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Thistle Farms

The Woman Standing in Front of Us

The Woman Standing in Front of Us

Every time a new partner comes on board the global trade network, it makes the whole effort stronger. Thistle Farms seems to keep growing in proportion to the calling to keep proclaiming love as the most powerful force for social change in the world. We can’t live into that calling without global vision. We can’t talk about healing without knowing the communities of women producing the oils or growing the tea. Just as the trafficking of drugs and people has global and local impact, our work must include multiple dimensions: a local residential program and social enterprise, a national education and outreach alliance, and a global market for women around the world. In this movement for women's freedom it is always glocal. It’s always with an eye toward the global issues and an eye toward the woman standing in front of us facing the hard choices about how to deal with broken relationships and dreams and trying not to run.

The local work happens all over the globe where women sit and make candles, natural products, or tea, and share their journey as healing unfolds. The healing happens one person at a time as stories are shared, and in the laughter and tears as they recognize themselves as beautiful. The healing happens through the daily promise that we will be here for one another. Twenty years ago the seeds we sowed in opening one house have blossomed into a successful social enterprise that is sustainable and scalable, as well as a Global Market that thrives in our partnerships with 24 organizations in 18 countries. All of us are committed to women’s social and economic freedom, and we have learned that freeing women requires all of us working together, because when we leave one woman behind, we are all in danger. The stories we hear of violence, degradation, rape, and pain are the same. It is one story told a million times over in a million different places.

--Becca 

LEARNING TO SAY YES TO LOVE

LEARNING TO SAY YES TO LOVE

I remember when the idea of our Global Marketplace, Shared Trade, came into being in the summer of 2014.  I was standing on a train pulling out of Oxford, England with the Thistle Farms contingency and felt the shift of muddled thoughts moving from the world of feeling and taking on shape. The idea of launching a Thistle’s Farms Global initiative started after an international gathering with inspired music and justice advocates speaking in wishes about how economic justice could change the story of many women. My mind was racing in that beautiful way it feels like when the sky opens at sunrise, and we started talking about connecting groups of survivors through story and commerce, through an alliance that increased the value of the producers in the market chain.  We could start a global market called “shared trade”, cut out distribution fees, while at the same time help small not for profits find their way into social enterprise. It made sense: loving women to find new paths so they could gain economic independence. We could connect globally so that women could feel freedom locally. What was stunning was how gracefully the funding came and how excited people were to launch a new venture. 

What became clearer as our vision grew was that this global market could help us increase profits to other established groups around the world. The shared trade network could be like a seal of approval for new groups trying to make their way in a crowded market, and it could connect us to new stories and women who share the story of violence and childhood trauma that could empower everyone. When we started this work, twenty years ago, I couldn’t have told you how far this circle would stretch, eventually giving life to a social enterprise, a global shared trade network, a national alliance network, and a net that is cast wide enough to hold the suffering of women who have experienced the universal issues of sexual assault on their individual backs. 

The height, depth, and breadth of our witness is bold. We are unwavering in the proclamation that the story of a million women around the world being trafficked and abused is actually one story of one woman that we’ve met time and time again. Our experience, after 20 years, has always been that when we go to the streets or prison, we encounter a part of ourselves. This growth and expansion is not saying yes to everything; it is saying yes to one thing, Love.

Love connects us all and asks us to share its grace and mercy with the whole world, one person at a time. Such a mission will take our whole lives and hopefully sweep us up in a global movement that can end the cycle of trafficking, abuse, and the violence of poverty for the communities we serve.

Whether we are pouring wax for candles we light for the next woman finding her way home, sharing fabrics from Indonesia that tell the story of our sisters’ journey to financial freedom, or serving a cup of hot justice tea to a sojourner who visits the Thistle Stop Cafe, this work is about one thing: women’s freedom.

The market that treats human beings as commodities and barters their worth down to a global average of about $30 dollars seems insatiable, and so we are responding in kind to insidious injustices with unstoppable love and compassion. Thistle Farms is not done expanding or dreaming.  There are cities looking to us to help them open new residents. There are global communities needing to find new markets for distribution and better access to services for women in trauma. There are more jobs with better wages to be created and a deep need for more sanctuary. We are just beginning to hit our stride for the journey ahead.

