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Rwanda

Thistle Farming

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We had been growing lavender for six years when a late frost and drought killed the field. We started trying to figure out what we could make with thistles, and while I was picking thistles by the side of the road last December, I saw myself. I had become a thistle farmer. It was funny to think that this was where all the work had led me, wandering the shoulder of the road looking for thistles, but it also made me knee-buckling grateful. It was strange to think that it had taken seven years of working with Thistle Farms and a lifetime of longing for God to have this kind of gratitude. It was the kind of gratitude that comes from brokenness and the mercy people have offered me along the way. It came from knowing death, fear, and seeing God’s compassion in everything. The thistles I was harvesting were half dead and were there for anyone, but they felt like a present, free and wild, holding the capacity to make beautiful paper boxes. I realized to be a thistle farmer is a way of walking in the world, a way of loving the world, a way of understanding one’s own worth in the world. As a thistle farmer the world is a plentiful field with no borders or owners, and anyone can harvest beauty from alleys, abandoned lots, railway clearings, and the poorer sections of town. In searching, we can see the beauty in all of creation, and that nothing is left to be condemned.

Eleven years ago when Magdalene was created we wrote that we wanted to be a testimony to the truth that in the end love is the most powerful force for change, stronger than what drives women to the streets. Those streets are hell, I have been told, and I haven’t met a woman who hasn’t been raped or left destitute. Such suffering should cause us all to stop and try to soothe the pain, even if we feel overwhelmed, scared, or judgmental. The women we serve in Magdalene, on average, have more than 100 arrests on their record and were first sexually abused between the ages of 7 and 11. Women don't end up on the streets by themselves. It takes a community of people and failed systems to help them get there; it takes drugs; it takes a culture that continue to think that you can buy and sell others at no cost to the other’s well being. It takes ignorance such as legalizing prostitution; it will do no more than benefit the men. It takes numbness that dismisses it as choice. In 2001 we started a company because the women couldn’t get jobs because of problems with credit, mental health issues, and drug addiction. So we named it Thistle Farms in honor of the flower that blooms where the women still walk and made body healing balm and grew lavender. Our message is that love heals and you cannot buy and sell women. We are trying to say to the wider culture that even though prostitution may be one of the oldest forms of abuse in history, women don’t have to stay in it or in addiction for the rest of their lives.

It is funny that we make all natural bath and body care products as a revolutionary tool to talk about women’s freedom, to change the culture, and to enable communities of women to be economically independent. It is wonderful to imagine communities tied to this hope through this tool in places like Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Chicago, Virgina, New York, South Carolina, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Texas, Honduras, and that we have made friends in programs from Russia, Rwanda, and Ecuador. Everywhere we travel and meet brothers and sisters who are healing from the same scars as women in Nashville; it is amazing how connected we all are. We all carry our own thistle past-- lots of jagged edges and reasons for people to stand back. The suffering of another requires us to look at our own suffering and give thanks for all those who could see the beauty in us.

I have been changed by the work and love’s transformative power. 118 women have graced the threshold of the Magdalene community as residents and a thousand more have come as seekers to help and find healing. Seventy-two percent of the residents have graduated, and I am a part of a wild field where we talk about the freedom of forgiveness, how mercy runs deeper than abuse, about the miracle of recovery, and about how we have to learn to love without judgment each day. Along the journey I have met hundreds and hundreds of beautiful thistle farmers.

Katrina Davidson who I first met in 2002 has spoken to hundreds of groups about how coming off the streets saved her life and what it has meant. She describes how in her recovery she found her daughter and mother, found her purpose, landed the job of sales director for Thistle Farms, bought her own home in August of 2007, and has found peace. Katrina has given us the gift of love that spills over to all the farmers. In saving herself, her witness to love saves us on a daily basis.

