Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Place About Mercy

My first exposure to the Magdalene program came during my first year of graduate school.  One of my professors assigned a project for which each student had to observe a local service organization and conduct an evaluation using a particular theoretical model. I waded through hundreds of websites for local non-profit organizations, but none seemed as compelling as Magdalene and Thistle Farms. I imagined myself conducting my research while being surrounded by strong and purposeful women, immersed in a lovely world of lavender fragrance and handicrafts.  I called the number for the Magdalene offices and was greeted with a rough voice that said:

 “You mean you wanna be an intern?”

“No…not exactly. I’m doing a project for class, and…”

“We don’t really do that.” Click.

I ended up doing my class project about an adult literacy program, and soon started working with professors who conducted research in places that were far more glamorous than Nashville (at least in my mind).  I spent a summer in Ecuador and one in Argentina. I traveled to Kenya and Alaska.  I learned about research ethics and socialized medicine from Costa Rican physicians and scientists. Though I’m not sure why, four years after my initial phone call, I heard that Magdalene needed an intern coordinator, and jumped at the chance. At the end of the summer of 2007, and my first “class” of interns, I approached members of the community about writing my graduate school dissertation about Magdalene.  The response was overwhelmingly positive and welcoming - something I have come to know as typical of Magdalene. Over the next two years, I continued to volunteer at Magdalene as the intern coordinator, and became a regular volunteer at Thistle Farms.

For my formal dissertation research, I conducted 29 interviews with community residents, former residents, program graduates, staff, and volunteers. I also conducted two group interviews that involved approximately ten women who were either living at Magdalene and/or working at Thistle Farms. Most importantly, however, I learned the community of Magdalene by sitting in meditation circles, labeling candles, and sweeping the floor.

I completed my dissertation and my graduate degree in June of 2009, and then spent a year at The Center for Spirituality, Theology & Health at Duke University Medical Center. During that year, I was graciously given the space and time to turn my dissertation into a book manuscript. That manuscript was published this year (this month! to be exact) as Magdalene House: A Place About Mercy. It is one of my proudest achievements and most humbling experiences. 

Magdalene is a place of abundance and I never stopped being surprised and overwhelmed by the willingness of community members to share their lives with me – people told me their stories, listened to mine, cheered for me when I needed encouragement and corrected me when I needed redirection. I was reminded everyday of the unrelenting power of addiction and the even more tenacious power of love, relationship and determination. I have lost sleep over many things during the course of writing this book – deadlines, writing dilemmas, and the shear volume of work. But perhaps nothing kept me up as much as the tremendous responsibility to share the stories that were shared with me in a manner that was true, dignified, and reflected the sacred space that is created when people share their lives with one another. It goes without saying that no one can tell “the story of Magdalene” better than Becca, Regina, or any number of Magdalene residents, graduates, staff, and long-time volunteers. Still, I hope that this book will be one more voice in the choir, one more effort to spread the story of Magdalene House, a place about mercy.

By Sarah VanHooser Suiter 

Sarah (right) joined by Tracy B., Magdalene Graduate, and the illustrator of the thistle on the cover of Sarah's book. 

Join Sarah and some of the women of the Magdalene program for a book event on Saturday, May 5th and 3pm at the Barnes & Noble Vanderbilt.  Details can be found HERE.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Farming for Freedom

Pat was sick. She had just returned from a stay in the hospital and the news about her future wasn't good.  When I called the borrowed cell phone she had been using and asked what she wanted me to bring to her, she said "meat."  She had spoken two words in this conversation, "hello" and "meat," and I was laughing already.  I asked what kind of "meat" she wanted and she said "pork chops, and whatever else you see that I might like."  

So, the next day I arrived with grocery bags, and Pat was glad to see me and the meat.  I was in one of my thinner phases and she complimented me on my trimmed down figure, then showing me her belly, distended by illness, surgery, and medication.  I felt the reality of my friend's life growing short, although she survived another three years, and a few more meat deliveries, after that meeting.   

I had danced with, worked with, and loved Pat.  She came to a volunteer welcome meeting with me once, and made everyone laugh by comparing herself to a thistle, saying that she had been thorny and prickly before she found Thistle Farms and Magdalene.  I added that she was still, maybe, just a little bit prickly.  She continued by saying that since her experience in drug addiction had been so extreme, she wasn't  scared of getting stuck by a thistle thorn like I was, further explaining that I wasn't very tough and had bad taste in music.  Her familiarity and warmth always made me feel so very loved.

How perfect that as I left Pat that day I came upon a patch of thistles by the railroad tracks at the edge of her apartment complex.  

These were the first thistles that I had ever picked without a group of happy volunteers around, and I cried with each thorny snip.  I was standing alone, awash in the gifts of health and freedom, grief and aloneness.  Mourning and treasuring the beauty of a friendship that was certain to end.  All of this, at the roadside, with a handful of thistles.  

These are Pat's thistles. These are the thistles that changed me.  These are the thistles that freed me.  These are the thistles I picked the day I became a true "thistle farmer."

On Saturday, May 19, we will hold our first annual "Farming for Freedom."  On that day I will be picking thistles in honor of my friend Pat who knew both imprisonment and freedom of many kinds.  The thistles we pick on that day will be incorporated into the handmade paper that will be made into cards, journals, boxes, and Christmas ornaments at Thistle Farms.  Gifts that will travel the world with greetings of peace.  

