Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Meet Peggy

Peggy grew up with eight brothers, one sister, numerous aunts and a deep grounding in the Baptist church. However, no one ever explained to her during her childhood why her mother left the home and abandoned them when Peggy was just two. It was kept quiet that her mother had suffered a nervous breakdown and was put in a mental health facility. With a mind full of questions and a heart full of sadness, Peggy began acting out and searching for love in other forms.

Peggy made friends easily, however, her friends were usually older and in her early teen years, Peggy was hanging out at college parties. Drinking and smoking marijuana became part of her regular routine. One friend, in particular, could steal prescription drugs from her father, who was in the medical profession, and the two girls would take pills and eventually got into harder drugs, such as cocaine. She became a single parent at a young age, but completed high school, then nursing school and eventually worked at a premiere nursing agency in Nashville. She continually struggled with anger and confusion from the absence of her mother and looked to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Peggy was arrested and jailed numerous times for fighting and was well into her 40s when she was sent to jail for being caught with $100,000 worth of cocaine in her home.

Years earlier, Peggy had met Shelia, a woman from the streets. She had witnessed the transformation Shelia had gone through after entering a program called Magdalene. Peggy never forgot that experience and when she got to the point of being tired of her lifestyle, tired of trying to quit drugs on her own and tired of going in and out of jail, she called Magdalene and asked for help.

Peggy has been a Magdalene resident since July 2007 and joined the Thistle Farms team 10 months later. Since she will graduate this year, Peggy is eligible to move to the transition house. However, she doesn’t want any of the three women that now live there to move. She says, “The people that are living in the transition house don’t have anywhere to go and I wouldn’t feel comfortable asking anyone to move out. So, I asked God to guide me and He did.” Peggy answer came through the United Neighborhood Health Service clinic, where she not only gets the medication she needs for health issues (at $500/month) at no charge, but has also put her in touch with someone who will help her, regardless of a criminal background, get a place of her own.

In the future, Peggy hopes to open a transition living house for graduating residents which would also allow her to still be connected to the Magdalene community. Her words of advice to newcomers of the program are, “don’t ever give up. Change will come, but you’ve got to want to change. At least try it – hang out with me for a bit! And welcome to the good life….”

Written by Carolyn Snell.
Photographs by Kristina Krug.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Throwing Starfish

We'd like to tell you a little about the woman who helps give our community its strong sense of purpose. Becca (the 'official' title is The Rev. Becca Stevens, but she is more than happy with just plain Becca) is a unique priest who is probably happiest leading a group in the woods to look at wildflowers, or barefoot in jeans making crafts with children, or bringing love and healing words to people in the hospital, on the streets or wherever someone's heart is breaking. As she is a full-time priest to St. Augustine's Chapel on Vanderbilt's campus, a mother to three boys, an author of three books, the wife of an accomplished songwriter, Marcus Hummon (ever hummed Rascal Flatts "Bless The Broken Road" - yep that's him), the vision behind a ministry in Ecuador and a partnership with an AIDS Hospice in Botswana and, of course, our Executive Director, we sometimes wonder how she can continue to be inspired, when there is so much work to be done. She shared these thoughts with us:

The most basic law of faith is to love God with all our hearts, and minds and souls and to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is also the tallest order that requires our whole life to fulfill. Our efforts to fulfill this law seem feeble compared to the suffering and problems of the world. How do we help individuals in a meaningful way in the midst of a global economic crisis? In comparison with the enormity of the issues, our responses can feel like small deeds in a big world. A step in overcoming feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the task to love a world heavy laden with burdens comes from the old story of the Starfish Thrower. In the story a man walks down a beach and sees another man bend down, pick up a beached starfish, and throw it back in the ocean to save its life. The passerby questions the thrower about what difference it makes to throw one starfish because there are a million other ones on the beach. The thrower tosses another back in the ocean and offers the insight that to the starfish he is throwing it makes a difference.

This story helps us feel like we can jump in again. To the starfish that was thrown, the story is a life-saving parable about compassion where the thrower loves the starfish like himself. To the utilitarian passerby the story becomes a call to learn the law of love again and how to love particularly. But this sweet story can only carry us so far on the journey to fulfill God’s call to love with our whole heart everyone as ourselves. One problem is that to those who read the story and want to throw starfish, the story omits the real gift and depth of serving one another for love’s sake. From the story alone, we imagine the thrower walking down the beach and rescuing starfish endlessly, thus giving the story a layer of loneliness in the seemingly endless and monotonous task that lies ahead. We can imagine the starfish thrower leaving the floating starfish, the inspired passerby, and walking and pitching starfish, wondering if he is going to be throwing them forever. He may wonder if he will be throwing starfish while forces more powerful will continue to wash a greater number up on shore. He may wonder if he will be throwing some of these same starfish when they get beached again on the next low tide. He may dream about walking away. He is probably knows his actions mean something to the starfish and the passerby, but wonder about the meaning of his own life. You can substitute starfish throwing with a number of activities of devotion and service.