Peace and love,

becca

Top photo courtesy of Thistle Farms Global partner, Heshima Kenya, Thistle Farms meditation circle courtesy of Taro Yamasaki.

 

Views from the Farm: First Time Down the Thistle Road

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This was written by Brooke Byers, my new Executive Assistant and the National Travel Coordinator. Her generous spirit and talent are such a gift.

---Becca

...

There was a day in the not so distant past (I can still see it in the rear view mirro, lthough it's fading) that fear would've kept me from this work. I grew-up as a sheltered preacher's kid in the Deep South. Diversity wasn't a word I knew or really understood. I didn't have a clue about my privilege in the world until a veil slowly started to lift while living in the great Pacific Northwest a few years back. Self-awareness can be life-changing.

Fast forward to mid-April when I found myself boarding a plane headed to Kansas City. I had the opportunity to travel with Becca and two Thistle Farms survivor leader (Regina & Tiffany) to Kansas and Fort Smith, Arkansas. Becca travels globally spreading the message that love is the most powerful force for change in the world, and she typically travels with to 2-3 of the Thistle Farms women and a road assistant. I was anxious to get to know Regina, so I plopped down in the seat next to her. She is Director of our Thistle Farms Residential program, Magdalene. For 20 years she has extended her heart and hand to women still on the streets so they can find their way home. She is one of the most courageous women I've ever met. We talked about what it's like to find our own freedom and we shared stories about our kids. It was such an honor to hear some of her story. We laughed, cried and had fun cutting up on the plane.

As the road assistant, I had a few tasks for the weekend: keep us on time, drive the oh-so-hot mini-van and sell products on a POS system I'd never used. No big deal, right? Usually pressure like this would give me a migraine and put me under, but I had a great sense of pride and was overwhelmed by gratitude. This is my life-work now (I'm still pinching myself!). Tiffany is such a rock star and patiently helped me with the POS. She knows so much about our products and is great with customers. I really enjoyed getting to know her. She is a strong, courageous woman and has overcome so much. I truly admire her great strength and consider her my sister for life!

The weekend was full of messages about the "good news of healing", "daily practices and rituals to keep the spirit moving," and contemplative practices. It was awesome to see Becca in action. I’m such a geek and even took notes while Becca spoke. I was hanging on every word! These beautiful quotes by Dr. Rev. Becca Stevens particularly impacted my heart and are still resonating with me.

“We need to be reminded about the good news of healing.”

“Love is the end of the story.”

“How do I speak my truth in love?”

“Good news is not oppressive.”

“We need to have space and a moment to dream about what healing looks like in our own lives."

We enjoyed a feast of some of the finest BBQ in KC with Becca's friends, met some amazing folks in Mission and Fort Smith, devoured some of the best guacamole at an Ecuadorian restaurant in Fort Smith, sold over $10k of Thistle Farms products and traveled through 6 different states in 4 days. We had a fairly quiet and (thankfully) uneventful 4.5 hour drive to Ft. Smith, but I’ll never forget how the lyrics hit me when Becca ooked up her phone to the sound system in the van and playe the song "Make it Love." I remember feeling a great sense of joy and was reminded that I’m not alone by the line “let’s just make it love and take each other’s hands.” I was in a van with three amazing women who make it love EVERY DAY! Check it out here!

It's easy for me to sit behind a computer, type up the travel itineraries and coordinate all of the logistics from afar but to be on "ground zero" with the heroes from Thistle Farms is truly a great gift.

blog image credit: pixabay.com

"Love Rises:" Pentecost Sermon, May 2016

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"We are this beautiful gift of God, given to this world to bear witness of what love looks like."--Becca

On May 15, 2016, Becca shared a sermon on Pentecost with the congregation of Marble Collegiate Church. As you watch the video below, we hope you feel inspired by love.

 

Thank you to Pastor Brown and your community for hosting Thistle Farms.

Original Recording Credit: Marble Congregational Church Original Image Credit: Pixabay.com

Views from the Farm: Speaking Trip to Montgomery, Alabama

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This is a guest post by one of the amazing assistants, Jordan, who is reflecting on his first time being out on the road with the Thistle Farms travel crew. He is way too kind---but his tender words are a gift to those still searching for their place in the circle. Peace, Becca,

---

I must say that now having a trip under my belt I feel ever so slightly more official in my Thistle Farmer status...

