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Leading Them From Temptation?

Ministers deliver a prayer-not-porn message at an adult trade show in Sin City.

January 14, 2002|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — Amid the strippers slipping out of their shirts and the sex-toy makers hawking the latest products at the AVN adult trade show, two youth ministers from Southern California stand in front of their own show booth, preaching to the crowd.

For Mike Foster and Craig Gross, who recently launched a Web site devoted to getting people out of the porn industry and stopping Internet porn addiction, the mission is clear. They have ventured into Sin City, diving deep into a conference that revels in explicit sexuality, to convince a multibillion-dollar industry that Jesus is far more compelling than the miles of glistening bare skin inside the Sands Convention Center.

"If Jesus were walking the Earth today, we think that he'd be here too," says Gross, 26, who lives in Mission Viejo. "After all, [he] hung out with prostitutes and stuff."

Talk about a challenge. The two say they routinely work at various ministries to try to help young people addicted to alcohol and drugs. They came up with the idea for the site, XXXChurch.com, after talking to parishioners and friends and those they minister to about where they surf the Net.

Over time, stories of people looking for triple-X films and photographs online began to surface, says Foster, 30, of Corona, who is on staff at Crossroads Christian Church there.

The XXXChurch site, launched last week, includes a virtual "prayer wall," which invites people to "pray for your own integrity and safety on the Internet"; a section on suggestions for meeting others who also want to avoid watching erotica; an area proposing alternatives to the adult-film world; and a software program that tracks Internet users and what Web sites they visit.

"We're not here to judge anyone or to picket the show. What good would that do?" Gross says. "We decided the best thing to do was to actually be in the show and try to talk to the people in the industry in a professional and respectful manner and not be confrontational. The congregation [at Crossroads] told us they'd be praying for us."

The youth ministers--Foster says he was ordained at Summit Church in Fontana, Gross at East Side Christian Church in Fullerton--are among several thousand men crammed into the nation's largest annual triple-X trade show, a four-day run that wrapped up over the weekend.

It's a guy's-guy week, when the city teems with businessmen attending another major convention in town--the Consumer Electronics Show. For many, the AVN show is a quick, and traditional, side trip.

"My wife would hang me upside down and whip the pants off me if she knew I was here," says Stephen Carol, a computer salesman from Texas, who declined to say where he worked. "It wasn't my idea to come here, honest. It was my friends'."

Hordes of eager men wait in long lines at the convention center to buy the $25 one-day "fan" passes. Inside, they grab for autographed posters, check out the latest porn gadgetry and ogle busty personalities up close and personal.

Two female porn stars walk past the XXXChurch.com booth, smiling at a nearby line of gawking men. Some of the men are loudly obnoxious; others silent and barely breathing. The girls' hairdos are long and lush; they look as if they were poured into dresses more sheer than water.

Suddenly, one man's cell phone rings. He answers: "Oh, hi, baby. I'm meeting my boss for lunch. Yeah, things are going really well. Nope, nothing interesting to see here. It's really boring."

This is the kind of event most guys don't bring their wives to, but Foster is among those who have. She's helping out at the booth and wearing a G-rated rabbit suit. She steps toward the passing crowd and begins to hand out fliers.

One woman, who performs under the name Staci Stacked, takes the flier from Foster and begins to read about the venture. Several steps later, she crumples it and tosses it into the trash.

"For people here to meet their favorite porn star, our site won't help them," Gross says. "It'll take an act of God to do that."

Though the pornography project is directed by Foster and Gross independently of Crossroads church, officials there are aware of the project, and it has the church's blessings, says Jud Wilhite, a senior associate pastor.

"As a church and as a ministry, it is very near to our hearts to help people overcome sexual addiction and to help them have healthy sexual boundaries with other people," says Wilhite. "Obviously, this ministry is directed right at that and going right into the middle of that arena, trying to be a light."

The XXXChurch message at the show appears to fall on somewhat confused ears. To the right of the ministers' booth, a company advertises explicit Japanese cartoons; to its left, a firm sells gay S&M films. Gross steps toward one visitor, handing him a flier promoting the Web site. The man glances at the sheet of paper in confusion.

"What do you mean, you're the No. 1 Christian porn site?" asks David Kreller, an executive at a small adult video distribution firm. "Christians are selling porn?"

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