By Will Johnson
Messenger Reporter

GRAPELAND – When a person thinks of sleepy little East Texas towns, the first thoughts they have are often of Friday night football, hunting, fishing, family and friends. Very seldom do the flashing lights, pulsating music and brass poles of a strip club come to mind.

However, for Teresa Richenberger, when she left her home of Deadwood (near Carthage) at the age of 14, the strip club quickly became a way of life for the East Texas teenager and morphed into a world of sex, drugs and alcohol.

Fortunately, after several failed attempts, Richenberger was able to escape the tentacles of that world and has recently opened a home in Kilgore for women and children coming out of the sex trafficking industry.

The home is known as Rahab’s Retreat & Ranch and according to their website the home “… is a voluntary, faith-based program serving victims of sex trafficking and women in the sex industry free of charge. Women who have been physically, emotionally and sexually abused as well as those coming from jail will find a safe haven at Rahab’s Retreat & Ranch. We serve women of all socioeconomic backgrounds as well as women who have children. We also serve those who face a combination of life-controlling issues such as self-harm, drug and alcohol addictions, depression, unplanned pregnancy, homeless and broken women.”

Richenberger had been invited to speak at the Grapeland Noon Lions Club meeting on Thursday, Feb. 16 about the opening of her facility and afterwards sat down with The Messenger to discuss her journey into and out of the sex industry.

“I left East Texas when I was 14 and moved to Houston with my mom. My mother was a school bus driver during the day and worked at a bar during the night. She would allow me to come and hang out with her at the bar. Sometimes she would entrust some older men to take me home and of course one did more than just take me home,” she said.

Richenberger said she learned at a very early age what sex was and “… it wasn’t the Cinderella story of the white knight and guy who will love you forever. I hate to say it but it was sex for something – sex for rent, sex for the next party or sex for drugs. When you don’t know anything else, you start relying on that as a tool to survive and then before you know it you’re in a lifestyle.”

After she ran away from home at the age of 16, Richenberger explained she wound up out on the streets of Houston with no place to go, until she met a drug dealer who took her in.

“I lived with him for nine months. I went on several drug runs with him but one weekend I didn’t go. He went to Galveston to score but he never came back. Some of the guys he was doing a deal with (allegedly) drowned him in the Gulf of Mexico,” she said.

“Here I was, in my own mind, with nowhere else to go. You have to survive so you go back to what you know and that’s sex for something,” Richenberger indicated.  “Even with a drug dealer, it was sex for a place to live, his protection and his dope. Then, I saw an ad in the newspaper that said I could make $1,500 a week as a stripper.”

At the age of 17, Richenberger said she took a cab to the strip club and met with the manager.

“The manager never asked for ID. All he saw was fresh meat to put on his market. After I was there for about two weeks, he came and got me from the dressing room and said I owed him something because he had given me a job, had given me some coke (cocaine) while we were filling out the paperwork and said he was my new best friend as he pimped me out to older men in the Houston area,” she said.

Richenberger said this was in the mid-1980s and that was how she found herself in the sex industry.

“The drugs and alcohol – they walk hand-in-hand with it. It’s because you want to numb yourself to the question of ‘is this really my life?’ You’re in it and you question, how do I get out? How do I get out of this vicious cycle that I helped create? But, it was easy to go into a club and make a few hundred bucks or prostitute yourself for a few hundred more,” she said.

By the time she was 26, Richenberger said she had nearly killed herself by overdosing on drugs, booze and anxiety pills.

“I knew after that, I wouldn’t be around very long. I would look in the mirror and I didn’t like what I would see. There was nothing there but an empty shell of a girl, walking around, trying to survive,” she said.

While it was a wake-up call, Richenberger said even after the overdose, it didn’t stop her from going back to her then-current lifestyle.

As David Bowie once sang, “As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent, you asked for the latest party.”

“I hadn’t changed my mind yet. I went right back out and right back into the industry,” she explained.

Fortunately, for her things did begin to change.

“I actually had a man come into my club while I was up on the stage one morning. He was a professor from Texas A&M. My club was right off of 290 and used to be called ‘The Gold Cup.’ He had to drive up from College Station and drove right down 290, past the club.”

Richenberger said he told her as he drove by the club, it was as if God told him to go in there.

“It was about 8 a.m. and he was like yeah, right! He went to his meeting near the downtown area but as he came back he saw the club and God told him to go in there,” she said. “I was on the stage and I was the first girl he saw in there. He walked up to me and he tipped me and asked me if I would come sit with him. I said sure and when I did, he told me ‘God sent me in here for you.’”

Initially, Richenberger didn’t believe him and felt he was trying to work some kind of game on her.

“You know when men would tell me they wanted to save me, it was just on to the next hotel room. Stuff like ‘I love you, baby. I want you with me.’ I knew I wasn’t marriage material. I wasn’t the kind of girl you bring home to meet your mom. I knew what I was. From the clothes I wore, everything about me reeked of prostitute. So here I am sitting with this guy in a 3-piece suit telling me God sent him and I’m like, sure he did, OK! You become very hard and very callous,” she said.

For some reason, Richenberger said she took a chance on the man “… and he put me into Christian counseling in College Station. They gave me these colorful little pamphlets that said I could save myself from going to hell. I can say that was the start of it.”

Another tipping point came when she was in a friend’s dog grooming shop in Hempstead and saw a newspaper ad for a church that said, “Come! You’re invited! God is inviting you to church!”

“I couldn’t quit looking at that ad. I shut the paper and there it was, ‘Come! You’re invited!’ I told my roommate at the time I thought I was going to church that night. She just laughed and said we’re going to the bar,” she explained.

“I went and looked at the pamphlets and then at the newspaper. I ended up going to church on that Wednesday night,” Richenberger said.  “I dressed in what the world told me. It was the tighter the better. Everything showed. Stiletto heels, bright, blue eye shadow, jacked up / teased hair and I walked right up into church. Of course everyone looked at me and I never made it past the back row. I sat right down and wept and wept.”

As the minister spoke, Richenberger said it felt like someone had called and told him she was coming and wanted to ask if he could heap any more condemnation on her.

“I couldn’t even look up and when I looked down, everything I was wearing just screamed prostitute. All the voices in my head seemed to scream at me. ‘Look at how you’re dressed. You’re trash! You’re nothing!’” she said.

“At the end of the sermon, the pastor said someone probably needed to be saved. All I could think was can you just go ahead and point me out? Can you be any more obvious?” Richenberger said. “I know I need to be saved, but come on you moron! If you think I’m getting up and making that walk of shame … I’m looking down at my spiked heels and by this time that bright blue eye shadow I was wearing was all over my hands because I had been bawling.”

“The next thing I know, all these little old ladies are around me and telling me, ‘Honey, you need Jesus.’ I was like ‘Praise God! I do!’ They all gathered around me and walked me down to the front. You know what was really cool? When I got down there I fell on my knees and I was bawling. I was truly a prostitute in the pews, right then.

“They didn’t go get a blanket and throw over me so I wouldn’t be hanging out for all the men to see. That would have shamed me more. They all gathered around me and shielded me with their bodies and just loved me. It was really cool. That, I will say was a turning point for me, but of course when I walked out of there I went right back to the lifestyle,” she said.

For more on Teresa Richenberger’s journey out of darkness see future editions of The Messenger.

Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at wjohnson@messenger-news.com .