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When a Pastor and a Pole Dancer Fall in Love

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It was a seemingly unlikely match. One afternoon in December 2013, Dalijah Amelia Franklin, a pole dancer and instructor, approached Willie Dwayne Francois III, a pastor, outside First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem. Ms. Franklin only meant to introduce herself, but he was entranced.

“It was the beauty of the contradictions,” he said, that drew them to each other.

Their lives are very different vocationally, but they met at a place of faith, after all. He was preaching, and she was listening.

Mr. Francois, 36, started ministry when he was 16 at First Union Baptist Church in his hometown, Galveston, Texas. He graduated from Morehouse College with a bachelor’s degree in history and religion. He then received a master of divinity from Harvard, followed by a doctor of ministry in church leadership and community witness from Emory University.

While he had dedicated much of his life to church, it didn’t surprise him that he fell in love with a pole dancer.

“I see myself as one of those gadflies who is intentional about making churches live up to the love ethics we say we care about,” he said.

Mr. Francois considers himself a progressive man. He said that the pillar of his religious faith is a commitment to justice and uplifting marginalized groups including Black people, the L.G.B.T.Q. community, women and the unhoused. (In addition to preaching, he is an associate professor at New York Theological Seminary teaching liberation theology, a Christian theological approach centering the liberation of the oppressed.)

“I take the Bible seriously without having to take it literally, and it has made my life open to great treasures like this one right here,” he said in a recent interview, Ms. Franklin sitting beside him.

Sometimes, that does put him at odds with fellow clergy members and congregants, including when he first told them about Ms. Franklin. He said they responded by telling him: “Yo, you’re a pastor, you can’t date a stripper. You just can’t do that.”

Though Ms. Franklin is not a stripper, her career as a professional pole dancer and instructor was often misunderstood by members of the church. (She said that she never degrades the work that strippers do because “without strippers, there would be no pole dancing.”)

“I had to re-articulate with levels of specificity about how her work differs from the work that they were all familiar with in strip clubs,” Mr. Francois said.

Ms. Franklin, 38, who is from Warren, Ohio, graduated from Ohio State University with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and exercise science. She moved to New York in 2007 to pursue a career in dance.

Her friend pulled her into pole dancing classes at Crunch Fitness, and at first, she was unsure about it. She grew up in a religious household and attended church regularly. She even sang in the choir and was an usher. But she was hooked to pole dancing, and she refused to be ashamed of it.

She started signing up for pole dancing competitions around the country, where she often won first place. She also started teaching pole, even traveling internationally to host classes. In 2014, from Mr. Francois’s couch, she founded Black Girls Pole, an organization that educates Black women about pole dance and fitness.

“He was the first person that I told about Black Girls Pole and how I wanted to make this organization that really lifted up and empowered Black women to try pole fitness,” she said, while “breaking down the stigmas and stereotypes” attached to it.

And Mr. Francois has always been her biggest supporter.

When they first met at a Sunday service in 2013, Ms. Franklin had been going to the church since she moved to New York, and it was Mr. Francois’s first day there as a staff member.

“I’d never heard anyone preach like this,” she said. After the sermon, as she and her friends were congregated outside the church and making brunch plans, she saw him standing there and decided to walk up to him. But he sort of froze when she complimented his preaching.

“I thought she was absolutely stunning,” he said, “as I still do today.”

Afterward, he fished for more information about Ms. Franklin by asking a mutual friend, Lawrence Young, a member of the congregation, about her.

About a week later, Mr. Young asked her what she thinks of Mr. Francois: “I was like, ‘Pastor Willie? He’s a pastor.’” she recalled thinking. “‘What am I supposed to think of him?’” Yes, she thought he was cute, but she immediately pushed those thoughts aside because of his status in the church.

They started seeing each other regularly after church and in group hangouts. Mr. Young played matchmaker and invited them both to group events without telling them that the other would be there.

Her friends and family members warned her: “You cannot seduce a man of the cloth,” she said. But she was intrigued by Mr. Francois. As they spent more time together in group settings, laughing and having fun together, Ms. Franklin thought of him less as an untouchable clergyperson. Their interactions became more flirtatious.

“I was smitten,” she said. “I would try to look really cute and find ways to talk to him.”

During a Super Bowl watch party at the church in 2014, he asked her out on a date.

They decided to meet at Cafeteria, a restaurant in Chelsea. Shortly before the date, she called him to vent about some hiccups from her day at the dance studio she worked at in Chelsea.