Place into your heart the things that are dear to you and join us as we celebrate our freedom to truly make the world our farm.  

WHEN:  Saturday, May 19, 10:00AM
WHERE:  Meet at Thistle Farms, 5122 Charlotte, Nashville, TN  37209
HOW:  We'll gather together, then separate into groups to pick thistles in preselected areas, returning our harvest to Thistle Farms for drying.
REMEMBER:  To wear long pants, and bring garden snips and/or scissors.
QUESTIONS:  Go to the Thistle Farms & Magdalene Volunteer Page or email

by Stacye Wilson, Volunteer Coordinator

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Broadway Babies!

Inside a former beauty salon and a former paper-making room lies a future café, a place where the community can enjoy coffee and tea in serenity, sobriety, and love courtesy of the women at Magdalene & Thistle Farms. Although there is much work to be done at 5128 Charlotte Pike, this room was teeming with excitement and joy on April 11 as guests poured into a dimly lit, elegant atmosphere full of delicious refreshments and award winning entertainment to benefit the Thistle Stop Café.

The event, titled "Broadway Babies!" was met with great community support.  On tables beautifully decorated with Connie Duglin Linens and floral arrangements from Ode, Floral Artistry, guests enjoyed hors d'oeuvres provided by Sambuca and Howdy Cupcakes, along with fresh coffee from Just Love Coffee Roasters.  The room was brought to life with décor and design from Centered Staging and mood lighting from Nashville Audio Visual. While guests mingled, toured Thistle Farms facilities, shared stories, and browsed Thistle Farms products, the women of Thistle Farms worked hard to make sure food was on the table, drinks were filled, and everyone understood their eagerness to serve.

Once all the seats were taken, extra chairs were brought in to accommodate the abundance of people at this sold out benefit for the Thistle Stop Café. Songwriters Marcus Hummon (“God Bless the Broken Road,” “Born to Fly”) and Desmond Child (“Living on a Prayer,” “Dude [Looks Like a Lady]”) showcased selections from their Broadway songbooks such as Jazzage, The Warrior, Lucy & Viv, The Piper, and Cuba Libre. Joining Hummon and Child were outstanding vocalists Kim Bretton, Nick Duckhart, Mike Eldred, Tabitha Fair, Michelle Nicolo Prentice, and Chris Roberts. The talent was impeccable. Everyone in the room felt like they were pulled into the various stories of Child and Hummon’s musicals.

Before intermission, founder of Magdalene and Thistle Farms, Reverend Becca Stevens, gave a brief reflection on the vision for the Thistle Stop Café. “We want the café to be a welcoming space for people to nourish their bodies as well as their spirits. It is another way we can help the women of Magdalene acquire skills that contribute to their economic well-being.” At the end of the evening, the cast gathered together on stage to perform “Beautiful City” from Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell.

Come sing me sweet rejoicing
Come sing me love
We’re not afraid of voicing 
All the things
We’re dreaming of…
We can build
A beautiful city
Yes, we can
Oh, yes we can…

As this hopeful song echoed through the crowd during the final performance, the lyrics brought to life the true purpose of this special evening: the dream of building a beautiful city, a loving community, and a safe haven of hope. Thanks to the generosity and love of others, $21,000 was raised to make this dream a reality.

by Courtney Johnson, Thistle Farmer

For more photos from the magical night, check out our photo album on Facebook HERE.  (Note: you don't need a Facebook account to view the pictures.)  We are grateful for all of the donations and support, though we still need additional funding to completely renovate the space and cover startup costs.  You can still donate on line HERE or contact to find out how to get involved.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Farming For Sage

It first starts with a field and a dream.

These are truly exciting times at Thistle Farms! Today Penny, Karlee and Jenni Joy, and I met Rick Bryant at his farm in Santa Fe, TN. We brought along 40 sage plants and Rick had 1000 sage seeds. All were planted, watered and prayed over.

We hope that this sage field is going to be the biggest and most beautiful sage field in TN. Even if it is the only one. This has been a most memorable day, one of many in these past 2 years. I want to thank everyone involved and tell you how much I appreciate you letting me be a part!

- Jennifer, Thistle Farmer

The sage will eventually return to Thistle Farms, where it is put into our still and allow us to become the only local producer of healing essential oils on a commercial scale.  It will be used in our products for renewal and purifying.

(Above:  Picture of Jim, Jennifer, Ben George, and Katie Garrett working with the still.   We are experimenting with temperatures and plants to get more oil from our plants. It was a great day!  Thanks to all our volunteers, environmental science lab and environmental resource management for their support!)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Healing Garden

Our flowers are blooming in the Healing Garden
So are the women of Thistle Farms
Stop on by to see
The growth in me
I was dead inside
Like a flower in winter
Shades of somber gray and brown
Was the life I endured
For I was in mourning
For my little girl inside
You had to look hard to see
That something was alive in me
Magdalene was the sun to my soul
Awaking me from my long winter
Now I am slowly blooming don't you know
Come watch me grow
For each time you stop by for a visit
You'll be amazed at our growth
Not just the business of Thistle Farms
But to see each women returned to life
Knowing that love heals all our hurts
One product at a time

By Lydia
Magdalene Resident & Thistle Farmer