During the first week of May 2016, I had the great opportunity to head down to Montgomery, Alabama--my first time in that city as well--with Susan, Jennifer and Rita. We met Becca, who was coming from another engagement, down there. Along the way, we made the obligatory fast food stop, listened to NPR, reflected on our journeys thus far, and enjoyed the blessing of extending love's great reach to even more hearts and minds. Without question, some of the most important work that a Thistle Farmer can do is speak her truth, and the fact that so many events and organizations make space for us to do that is testament to why we all fell in love with love from the first time we lit a Thistle Farms candle, heard Becca speak, or worked in service to the amazing women who are changing the course of their destiny with each success they have in recovery.

Of course, for me, one of the highlights of the whole experience was hearing Becca give a keynote. Speaking about the power of "Acting Globally, Helping Locally," the Boss did what she does well: combined humor, compassion, insight, conviction, and hope into a journey that her audience thoroughly enjoyed taking with her as they learned about why the movement to end human trafficking locally must be global. While there are many things that stood out for me in hearing these truths once more, I was personally convicted by hearing Becca talk about the fact that she's never taken a salary for her work with Thistle Farms:

"I offer this work up as a free gift, for this community and in gratitude for all the mercy that people have shown me in my life."

That wasn't my first time encountering such a sweet truth that undergirds the foundation of all that we do at Thistle Farms--this lavishness of love--but it was the first time that I was able to make such a personal connection to the message behind it. There has yet to be a day when I haven't been blessed in some way by being in service to this community. Even looking back on my internship back in 2011, something about Becca's work called to me then, and such a calling ultimately brought me back to that stretch of earth on Charlotte Avenue in Nashville, TN where the ground is bursting forth with the unfolding promise of love as the most powerful force for social change.

As such, I feel the gift that Becca has extended to me in taking me under her mentorship, and I feel the path unfolding before all of us as we strive to create a national housing-first network in all 50 states over the next few years. Accordingly, I conclude this entry with sincere thanks, not only for the opportunity to have traveled, but for being welcomed back into this circle when I needed it more than I ever realized.

With love, Jordan

Original image credit: pixabay.com

Celebrate Mother's Day 2016 With Thistle Farms

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"I inherited the instinct to want to heal and to do it simply, artfully, and with prayer from my mother..." Becca, Snake Oil

Thistle Farms is an ever-expanding recovery network for survivors of violence, addiction, prostitution, and sex trafficking, a social enterprise, a thriving cafe, a global shared trade marketplace that puts money back in the hands of women all over the world

But we are mostly a community of women who celebrate our lives as mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends. As you love on the special women in your life this Mother's Day, I hope you honor them with gifts that make their day, and heal mothers and reunite families locally and across the globe.

For Mother's Day 2016, we have created a Mother's Day Gift Guide for all of our wonderful Thistle Farmers to help you give love and share love. 

We also invite you to make a reservation for afternoon tea at the Thistle Stop Cafe. 

Peace and love, Becca

Video Credit: Patti Blevins

Photo Credit: pixabay.com

 

Views from the Farm: A Photoshoot with Becca at Radnor Lake

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as part of a new series i want to feature on here, this is the first entry in a set of reflections from some thistle farmers that work, travel and love the world with me. i'm so grateful for all of the people that help make this work possible, and i'm glad to share part of their story here with you, too. this was written by one of my assistants, jordan.

love, becca ---

"What we are feeling and experiencing is not a sense of being lost but the wonder of discovering something new..."

The gift of being a Thistle Farmer to me has always been that once we start down the path we never know where it will take us on any given day. A few weeks ago, such an expected turn came my way when The Boss, otherwise known as The Reverend Becca Stevens, asked me if I wanted to go to Radnor Lake with her for a photoshoot we’d arranged as part of some upcoming projects Thistle Farms is about to roll out for our Beloved Community. Becca was literally heading out the door, and while my fresh Hummus Helping from the Cafe was just calling to me, the promise of new Spring air and the chance to experience flowers blooming with one of their biggest fans was too great an opportunity to turn down.