My version of starfish throwing for the past 12 years has been offering sanctuary to women coming off the streets from criminal histories of prostitution and addiction in one of our five Magdalene homes. Women never pay a penny to live in the homes and we try and offer them everything they need to find healing for two years. Many of the women came to the streets as teenagers and were sexually abused between the ages of 7 and 11. The work began from my desire to love God, and my as neighbor as myself, and to learn how love heals in this world. But it can feel futile. Recently I read the state dept estimates that more than 2 million people are trafficked annually in this world. According to Shaped Hope International over 100,000 children in the United States between the ages of 12-18 are at risk for sex trafficking each year and that child pornography is a three billion dollar a year industry. In an ocean of addiction and on shores where our culture still tolerates the buying and selling of other human beings in a victim- filled crime, we only house 24 women in Nashville, Tennessee.

The story of where we got the law and the story of our faith is the only thing that can carry us past feeling discouraged in our efforts. The story of our faith teaches us the call to love is about more than our individual efforts. Moses, the giver of the law, spent forty years in the desert leading people towards the Promised Land. He kept leading them and climbing Mount Sinai dreaming of the day he could stop wandering. Towards the end of his life God calls him to the mountain one last time. He has been faithful for 120 years. Finally God shows him his hearts desire, but then says that he has to die on this side of the Jordon. Moses lies down and dies as God commands. He never got to see the benefits of faithfully wandering and leading the people and yet his law crossed into Jerusalem and is the law we write on our children’s hearts. His story teaches us that all acts of love live beyond our temporal lives us and are part of the great law of love that is eternal. The story of faith tells us acts of love multiply beyond the service of faithful men and women. They live beyond our limited vision and are carried by the spirit into hearts we never know. In faith the bounty of feeding five thousand from a few loaves and producing 60 gallons of wine become visible signs of how love moves. Loving each other is only discouraging when we forget our heritage and that loving another is our greatest connection to God. Moses gave us the law and we have been carrying the message through our own deserts ever since. We miss the depth and breadth of the story of loving one another when we forget all the people who took the time to love us enough to pick us up off our stranded beaches and throw us into safer places. We are not caring for our brothers and sisters out of duty or a certain result, but in joyous gratitude for all the people who saved our lives. We miss the point if we forget the saints who changed the world by loving God. We miss the point if we forget that loving God, neighbors and self is the big deed in a small world.

In my small stretch of beach there is the story of Carolyn who left a violent home in rural Tennessee at the age of 12 and no one came to get her. She was taken to Washington D. C. where she was prostituted on the streets and left for dead. It took her almost thirty years to find her way from that barren stretch of beach to the safe shores of Magdalene. Today she celebrates over three years clean and shares her story with church communities and groups. Individually she is a starfish thrower who has helped women in prisons, in her family, on the streets, and in congregations believe love is a powerful force for social change. Beyond that she teaches me the story of love is not a linear equation. It multiplies exponentially and comes in waves that make powerful, sweeping changes It is a broad and powerful image to imagine a world being changed by loving and lavish acts that are our best offering to love God. Imagine not just Carolyn, but her arm and arm with fellow brothers and sisters like a huge long glorious chain that spans beyond seashores into the mountains and the shadowy valleys. The work of love is not a burden, but a huge gift connecting to one another, to the saints, and to God. The work of love allows us to engage in the most powerful force for change in the world, and it is a gift to be able to keep walking, and do our part, knowing love will carry us farther then we can imagine until finally it will carry us back to God.

If you want to read more from Becca, visit her blog.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Getting to Know Jordan

We want you to get to know some of the voices and faces that make up Thistle Farms. Carolyn, a volunteer in our community (a fabulous PR assistant, fellow blogger and road manager to the stars!), sat down with Jordan a couple months ago to find out a little about her story. The accompanying photos of Jordan and her sweet daughter Keisha, were taken by Kristina Krug, another volunteer (and fabulous photographer) who has been helping to visually chronicle the story of this community and our wonderful women.

Jordan was born in San Paolo, Brazil and spent her early years in an orphanage. At 7, Jordan, her brother, and sister, were adopted by a couple from Florida. Starting a life with her new family felt like “being freed from bondage,” but the effects of abuse she encountered while in the orphanage still remained.