Julie Cantrell is a volunteer who went with us to Rwanda at the beginning of May to share with a group there who are trying to leave the streets of Kigali how to make bath and body care products. Julie is a chemical engineer and manufacturing expert who left her job at Dow Chemical and went into recovery. She came to Thistle Farms last year to serve the community and work on quality control and inventory. In everything she does she teaches us about unconditional acceptance. When we were in Rwanda, we were driving at 10:00 at night down a dark two lane highway coming back from countryside when she says, “I hope that I find my purpose in life.” I just laughed and said, “You better find it quick then, because this may be it.” She was so humble in her words, and didn’t see what a huge gift is already is to the whole world. Julie reminds us what unaffected modesty looks like and how we forget to see, not just the thorns, but the regal soft purple center that God created in us.

There is a small space below the blossom and above the dagger thorns that is smooth. It is where you hold on to harvest a crop. It seems incongruous because the whole history of a thistle is survival by brutality. It comes as a sweet surprise, like all grace in our lives. The psalmist says it is like deep calling to deep, and that it is so high that we cannot attain to it. This whole adventure is a surprising walk in grace and we pray we can keep walking. If we can, we can help residential communities like Magdalene and provide meaningful training and work for more women. We want the spiritual lessons we have learned to become part of the recovery process for all kinds of people, so we are publishing a book this coming fall. We want to share the message of how love heals, what it means to find our way home and to be in solidarity with those who are suffering. It contains lessons we have learned, like how to lose gracefully. It took us several years to write it, and when I showed it to my husband his very first comment was, “I thought it would be bigger.” It’s a pretty short and simple message; it just takes us forever to let it sink in. It helps me let it sink in when I go to places like the cemetery that lies between the sewer treatment plant and the gas storage center that is surrounded by a chain link with thistles creeping out. It is Nashville’s potter field where we bury the Jane Does who don’t find their way home in this world. If you consider the thistles in that field, you will find a great teacher of grace in this world. Then, picture grace growing as abundantly as thistle and imagine someday our great-grandchildren living in a culture where little girls will not know sexual abuse, where drugs are used for healing, and where women feel the freedom to speak their truth without fear. It feels possible if we walk ahead together-- if we keep witnessing to the truth that in the end love is the most powerful force for change in the world. And preach it with respect for the dignity of every single human being.

Her Camera

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The curve of her lens,
Is perfectly shaped,
To shield her from the world.
She can see images
Travel down her optic nerve.
Imprinted into her head, they remain,
A safe distance from her heart.
Landscapes and stories come to her,
In two dimensions with color and sound.

Until she saw the boys face-
As it turned the page of a ragged book.
His face jumped through the lens.
No longer looking at the world
Instead, he looked into her.
His smile averting the safe path
And cut into her heart.

It flooded her with salty compassion.
So quick and sudden she had to
Cover her eyes.
Her once sure protector
Now revealed her heart and soul
To this sweet child.
Her lens will never be the same
It will always bend a little more
Towards tenderness

April 24, 2008
Rwanda

Making Candles in Rwanda

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Waiting for the wax to melt
We huddled on the couch
Then ran back to check the pots.
The wax now soft to the touch,
Held the promise of freedom.

If we can just get it to melt,
We can pour it over wicks
And add sweet fragrance and color.
Then package the dream of
New life together.

We stir with purpose as we pray
That money will come
And women among us no longer
Have to sell their flesh
For less than a single candle.

As the wax is poured into molds
It begins to harden and
It almost feels safe—
To let our stone hearts
Melt into love.

April 24, 2008
Rwanda

Photo credit: Milada Vigerova

The Whisper of God in Rwanda

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Pentecost 2008

The recent trip to Rwanda by seven women representing the Thistle Farms and Magdalene communities was less than two weeks, but we planned and worked for months. The Sisters of Rwanda approached us in November to help them begin making bath and body care products to generate income, education, and hope for women who have survived lives of addiction, abuse, and prostitution, and I felt pulled to go there. When we heard versions of same horrific stories we know from our streets of Nashville, I was so thankful the connection had been made. As we poured beeswax candles into molds, mixed lye and palm oil for soap, and shared letters from residents of Magdalene to the Sisters of Rwanda, you could feel hope blossom. As we waited for the wax to harden and see what the candles looked like, you could feel the prayers offered. During our visits with the forty-two women of the sisters of Rwanda and the hundred women we met in two villages near the Ugandan boarder, women told their stories in hushed tones. We literally had to lean forward to hear. You knew instinctively though what they were saying and that the message was critical:

