Perseverance in the midst of the unexpected
by Brooke Hartman
When we sat down with the staff and founders of the Cupcake Girls in Las Vegas, we found a common thread: each was from the East coast or the Midwest, and each had once said, “I would never live in Vegas.” This seemed to be the exact phrase God needed to launch each one across the plains and fulfill the calling he’d placed on this season of their lives.
But they’d each had a choice. Trust God and say Yes to the cross-country call? Or remain cozy and safe at home?
Phil and Joy Hoover answered “yes,” and in doing so, founded the Cupcake Girls as it exists today. It hasn’t been easy, and if they’d known each turn and twist and pothole that lay on the road ahead, they’d have likely made a quick U-turn back to Michigan. But they’re certain of God’s calling on their lives, and they’ve been willing to persevere through the challenges with supernatural strength. As a result, actual lives are changing.
In Sept of 2009, after months of personal and professional stops and starts, Joy and Phil went to Las Vegas for their four-year anniversary. “They hated it,” they told me over brunch one morning. “We drove into town and said, ‘We would never move here.’”
I smiled. Of course they’d said that.
During their stay, Joy and Phil visited a church they knew was starting a strip club ministry. “They’d go into the clubs and brothels to do hair and makeup with industry women,” Joy said, “and I was so inspired.”
Despite the plan they’d just nailed down that involved finishing her degree at Michigan State, they turned to each other in the car after church and said, “Are we supposed to move to Vegas?”
Apparently they were. Joy and Phil sold everything they owned: their car, TV, furniture, clothing—everything except one bed and one car. They raised some support and planned to live on the small amount their sales had generated. They arrived in Las Vegas on January 1st, 2010 and moved in with a host family.
A week later the largest porn show in the world (AVN) came to Las Vegas, and Joy helped with hair and makeup in the bathrooms. This was where the idea to love sex workers turned into actually loving them. She went in not knowing what to expect.
“I sat in the bathroom,” Joy described, “and there were porn stars, prostitutes, dancers—everyone in the industry. I heard all these stories as I did their hair, and I thought they all deserved to be loved. I mean, really loved. But who was going to do it? Who was literally going love all the sex workers in Las Vegas?”
And in those questions, Joy and Phil understood their purpose. They would.
They understood it despite the deflated air mattress they slept on every night and the ramen noodles they ate every day. They understood it even after the host ministry they’d moved out to work with pulled up roots and moved to California. They understood it as they branched off on their own to carry the ministry with no money and no support.
They knew it in the first week on their own when 12 girls called for support, and they knew it as Joy picked up the phone to find dentists for women, and Phil changed locks for women, and the two walked with women through domestic violence and drug addictions. They knew it as Phil cooked all the food and drove Joy to the clubs at night, as Phil rode a moped to work every day and as their car was breaking down.
“How do you drop your wife off at a strip club?” my husband Jeff asked, as Phil filled our plates with all the brunch favorites.
“Before she’s my wife, she’s God’s servant,” Phil said. “And whatever God will do with her, I trust. My life is not my own.”
But even as they fully understood their purpose, they were wearing thin. “GOD!” they prayed, “We need help!”
And God helped. Several churches offered to become umbrellas for the entire effort. But each time they agreed to join up with a local church, the churches would attempt to assert control over the programming, or worse: they’d siphon money the Cupcake Girls had raised under their financial umbrella and use it to fund other church programs.
Each time this happened, Joy and Phil and the volunteer team moved back out from under each specific church and moved forward with their calling and their mission, trusting God would provide. He always did.
God continued to grow the Cupcake Girls, named by the industry itself when this group kept showing up with little pink cupcakes.
They started meeting volunteers in various places who joined as staff—volunteers who had been called to Las Vegas but weren’t quite sure why until they met Joy. They ran into a doctor one day who offered his organization Operation Hope to be the Cupcake Girls’ fiscal agent, with no programing strings attached—they simply wanted to serve the ministry. In addition, he said his group would provide free medical and dental care to any of the industry women.
This was the turning point.
Fundraising through the new fiscal agent allowed the Cupcake Girls to triple their operating budget in the first year. They were able to rent and renovate an office space, formulate an official board, pay a base amount to four staff, and start the Portland branch. Local churches began to come alongside them, their volunteer status boomed from 20 to 60, and their resource network expanded to include therapists and chiropractors and moving companies and car dealerships.
Joy also became pregnant with their baby girl, Vivian.
“God brought the right caliber of people,” Joy said, smiling. “We were the lowest educated people running an organization with therapists and marketing directors. We moved here to give up our lives, and God gave us a community, family and a daughter.”
Facing the Sadness
Unfortunately, while the Cupcake Girls moved upward in trajectory, something more personal would shake Joy and Phil, threatening to bring everything down.
After a tough period of bed rest for a high-risk pregnancy, Joy gave birth to a healthy Vivian on April 2nd. A week later, their elation was replaced with despair as they received news that Phil’s mom and brother had been shot in their family home by his father, who then committed suicide.
His mom and brother and dad, gone from the world. And his baby girl, so fresh and brand new to the world—all in the span of a week.
As they basked in the joy of new parenthood, they swam through a flood of grief planning three funerals, picking out coffins and burying their family members. When they returned to Las Vegas, they found their new community had cleaned their house, stocked their kitchen with food, set up meal plans, and had delivered cards of encouragement. Their church had paid the rent for the month and helped with other bills.
Joy and Phil did not crawl in a hole and quit. They kept taking those little pink cupcakes into strip clubs and loving the industry workers in the face of their own sadness.
In light of the desire for reconciliation they feel so acutely right now, they have forgiven the churches and individuals who had tried to take advantage of them along the way.
“God worked in our hearts to reach out to those who had tried to harm our ministry,” Joy said. “We sent cards and gifts and well-wishes. They were shocked.”
The weeks and months that followed have been a balance of new life and loss of life; of confusion and forgiveness; of moments when they feel like they just can’t do it all.
“But,” Joy said, “Phil looked at me in the middle of all this, two days into the tragedy, and said, ‘I won’t allow what just happened to ruin what God has called us to do: the Cupcake Girls and our baby.’ One of the things I said to Viv when this all happened was, ‘Thank you for saving our hearts!’ One look at her, and we could never doubt that God is good. The first two weeks of her life she was bringing life to people without even knowing it. Vivian’s name means life,” Joy explained.
The family demonstrates the height and depth life can bring, and the ability to push through. It was a true privilege to spend time with Joy and Phil that day. Their story is a reflection of God’s redemption and resilience, and it echoes through their work within the Cupcake Girls.