I look at a picture every so often when I can….it’s a picture of me, my brother and sister. The way the orphanage was, there was a gate in front of it – a huge gate – and there’s a picture of us in front of the gate, with the gate closed. Every single time I look at that picture, I’m like, ‘yeah, we made it. We made it through all that to get here.’ The abuse part – and everything - we were able to overcome all that, so we could be adopted. God sent for us to get adopted. At first I was very bitter about it. I mean, it still hurts and I’ve still got a lot of anger about it and stuff I need to work on, but I plan on going back to Brazil and visiting my native country. My dream as a little girl was, 'I’m gonna go back and free orphans from that place.’

At 15, the effects of the abuse finally caught up with her. She began to act out and was placed in state custody and spent the next three years bouncing around between various group homes and suffering even more abuse. At 18, she began using drugs and alcohol and soon started selling and prostituting, under the watchful eye of an abusive boyfriend.

When she was placed in jail for the last time, she discovered she was pregnant and was determined to turn her life around for her and her baby. After giving birth to sweet Keesha, Jordan placed her child with a close friend while she could focus on getting herself clean.

She has been a resident of Magdalene since October of 2007 and through group meetings, treatment and IOP (intensive outpatient program), Jordan is clean and on a path to living a healthy life for her and her daughter. She is also on the Thistle Farms team and makes lip balms and body balms (her favorite scents are Tuscan Earth and Citrus Vanilla!).

She has learned that, although change is uncomfortable, if you want to keep going down a clean path, you have to allow yourself to change without resistance. She has also seen how love is the power of true healing. When asked what she would do to help another woman in her position, she said, “the first thing I would do is tell her that I love her.

Written by Carolyn Snell.
Photographs by Kristina Krug.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Why the Thistle?

It doesn't take too long to be around this community to discover that we love thistles! Our founder, Becca, likes to say that it is one flower that the whole world over, you can go into someone's yard, and cut it down, and they will thank you. For us they remain a powerful symbol, and a reminder of the work we want to do in this world.

Considered a weed, thistles grow on the streets and alleys where the women of Thistle Farms & Magdalene walked. But, thistles have a deep tap root that can shoot through thick concrete and survive drought. And in spite of their prickly appearance, their royal and soft purple center makes the thistle a mysterious and gorgeous flower. Being a Thistle Farmer, means the world is our farm. Harvesting thistles is a way of walking in the world and choosing to love the parts of creation that others have forgotten or condemned.

Finding Home

The women of Thistle Farm & Magdalene (Magdalene is the name of the residential part of our organization where the women live in community for two years) recently wrote their first book, "Find Your Way Home." It gives 24 principles for healing that was a collaborative process. One of those principles is the title of the book. Becca Stevens, our founder and Executive Director, says that when you say the word 'home' to people in jail or on the streets, it often makes even those who are hardened, cry. Home is a powerful concept for most of us. It represents, in the best case, all that we want for ourselves and for each other. A place to be spiritually and physically safe, and most of all to feel love. With that in mind, we want to share a poem with you written by our residents last year.

Finding Home
by the women of Magdalene

Home is a woman I know well.
Her presence comforts me.
Her windows, like eyes, allow me to look out without fear.
I am safe with her.
Her clothes carry the scent of homemade soap
and fruit from the orchard.
A soft, delicate, melodic voice.
I am here. I am here.
Just call my name. I am here.
She reaches out to help all.
Takes thistles and turns them into flowers.
Browns. Reds. Greens.
Different shades of orange.
She has special treasures just for me.
I love her for being here just for me.
The smell of cornbread she cooked.
The smell of flowers welcoming you.
Wearing comfort like a tiger wears stripes.
She was conceived in love and peace.
She will live long and teach many.

A Warm Welcome


We are women with different faces and voices - mothers, daughters, friends, addicts, staff, residents, photographers, writers, professionals, volunteers, sisters. We come from the streets, the suburbs, from corporate towers, from jail, from wealthy enclaves and from crack houses. We’re bound together by our vulnerability and brokenness, and our desire to share our stories and our belief that love is the most powerful force for change in this world.

For those who are new to our community, Thistle Farms is a non-profit business for women who have survived prostitution, violence and addiction. By hand we make natural bath and body products that are good for us and for the environment. But we are connected not just by what we were or even what we are today, but by our remembrance of what it feels like to be broken. We all remember what it feels like to have been in the ditch, when everything in your life seemed to fall apart. The enduring gift for most of us is that this experience allows your heart to be so open. There is humility and compassion for others because you have learned how human you are. Whatever has brought you to our blog today, we hope you will feel the love and grace that binds this community together through the voices you'll read on these pages.

We are deeply grateful that you have visited us today, and hope you will return soon.

With love from the women of Thistle Farms.