My name is Claudine: I thank you so much. If you die, know that I love you. I’m so happy that you came and I could tell you about all my life. I’m a mother of three kids and one grandchild. I got my kids under pain and drugs. Without drugs I couldn’t sleep. I thank God for setting me free so that now I can sleep. I’m so very happy that you made this journey.

My name is Devota: I was a prostitute on the street. I’m a mother of two- six year old girl and four year old son from the street. I thank God for his goodness and his mercy, for taking me out of sorrow. I was so tired of life. I thank God for bringing me to Sisters of Rwanda- I have been clean from prostitution for 1 year and three months.

My name is Odette: I am writing to you because I saw the letter you wrote. It made me love you and thankful that you are no longer in sorrow. This has made me think I can make you my friend. What happened to you happened to me in 94 during the genocide war. Even though I was grown up it really wounded me, it wounded me in my heart and I told people I wouldn’t get married anymore. Now my hope is one day I will see you in America or here in Rwanda. Peace of God to you.

My name is Virginia: I have two kids Deborah and Wedeka. Since you no longer on the street, my hope is that my Deborah will not go to the street. I thank God who brought me from the pit of destruction. Keep praying for me while you are in America and I will be praying for you.

My name is Monique: My program is Sisters of Rwanda. My friends and sisters of Magdalene, I was listening and your news was so nice. I am a story in Jesus Christ. I am very happy that you think of me. You show me love even though you don’t know me- but you came to visit me here. If I had money I could visit you soon and we could talk together. I was born 1/11/74 on the village Ridate in the south providence. I was with my father and mother until my mother’s death. I couldn’t go to school because of the trouble with the tribes and I lost my family in the genocide.

So I went across the ocean to hear God’s whisper. I heard it the whole time I was there, like a ringing in my ears that sometimes filled my head. I heard it in every letter and story the women told. I heard it in the silence of babies strapped to the backs of strangers who didn’t have enough food. I heard it when we walked over the holy ground of one genocide memorial where a man looked out the window and spoke in a soft voice explaining to us how he was one of the ten survivors out of 5,000 who were all killed in ninety minutes. I heard it in a church service where a full band was playing, and the power went out, and we were in darkness with an accapella chorus of people singing, “Let the blind say I can see, let the lame say, I can walk.”

On the last day we attended a church service and the preacher started yelling at the congregation in full Pentecostal fashion. I thought, “It would be easier to hear him if he would quit yelling.” Then my eyes caught sight of an old pink chenille curtain billowing in the corner over a permanent opening where a window might be. The curtain was picking up the wind just like a sail carrying dreams across a lake on an easy morning. In that gentle blowing there was the wind that has been blowing since God first breathed, and in the quiet wind, God was present. I recognized, loud and clear, the whispering heard all week. It felt like the peace of God and that I could breathe with it, and carry it back across the ocean. We can breathe God’s spirit, anywhere, anytime. We can breathe it despite the horrors of genocide and all our unworthiness to know any joy or love in the face of that knowledge. We can breathe God’s spirit despite all our collective efforts to try and change the world and end up wondering what the point is. So I breathed in the deep and heard the whisper of God blowing in the chenille curtain in a bricko block church in the middle of Rwanda. It reminded me to surrender control and fear and go back into the world to love it all over again, thankfully.