On the drive over, The Boss and I discussed a little of everything. (If you ever get the chance to chat with her about life at large, I highly recommend that you take it.) Of particular note to me was the way that she interwove all the details of not only her life and work as a Thistle Farmer, but also as a priest who still feels called to light incense while praying, visit the ailing, and spread the kindness of her vocation whenever she can.

While I realize that it’s not good to make heroes out of people, I can say in clear conscience that Becca has become a possibility model for me in terms of how she’s shown me that it’s possible to love the world and love how you do it at the same time. That’s been a huge gift to me as an emerging professional.

After we arrived and greeted the rest of our party, Peggy and Kren, we took a luxurious walk around the lake, scouting the perfect location for Becca to do something she does very well: be photogenic. During our wandering, The Boss pointed out flowers left and right, detailing their name, medicinal properties, and the way they grow out of the ground. If there were any question about the depth of love she has for the earth from which we harvest our thistles, spending time with her outside will clear that up in heartbeat. Several steps and funny stories later, a location was chosen.

Becca removed her signature Ugg boots, and then sat amongst the earth that was blooming before us. I had the privilege of holding the reflector as Peggy worked her magic. You’ll see the full fruits of her labor shortly, but I can assure you that the combination of her artistic eye, the sunlight, Radnor, and Becca made for some gorgeous results.

All too soon, we had to pack up and head back to the cars. But the sweet experiences of that day still remain vivid in my mind. It’s not too many folks my age who can say that they’ve had the vast variety of professional development experiences my time with Thistle Farms continues to offer me. Just when I think that we’re settled into a week of the good work of proving to the world that is the most powerful force for social change, something new will crop up and allow me to experience our mission in ways I had not yet imagined.

This has made for a very grateful Thistle Farmer who thanks you for spending some time reading about his great day with his great Boss.

Love heals, Jordan

blog image credit: pixabay.com

Revisiting A Psalm: Holy Week 2016

I remember when I wrote this piece. It was during a holy week, and I was walking through the park and noticing how the chestnut tree was thriving above the cemetery of unmarked graves of former slaves. The whole scene was vision of the harm we cause, the enormous grief in the hills, and the enduring power of love. I still walk through those hills in holy week and marvel at beauty of the earth that makes this journey so sacred…Alleluia.

With arms outstretched on the hill

An American chestnut tree stands resurrected.

In powerful silence she draws new life from an old stump.

Its blighted roots died with millions

Of her brothers and sisters

A hundred or so odd years ago.

She is a witness to the truth that love thrives,

As she casts a shadow over shallow graves lying

Stoneless and invisible in her valley.

The sunken earth is the only marker showing

Where our brothers and sisters enslaved were laid

A hundred or so years ago.

They were laid to rest in hallowed ground,

Wreathed in wildflowers, acorns and vines.

Laid among scattered paw paws and May apples.

Their graves are filled with the memory of seasons.

Beneath tulip poplars that witnessed

The solemnity of these graveside wakes.

This is the valley in the shadow of death where I am not afraid.

I want to lay down in her green pastures and weep.

This valley holds our broken history in her belly

And the hope of new life that sprouts on hilltops.

On this sacred, holy, ground you can hear

Owls flying at half mast cry out,

“We cannot kill what the creator knows is beloved.”
Nothing is forsaken since love runs deeper than

Shallow graves and dead stumps.

Love seeps through roots into hearts and blesses everything.

Over the shallow graves and under the resurrected chestnut,

We remember our treasure lies in these woods

Where thieves cannot break in and steal or rust ruin.

This land is where our hearts live and

Where we weep for blights, floods, and injustices.

But even if we wanted to hang up our lyre,

The bluebirds and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, like a faithful choir,

Raise a song that makes the weary believe there will be love after death.

The woods themselves join forgotten bodies, blighted stumps, and birds

In “Alleluias” for this sacred, hallowed ground . Amen.

