Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Totem

Becca Stevens gave this powerful talk on the night of the 2011 Magdalene Fall Fundraiser, Totems & Sacred Spaces.  You can reflect again on the meaning of the totem and join in Becca's vision that began nearly 15 years ago.

NPR did a four part series on Thistle Farms and Magdalene this year. It was an intense time, especially when they requested an interview with a woman who had relapsed. Tara agreed, even though she was struggling. The week before the story aired, Tara was arrested and all of us were scared and grieving. We had never been through anything like this. Jacki Lyden, the correspondent, said that they either had to pull the story or disclose what had happened. I told her that while our community believed in love without judgment, the people listening to NPR would probably judge us harshly. I told her that we had been through hard relapses, through women killed and beaten so badly it took days to identify the body, but in our 15 years and 150 graduates, we had never been on the other end, where a woman who had relapsed was arrested for homicide. What if a million people heard it and just gave up on the dream that love heals?

I listened to the broadcast by myself while I was in Connecticut at Trinity College for a speaking engagement. I walked around the campus listening with my iPhone clutched in my sweaty palms and prayed. NPR told our whole story, including the devastating news about Tara. What we came to understand was that a million people cried with us at the horrific reality of the violence of the streets and the courage of the women of Magdalene to live differently. The response was a real witness to the truth that when love heals, it washes over all of us.

In a long letter to me Tara wrote that she can look out through a sliver in a razor-wire fence and glimpse a thistle and remember that her story is not over yet. Thistle Farms has been a whirlwind since the airing with the women speaking their truth in love about why women walk the streets and what it takes to bring them home to over 10,000 people at conferences and events. We have never wavered on our mission to be a witness to the truth that love is the most powerful force for social change in the world.

The Hawk totem came to me at the same time we began the journey of opening Magdalene fifteen years ago. The hawk came swooping in and has been there every step of the way. It is been a sign to me that we need to be as fierce in love and as focused as the hawk in our vision. The Hawk soars to the heavens on a breeze and reminds us that the mission of Magdalene and Thistle Farms is not just a statement about the past but a vision that propels us forward with power. That vision is honed by a trusted board, a tireless staff, and hundreds of dedicated volunteers. That hawk vision is centered on individual women moving from lives tormented by traumatic, abusive childhoods and violence to life on the streets and in jails, into a life that can soar on a breeze and imagine a future.

On a visit to a prison this year to tell our story, we walked by a woman behind glass in solitary confinement. Her cheeks were etched like a ravine in a valley carved by a river of tears. There was a mural across from her in the hallway was a hawk flying over a valley. I swear love can make the connection between a valley of tears and a free bird soaring over mountains. The healing is slow and mysterious, and it takes all of us to make it happen. Our vision looks into new fields here and afar.

That vision includes opening a Thistle Stop Café at our manufacturing facility led by Desmond and Roberto. The cafe would welcome the public to Thistle Farms, provide another training ground for the women of Magdalene, and would serve the hundreds of individuals that come to us from around the country to learn about our model and about how we make paper.

That vision includes launching sister programs like Eden House, founded three weeks ago in New Orleans after Jennifer, Kenny, Tim, Gwen and I spent the week there. We are working closely with cities like St. Louis, Atlanta, and Dallas that want to learn our best practices and implement them in their own communities.

That vision includes breaking the million dollar annual sales figure in the next two years and moving into 25 Whole Food stores as well as over 200 other retail outlets. Those figures will help us to be a force for changing a culture that still buys and sells women and holds other worn out notions.

That vision includes welcoming another 12 residents this year, opening a new house and helping the authorities of the women’s prison to imagine developing a Magdalene sanctuary inside prison walls.

That vision includes a new still at Thistle Farms dedicated to Joanne Cato by her family. That still will help us be the only local producer of healing essential oils on a commercial scale, and it will save lives by giving new women jobs, by the healing oils it will produce, and by the story it will spread to others.

That vision includes partnering with 3 other women’s enterprises in Lwala, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; and Kigali, Rwanda to introduce a new evening survival kit as we move into fairer trade and lift our communities together. We are having our pre-launch of these kits tonight. We are offering them to you first, the people who have changed the course of Magdalene and Thistle Farms forever by your presence and grace at this gathering.

Tonight there are eight hundred of us here, but there are more than a hundred women whose paperwork is sitting on Donna’s desk; women on the streets or in jails wishing on the full moon that they could find a home with us. Tonight, we could raise enough money in this one hour to keep the doors of our six homes open another year, to invite another 12 interns to be a part of this journey, to work with another 100 women who need help navigating the legal and mental health systems, to speak with another 200 groups about providing sanctuary for women’s bodies and spirits, to invite another 10 residents into Thistle Farms for vital training, and to go across our nation and the world to share the miracle and to inspire other cities to open their own communities.

Magdalene and Thistle Farms are a gift to the city; they cost nothing and save millions. Magdalene and Thistle Farms are a gift to all of us who donate our time, to buy into the hope that love is the most powerful force for change. Magdalene and Thistle Farms are a gift to all the women here tonight who are graduates and residents who found a chance at life.

This evening could be a totem; a sign to cities and social enterprises around the world that it can happen -- we can love the whole world one person at a time; we can change the course of one of the oldest forms of abuse this world has known; we can raise $350,000 in gifts and pledges in an evening and make this vision a reality. It can happen and it can happen with so much grace that all of us will walk out into the world filled with gratitude that it all had meaning and looking towards the sky for the new signs of Love’s healing power.

- Becca Stevens

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