A Brief Summary of the Rwanda Trip

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Rwanda was amazing and we are home, safe and sound. The trip was very successful as long as you don't count Regina never finding her luggage and that all our supplies to begin the candle and soap making didn't arrive until day four! The women we met fell in love with the message and community of Magdalene. We read letters the women from Nashville sent and in response, the women who are part of the sisters of Rwanda started sharing their experiences of surviving incest, violence, addiction and prostitution. Their staff said that they had never heard the women talk so openly. In gratitude and solidarity with the women of Magdalene, the Sisters of Rwanda wrote letters and sent video messages to us. We are planning on taping and reading the letters from 9 -10 next Wednesday morning at Thistle Farms. This will allow us to get everyone interested together at one time. We will read the letters they wrote to us, just like we read the letters we wrote to them. Then, we will listen to the reactions of our residents to the stories that are hauntingly similar.

Rwanda is full of people walking around with ghosts while new life is strapped to the backs of women. Hearty crops are blooming next to people so poor they can't feed their children. It was so much to take in sometimes my legs would shake or my head would throb. Our small group carried you all with us the whole time. It was the right trip and we all think there are many more villages of women who want us to be with them. We found the cousins to the thistles and will post pictures soon.

Seeing women in traditional African dress with goggles and rubber gloves preparing to make soap is awesome. They were so excited when we started the second morning, they had already started cleaning the equipment. We went to villages where women waited all day to see us. They were stunning, poised, and almost whispered what they needed to tell us about their lives and their need for hope and money to keep going. We went to the market and purchased shovels, seeds, and sewing machines in response to some of their requests. Sometimes it's just a fishing pole people need. They already know how to fish. The faith we saw was inspiring and a little intimidating. The singing and dancing were beautiful. The landscape is hilly with mists that come in like sweet blankets. It is strange to think of a million people dying on that land.

The Moral Issue of Suffering-- The Gospel of John

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John’s Gospel message from chapter 10 really begins while Jesus is walking with his disciple down the road after people threw stones at him in the Temple. Rejected from the flock, they meet a blind man. Jesus stops, even though it is the Sabbath, and makes an ointment from his spit mixed with mud and places it over the man’s eyes and he is healed. The religious authorities then question the man and throw him out as well. This is Jesus’ response and he says there is a gatekeeper who knows who the real shepherds are. It invites the listener to move beyond doctrinal issues that separate flocks and declares the gatekeeper is concerned about a higher imperative which is the moral issue to care for the suffering sheep, wherever they are and whose ever they are. That is the only way sheep are safe, and the voice of God is recognized.

On the eve of our journey to Rwanda by eight women from the community of Thistle Farms and Magdalene this Gospel is indeed good news. This journey allows us to care for women who are suffering: women trying to find sanctuary and freedom after surviving lives of violence, addiction, and prostitution. Their suffering has been and continues to be a moral issue because they are our sisters. That morality is not confined to people who share our doctrinal beliefs, it is not bound by nation/state boarders, and it affects people of all races and ages. It affects all our communities, the culture we live in, the health of the world, and how we raise our children.

Last week one of the residents of Magdalene, our community dedicated to women who have suffered similar trauma here in the United States, spoke to the student body of Vanderbilt Law School about her experience of being the only teenager to ever testify in a federal case against a huge child prostitution and pornography ring. She talked about what a long journey it has been so far and about the guilt and fear she faced in naming the men who abused her. She talked some about coming to terms with being a child of God and dreaming of a future and helping others. For her, the dreaming includes finishing school and going to college and ministering to others who have suffered. One of the Law students raised her hand and asked, “Where do you want to go to school”. She held the mike and said, “Maybe here”. Those thin lines that some of us still draw in spite of our selves to separate flocks were erased with surgical precision in her words. “Maybe here.”

Eleven years ago when Magdalene was created we wrote that we wanted to be a testimony to the truth that in the end love is more powerful then all the forces that drive women to the streets. Those streets are hell, I have been told, and I haven’t met a woman who hasn’t been raped and who isn’t destitute. The Gospel says such suffering should cause us all to stop and make mud ointments to soothe the pain, even if we are at a place in our lives where we feel a little out of the fold ourselves. Over 115 women have graced the threshold of the Magdalene community as residents and a thousand more have come as seekers to help and find healing. Seventy-two percent of the residents have graduated and I am so thankful to still get to be a part of such a flock. In that sheepfold people share the role of shepherding, we get to talk about the freedom of forgiveness we have known, how mercy runs deeper than abuse, and about how we have to learn to love without judgment each day.