As we walk through Holy Week together, may your soul be challenged and may it find rest. #loveheals

--becca

image credit: pixabay.com

"She spoke her truth through a shaky voice:" CEEP Conference 2016

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in february of 2016, becca was invited to speak at the consortium of endowed episcopal churches (ceep) conference. this honor included the opportunity to take part in a gathering that featured amazing theologians and faith leaders of our times: bishop michael curry, noah bullock, lisa kimball, and miroslav volf. in the wake of this powerful gathering, becca sent a note of gratitude to the conference organizations, speaking truth to power and celebrating the journey of ebony, our whole foods account manager:

Dear friends of CEEP,

It was an honor for Thistle Farms to be invited this year to Denver. At the closing Eucharist I preached about wilderness. I reminded us that if you know the way out, it's not wilderness, it's a hike. Wilderness is the place where we don't pray what we believe, but what we hope to believe.

I told a story about Ebony, one of the graduates' daughters, who is now Thistle Farms' Whole Foods sales representative and works with her mom and a team of survivors.

When Ebony was little she was in the wilderness for years and one day I remember a counselor asking all the women to draw a dream. ebony whispered, "draw a house, momma."

When she was asked to speak in front of the entire Whole Foods staff in CA this past week she was scared. She asked me what should she say.

In the sermon I talked for a few minutes about what I thought she should say. She could tell them about the wilderness and how Jerusalem may be closer than we think--that she is a witness that love heals---that every product they sell opens a path for more women---that the story of abuse and violence is our story. Then I asked for your prayers.

Well, on March 10th, Ebony took the stage and every region and store wept with her. She spoke her truth through a shaky voice, and we will increase our stores by 300 come Christmas 2016. I want to thank you all for your prayers and all the love and leadership the Episcopal Church has shown to women who have wandered way too long in the wilderness.

I am so so grateful.

Love, Becca

 

Shared Trade Updates: February 2016

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Shared Trade is the global initiative of Thistle Farms. Here are some of our highlights from the past month... • Tea with Isabel Allende and key Shared Trade supporters

• $20,000 from 11th Hour to support the development of Moringa Madres and a partnership in Haiti

• New product development with Lwala and Sibimbe

• Mother’s Day Gift Set Collaboration with Cedar House, Freedom’s Promise, and Ikirezi

• New partners: Freedom’s Promise in Cambodia and Blessed Hope Nepal

• Shared Trade connecting Moringa Madres and Monkey Project with student groups at Vanderbilt’s business school

We are acting globally so women experience freedom locally -- becca

original image credit: pixabay.com

Sermon: Going to the Mountaintop

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The dog ate my sermon. I had something so beautiful. The dog didn’t exactly eat my sermon, but basically my two dogs in my life, and the million distractions, and my lazy attitude, and my fearful self, and the hours I spent fretting over things I cannot change instead of reciting the serenity prayer, all ate all the time I was going to use to write something magnificent. What’s your excuse? What’s your excuse for not doing what your potential was for your spiritual journey? That is the way today started out for me with when I was reflecting on this gospel. Those disciples with our Lord did not start out on the mountain. This is the end of Epiphany, not the beginning. This is the conclusion. You don’t get the mountaintop without a lot of other things and there are a lot of reasons people don't want to go to the mountaintop. “I would love to go with you all, but the weather is supposed to be awful.” “I would love to go to the mountaintop, do you know how much I have on me right now? With my work and my kids and my finances, there is no way for me to go.” “I just got out of jail and I am on parole, there is no way I can go to the mountain.” “I’m sick. I can’t go.” “I’m not supposed to go to the mountaintop, I am supposed to tell you all to go to the mountaintop.” What’s our excuse? This season started with an idea of looking up at the stars. “I can’t look up at the stars, I will trip every time if I am trying to go on the path.” And then the season continues with the idea of the gift of prophecy, not about telling the future, but about the spiritual gifts of all of us speaking love into the present. Or else we are nothing but clanging symbols. “I would love to talk about love, except it sounds ridiculous sometimes.” In the fields that are political and the fields of economics, in the fields where you think you are talking about global issues, it seems silly to talk about love. There are a million reasons we don’t, we don’t head out on this journey.

But this Sunday is the last Sunday.The disciples have wandered around, they have preached, they have gone through the valley of the shadow of death. They have climbed in spite of their fears and wanderings up to a mountain, and they glimpsed the face of God.

