet; and in "The Dungeon," two caged women wear what looks like neon dental floss.

It's like a town square, where like-minded can enjoy the pleasure of one another's company. But the throbbing sound track and garish glitz of it all get wearisome, and I return to the church, where two guys asked Kayla Anderson to apply the "Jesus Loves" stickers to their posteriors.

"I'd put stickers on butts all day long if it's a chance for someone to hear the message," says Anderson, 22, a Rowan University music student from Mantua. "Jesus loves all of us. No strings attached."


Contact Kevin Riordan

at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq.

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