Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Road to Nazareth

Her opening did not go well. She tried to say something funny, but people couldn’t hear her. “Speak up,” a small, shawled nun called from the back of the long, elegant drawing room. Its floor-length windows and antique furniture spoke of another era, a gentler time.

“Let her be!” This from another gray, thinly haired nun toward the front of the seated audience.

I was sitting to the side of the Thistle Farms display, able to see both nuns, plus the other attendees gathered in that oversized parlor. And I could see Chelle, bits of sweat already condensing on her forehead. I began internally chanting  whatever happens is fine - whatever happens is fine to comfort myself

Holding notes in one hand and a microphone in the other, Chelle shook slightly as she began again.

Chelle and I had driven up to Kentucky the day before, chatting about our children, life at Thistle Farms, the possibility of her taking a class at Nashville State Community College. Talk was easy and comforting for our friendship dated back at least a decade.

As I drove north on I-65 with Chelle in the passenger seat, a memory from those early days surfaced in my mind -- there is Chelle sitting uncomfortably on the floor in the old St. Augustine’s, encircled by four small wheels, six pieces of black plastic, two silver bars, and lots and lots of nuts and bolts. Chelle glances at me, “Carolyn, do you knew how to put this thing together?”

I am also sitting on the floor, filling out a home party form. “Do you have the directions?”

“Black people don’t use directions!”

I laugh, “Well, neither do white people until we get to this point.”

Together we constructed that cheap, wheeled device that allowed Chelle to carry Thistle Farms candles to vendors around Nashville. She was good at sales, one on one. What she was not as good at was talking at home parties. She did not like telling her story. It didn’t include childhood abuse, terrible poverty; she started using because it was fun. And she was high functioning -  graduating from high school, opening a beauty salon - until crack got her.

Beaten, raped, addicted; she landed at Magdalene, then at Thistle Farms where we worked together as the cottage industry grew into a social enterprise, moving us from St. Augustine’s to St. George’s to Charlotte Pike. During that decade of growth, I was also traveling to and from Kentucky as an associate of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.

It was through me that the nuns first heard of the two year program for women who were criminally convicted of prostitution and had a history of substance abuse. Since Magdalene’s ministry dovetailed with the sisters’ mission, the nuns began donating money to nurture Magdalene and Thistle Farms. Now the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth were to celebrate their 200th anniversary. They invited various non-profits that had received grants from them to come to their campus for a Ministries Fair.

I was the obvious choice to go - and Chelle came with me to sell products and give a brief talk. I minimized the talk - “You won’t have to speak for long; it will be to a bunch of nuns. No problem. And I will help you as we drive up to Nazareth together.”

Well, we hadn’t done that; nor had we prepared on Saturday as a steady stream of nuns, presenters and people from the surrounding area wended their way through the various booths of the Ministries Fair. Between sales, Chelle had made a few notes on scraps of paper. Shortly before her talk was scheduled, as she finalized yet another sale, she looked over at me. “I’m just going to read these notes.”

“Whatever works for you.” I was wishing I had been more diligent about helping her prepare. Now it was too late and her nervousness was palpable as more and more people flowed into the room. With the ease of well-oiled practice, a bevy of nuns silently funneled folding chairs into the space as the audience continued to swell.

Turning to face me, Chelle’s eye’s were wide. “I can’t talk loud enough for all of them to hear me."

“I’ll see if I can get you a mike.”

A nun with the mike gave a brief introduction, then handed the mike to Chelle. With notes in one hand and the mike in the other, she stepped forward to speak.  Whatever happens is fine, whatever happens is fine, I intoned while gripping the arms of the chair.

And then it happened. Chelle put her scraps of notes down on the display table, took hold of the mike with both hands and brought it in toward her mouth so that it could actually fulfill its function. She began to tell her story - caring for younger siblings while her mother worked, doing well at her salon, crashing on crack, coming to Magdalene, getting back on track, doing well, crashing again, coming back to sweep floors at Thistle Farms, working her way back up to office manager. Brilliantly she sprinkled in facts about Magdalene and Thistle Farm - but it was her story that carried us all along, taking us into her life, letting us see her soul.

When she finished, there was silence - but only for a moment. Then the nuns and the non-nuns were on their feet - some with the aid of their walkers. All around that grand old drawing room, people were clapping and clapping as a steady ovation gave witness to the power of love.

By Carolyn Goddard, Thistle Farmer and volunteer

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