Last night we had a celebration and it was beautiful, wasn’t it Hal? The Light Bearers’ night. And we invited some of the long-term, big givers and volunteers of Thistle Farms to come sit in a room. And in that room you could not remember who the givers and who the receivers were. Everybody was bathed in a light. And it was a light of gratitude. It was all of us feeling grateful. That was the warm and beautiful light going on in that room. You’re giving to me. I am giving to you and we’re both so grateful to be there.

And now I am convinced that my lesson for Epiphany of this year that will carry me up the mountaintop is gratitude - the path of the mountaintop is gratitude. Gratitude for it all. For everything we have gone through and everything we know and everything we have forgotten, and everything that has been done to us, and everything we have done to find a sense of gratitude that will lead us to a place to know that we have communion with God.

Just the day before, before the Light Bearers’ gift, before Isabel (Allende) and her beautiful team came, we gathered together as a community at Thistle Farms. In this big community of 72 people who are a part of the circle, now continuing to shine that light, there was a new woman, 24 hours into the program off the street. I was looking at her and I was thinking do you have any idea how many candles we have lit to get you here? 25, 30 thousand candles were waiting for you. I felt so grateful and it was like meeting the biggest celebrity I could imagine. Not that I know any celebrities. I am saying, it’s huge. The most honored guest, the beloved one, the prophet sitting amongst us. Nothing but gratitude that she was willing to come and what happened was when we acknowledged her is all she could do is weep, to be sitting in the middle of a community that had been waiting and loving her for a long time before we even knew her name. So we all just cried. You don't have to speak.You don’t have to have words for it. When you feel that kind of depth and gratitude after going through a lot of epiphanies and trying to understand prophesy and speaking love and when you encounter the other, it is easy to see the face of God. And to feel that transformation and gratitude that takes you to your knees. It is not foreign to us, what they experienced on that mountain. Is it? No, we have seen it, we have glimpsed it. We have glimpsed love incarnate in our midst.

I want to go to the mountain with you all more than anything in my life. I want to go with everybody who believes that love heals. I want to go with a community that wants to be with each other. To remember how it is we speak love and how it is we recognize God in each other. Think of what we would miss if we didn’t go, right? We would miss that wonderful feeling of bad cell coverage, of laying all that stuff aside that we thought was so important and just being together. We would miss those moments that are hysterical—where somebody trips and you are not supposed to laugh, and everybody laughs and one person maybe has just a tiny bit of an accident. And their laugh is so hard that it makes it even funnier. We would miss that moment when we were done for the day and we worked so hard and we sit around and we light a candle or a fire and we tell stories and recount the moment. We would miss that surprise when out of nowhere we hear the flutter of a hawk’s wing that cuts across our path. My God, the view we would miss.

When the disciples and Jesus left the mountain, they headed straight towards Jerusalem. Their hearts were so full, they were finally ready. I do not want to miss that mountaintop. I want us to keep going through all our valleys and all the meanderings and all the wanderings. I want us to head up there together. No excuses. Just to walk in love with all our hearts and minds and spirits grateful for all of our lives.

Amen.

original image credit: pixabay.com

"The Spirituality of Hope:" Visiting Christ Church Charlotte

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god has carried me through, and he has taken me out of bondage. and now, it's like i can live. i can live. i can hope. i can dream. i can tell our story. and i can help the next woman that's out there--who felt the same way i felt. and, i am able connect with her on a deeper level because of my experience, strength and hope. and the dream continues. that makes it worth living because i'm a survivor, not a victim. anika

when i started magdalene, i didn't know that my own story had anything to do with why i was drawn to women on the streets. i mean, that's just kind of how our ministry goes, and the idea of the wounded healer that comes out is that your heart is open to compassion when you get a sense of the grace that comes your way...i was going to the streets to meet part of myself and to be about that story having a better ending for a lot of the women. becca

we were so pleased to visit christ church charlotte in charlotte, nc last month and take part in their faith forum. please click on the link below to hear some powerful and healing words from becca, anika, and mary stuart. thank you rev. chip edens and your entire congregation!

 

 

Guest Post Feature: "Nashville Light" by Sarah Hillesheim

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this post was originally featured on the blog My Invented Isabel We just got back from our love fest in Nashville with Thistle Farms and the women of Magdalene, the social enterprise and residential rehab center founded by the Rev. Becca Stevens to serve and support women who are recovering from addiction and who have been victims of prostitution and trafficking.