A month ago Katrina Davidson, Susan Sluser, and I drove to Tuscaloosa, AL to preach, teach and sell our natural bath and body care products to an Episcopal Church. They welcomed us through their gate. We shared stories, talked about ministry, hugged as friends and even laughed about bath and body care products being the revolutionary tool we use to talk about women’s freedom. Driving back I thought about the other churches in places like Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Chicago and New York that have already invited us to come and share our story this year. During the drive back we talked about how it felt like we were a new kind of missionary. Not in the sense that we have a new message, the message is as old as the gatekeeper, but in how we are not going out to convert people to a particular fold, but just trying to reach out to women who are suffering with a balm of Gilead and then go into churches to remind them that the moral issue of suffering is the matter of faith to confront. Dorothy Day, a beloved saint, says that you cannot help a sister or brother in need without getting naked first. The moral issue of the suffering of another requires us to look at our own suffering and remember all those who mixed their spit with mud to help us sit in this sanctuary today. All humanity knows suffering. The special gift of this fold has been to witness how love works in the lives of some of the most vulnerable voices in the world and hear their call as shepherds.

So we get to go to Rwanda and make candles and soap and hear stories of suffering on a colossal scale. In saying that we are coming good things are already happening. The Serena hotel chain in Rwanda and Tanzania has sent us swatches so that they can order candles and soaps for all their rooms. A Fundraiser by Bono’s group in July in Europe has ordered five hundred candles for their cause; a church in a remote village has invited us to preach on Sunday, the minister of gender and the embassy want to help. Before we step foot on the plane we are learning that we should never doubt that our compassion, our fire for justice, and our moral outrage, is needed and welcomed in a world with so much suffering.

This community is my sheepfold. It is where I was allowed in the gate stumbling always through what it means to be a shepherd. I have learned so much from so many here who have shepherded me. This has been the wandering flock where many of us have found sanctuary to grieve and freedom to grow in our faith. This Gospel invites us all to step through the gate again and care about the whole world and weep unapologetically for the suffering and our own blindness. This Gospel reminds us no one is outside the gatekeeper’s flock because he spent his entire ministry caring for the suffering of others on the way to offer his life for the sake of love. For that same loves sake, we are given the gift of caring for God’s sheep. Amen.

Upcoming Travel

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As part of Thistle Farms' goal to network globally with organizations committed to women's freedom, a group from the Thistle Farms and Magdalene community will travel to Rwanda for 10 days on April 20th. Our goal is to meet women who have survived lives of abuse and prostitution through a couple of non-profits in Rwanda. We will meet women from a number of villages under the direction of Dr. Brigitte Kitenge. Additionally, we hope to assist Sisters of Rwanda, and their director Jared Miller, in Kigali in their own entrepreneurial venture of making soap and candles.

We began making plans for the trip in November and ask for your prayers and support as our trip approaches. This trip combines the desire I have had to take women from this community to Africa for years with my desire to see Rwanda and what we can do to help. I think this will be the first of several trips to this amazing country. The women making this first journey are Katrina Davidson and Regina Mullins, graduates and employees of Magdalene and Thistle Farms; Becca Stevens, founder of Magdalene and Thistle Farms; Dorinda Carter, Magdalene Board Member and journalist; Tara Armistead, landscape architect and photographer; Sarah VanHooser, graduate student at Vanderbilt University; Julie Cantrell, chemical engineer and product designer for Thistle Farms; and Dr. Brigitte Kitenge, Director of Women of Hope of Rwanda and survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. We hope that as we continue to make connections with grass roots groups in other parts of the world, all of us will learn and grow. I am thrilled to be able to go on this journey and am so hopeful about where it will all lead. The costs associated with this journey are about $25,000, and we always welcome support. All checks can be made payable to Thistle Farms or Magdalene Inc. For more information, please contact Marlei at marlei@thistlefarms.org .