“We’d never had a phone conversation,” he said. “And she calls me three hours before our date to unload, which is how I realized she was an oversharer.”

Because of her complicated day, she showed up to the date right after teaching a class at her studio, wearing leggings, a tank top and a puffer coat. “I didn’t even get first date cute,” she said. That didn’t faze him. The date was mostly her talking and him listening. That didn’t faze him either. (“I talked his ear off — I’m amazed that he came back for a second date,” she said.)

They began meeting every Thursday. They would get burgers from Mustang Sally’s in Chelsea and watch “Scandal” on his couch. Through these weekly hangouts, the two were able to overcome the “inhibitions and impositions” involved with a pastor and a pole dancer dating, Mr. Francois said.

During their “Scandal” nights, he said he saw the “other side” of pole dancing, which is “hypersexualized.” He saw her shoulders hurting and body aching, and he was impressed by the athleticism required by pole dancers.

“My introduction to her as a pole dancer was a competitive champion, award winner and an entrepreneur helping women process their own body image issues and working through confidence,” Mr. Francois said. He was in awe.

They became official on March 22, 2014.

Binge more Vows columns here and read all our wedding, relationship and divorce coverage here.

But the relationship didn’t progress without hiccups. By June 2016, their communication mishaps resulted in a series of breakups and reconciliations over the course of several years.

“It’s not one of those fairy tale narratives,” Mr. Francois said.

In June 2020, they welcomed their son, Willie Dwayne Francois IV, marking yet another instance of dealing with judgment from their community. “If it was any other couple, it would have been OK,” Ms. Franklin said. “But of course it had to be the pole dancer and the pastor.”

While their relationship was still rocky after the birth of their son, they pushed through their trials by “waking up and changing diapers,” he said.

Eventually they found their stride as partners and new parents, and neither regretted their nonlinear path. “I’m almost glad it took us this long because we’ve seen each other in every season,” Ms. Franklin said. “We’ve seen each other in our immaturity, in our healing, in our depressed states. We’ve seen each other grow.”

“That is the earthiness of our relationship,” Mr. Francois added.

Mr. Francois proposed in December 2022, on a cold winter night in front of First Corinthian Baptist Church, where they first met. Mr. Francois’s friend lured her to the church when nobody was there to set up the proposal.

The two live together in Pleasantville, N.J. Mr. Francois is now a senior pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church, in Pleasantville. He is also the president of the nonprofit organization Black Church Center for Justice and Equality. Ms. Franklin is the chief executive of Black Girls Pole and the founder of Sada Wellness, a movement space and pole dancing studio opening in Brooklyn’s Industry City on Oct. 16.

On Sept. 8, the couple married in front of 110 guests on Cloud 9 Charters, a yacht on F.D.R. Drive. Mike Walrond, the senior pastor of First Corinthian Baptist Church, officiated.

To celebrate their decade-long New York love story, the couple wanted their friends and family, many of whom flew to the city, to experience New York in a distinctive way. The yacht traveled around Manhattan in what the couple call “the sail of the decade.”

The “Black Tie Affair” theme celebrated “Black love and excellence,” Ms. Franklin said.

“We’re always learning about each other because both of us are forever evolving,” Ms. Franklin said. “I’m so excited to see the man that he will be five years from now, 10 years from now, 50 years from now. Because we really want to be the best that we can be — who God has called us to be.”


When Sept. 8, 2023

Where Cloud 9 Charters, Manhattan

‘Sail of the Decade’ After the bride and groom exchanged vows and jumped the broom, the boat embarked on a five-hour cruise around the city. The newlyweds had a choreographed first dance to “Find Someone Like You” by Snoh Aalegra, followed by “Suit and Tie” by Justin Timberlake.

A Sweet Serenade Mr. Francois is a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, so he and his brothers performed the hymn of the fraternity. Mr. Francois and his Morehouse brothers also sang the Morehouse College hymn “to make sure the world knows that Morehouse is present on this boat,” Mr. Francois said.

Adult-Only Affair “We love your kids, but on this night, we are turning up. Call in your favorite babysitter and leave the kids at home,” the couple wrote on their wedding website. (The only children present were their 3-year-old son and Mr. Francois’s three nieces.) They enlisted DJ Ocross to play their favorite late 90s and early 2000s hip-hop and R&B songs. There was no pole dancing at the wedding, though.

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