Calling our visit a love fest is an understatement. It was a light-filled full-blown love carnival, complete with Irish singers and a candle lit for every woman at Thistle Farms—and countless more for those still out in the night. I’ll write more on our trip later, but here’s a quick overview: we hiked the Tennessee hills, went to church to hear Becca preach, enjoyed a tea party at the Thistle Stop Cafe and visited the Magdalene residences, homes where women can stay for up to two years and are bathed in love as they receive therapy, medical care, eduction and employment. Thistle Farms sent some love our way as well, honoring Isabel at its Light Bearers event.

It’s all about the love.

thank you so much to Isabel Allende and The Isabel Allende Foundation. we love you!

The Lost Sheep

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Sermon for the General Convention 7/1/15

"The Lost Sheep"

Becca Stevens

Most of us have been lost sheep, wandering in wild places as lonely as the pastoral fields near Galilee where scrub brush is scattered with wild geranium and thistles on sandy soil. Into such fields Jesus calls the disciples to leave the grassy hillsides and go search.  This call makes the work here in Salt Lake critical to help us look bettered equipped.  It’s a parable that preaches we should have a dogged determination to go out in love so we don't get stuck in dogma.  The parable of the Lost Sheep also teaches the church that searching helps the institution find its way home as well.  Lost sheep are grateful disciples and leaders that never forget in parables like the Good Samaritan the gratitude felt by the guy in the ditch, or the freedom of forgiveness experienced by a woman caught in adultery as judgment is wiped away, or the wonder of love’s healing power with mud on blind eyes.  We go into the wild fields to learn again that lost sheep are critical to the ongoing life of the fold.

My father was Episcopal priest who in 1968 moved to the south to plant a new church.  My mom thought that the wild field of the south sounded awful.  That same year a drunk driver killed my father leaving behind a 35 year-old widow with 5 kids.  On the heels of that death, the Senior Warden of the church began my 2 years wandering in the lonely fields of sexual abuse. I was lost by the time I started school. I learned in those hallowed moments of grief and trauma that most sheep don’t wonder off, but are pushed out of the fold by silence kept in dysfunctional communities, by devastating poverty, and by overwhelming universal injustices that render communities numb.

It was this Episcopal Church that found me-- through welcoming youth events, generous women’s groups, and wise priests.  In 1997, in gratitude for all the mercy I had known, I founded a community called Magdalene for sister lost sheep that had endured more than I can ever imagine as survivors of trafficking and addiction. Shortly after that we started a social enterprise called Thistle Farms named after the last flower growing where lost sheep graze.  The women who come into the two-year, rent-free homes on average are first raped between the ages of 7 and 11 and hit the streets between the ages of 14 and 16.  The women of Thistle Farms over the past twenty years have demonstrated that it is not that hard to find lost sheep.  It can be as simple as a bag of chips offered to someone hungry, a visit to the prison, or saying, “welcome home”.  I have learned the truth of this Gospel is that without one another we are all lost. Together we become a powerful and healing fold.  We have grown into the largest social enterprise run by survivors in the US.  We have been welcomed into many of your dioceses, as the Episcopal Church is taking the lead in housing for survivors.  We have partnered with 18 global organizations where the universal story of sexual violence is endured on the individual backs of women who have been lost too long.

Eight years ago Thistle Farms began a partnership with women in Rwanda struggling to become economically independent after the genocide. They were farmers before they were raped and their families slaughtered and together they wondered back into the fields where they dug up the bones of their beloved and planted healing geranium; the same native plant found in the deserted fields where Jesus calls us to go. The same oils used in the first century on lost sheep as they enter the gate to return to the fold.  Together Ikirezi and Thistle Farms now manufacture and distribute more than 10,000 bottles of the best all natural geranium bug spray on the planet. These simple bottles have built homes, restored communities, and reminded all of us how love heals when we find each other. We keep finding more lost sheep all over the world that want to join a movement of women’s freedom that dreams of sheep folds where love is the most powerful force and that never turn their backs on the one that has been left behind.

Dorris is one of the great survivor leaders of Thistle Farms.  She has traveled to sister communities for survivors in Dioceses such as Arkansas, Chicago, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, West Texas, and West Tennessee.  Dorris’ message of hope inspires communities who too often feel overwhelmed or cynical.  Like many of the women who experienced the underside of bridges, the short side of justice, and the inside of prison walls, she says she wandered around and around a ten block radius for decades, trapped by childhood trauma, poverty, and addiction.  But a community went in search for her and in turn she has helped lead us all home. When we visited the diocese of Florida a few years ago she told me she had never seen the ocean.  It was a privilege to witness the first time her feet touched the sugar sands and the amazing grace of feeling found.  As she felt the pull of the tide for the first time, she raised her hands in wonder and asked with a lilting voice, “Has this been doing this my whole life?” The whole time she had been wandering the streets the tide was going in and out.  My God, as long as the moon has been spinning around the sun, the tide has been going in and out.  Older and more powerful than that tide is love.  But sometimes it takes a community to come find us and bring us to the shore to feel its strength.  This gospel is a call to remember the lonely fields of the streets, the geranium fields of Rwanda and Galilee, and the still life images of altars in churches that forget a community without lost sheep is just a museum. We need each other.  Prophets like Isaiah and Paul call out to us today that it is together we sing with joy from our ruins.  Please buy Thistle Farms bug spray today and share your story and our story of healing in your diocese.  Come find us and carry healing oils back into your churches and preach the word that when we leave no one behind, we will finally be found.

 

Our Sons

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For the past twenty years, several of us have raised our sons while working alongside survivors of trafficking, genocide, and addiction. This summer, our sons have all come to work at Thistle Farms, the community we helped build. Thistle Farms is one of the largest social enterprises run by women survivors in the United States. We are so proud that our sons are a part of this movement for women’s freedom. This work reinforces a quality of masculinity that empowers them to stand up against pressures in the world which tell them to give in, turn the other way, and stay focused on their own pursuits, even as many young women suffer violence at the hands of abusive men and communities. Their presence reminds communities globally that sexual violence is not just a women’s issue. It is a human rights issue and we need our sons to stand with young women as the next generation works to heal the whole community. Our sons understand the struggles of growing up on social media and witnessing the privacy of others exploited with a single click. They grew up in in schools that prepare for mass shootings. They understand things differently than we do, and we need them to help lead us now that they are in college and entering the workforce.

As a mother, I long to help young men step into life with eyes for advocacy and justice and to learn to see love as the most powerful force for change. I want our sons to speak up for their sisters and others who are exploited. I want our sons to know that their voice matters because silence is a form of complacency. I want our sons to experience the labor and tears of women who have survived brutality as they work alongside them. I want our sons to learn to use their privilege as a means of liberation for others no matter how small. I want our sons to know that their daughters need them now, before they are even born —  working towards a world that protects innocence, holds traffickers accountable, and tells on abusers. As a mother, it is sometimes hard to let go. But I promise that it is much easier to follow as they take the lead on some of this work. It’s joyful to watch them laugh and learn while working on heartbreaking truths.

Our sons are beautiful and powerful. They are becoming more convinced that love requires them to advocate, take action, and stand up for those exploited. We pray for them. We pray that they find in this work an initiation into a life of leadership, deep caring, and honesty, not self-gratification at the expense of others.

My son and your sons have so much work ahead to help us heal this world and grow rich fields of love.   

-- Becca Stevens

 

Photo courtesy of Taro Yamasaki, with support from The Flerlage Foundation

Roots at the Ryman

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This year as we rehearsed the reading written by the women of Magdalene and Thistle Farms, one of the women who graced the Ryman stage last year spoke to the women who would sit on that historic stage before 2,000 for the first time. She said last year that she was only two weeks off the streets and still had the lingering feeling of being spit on by a passerby, when she received a standing ovation and was given a glimpse of her true worth and beauty.  We speak of our thirst for knowledge and hunger for justice because we need them to thrive as a community. But before we can take in knowledge and justice, we need to be rooted in love.  The women wrote stories of being locked in closets, beaten, raped, sold, addicted and feeling rootless, only to uncover the truth that their deepest tap root is love. You can't dig deeper. It's eternal, universal and so particular it sinks into our hearts and calls us to dream again. Beyond our thirst for knowledge and hunger for justice is the yearning to get back to our roots of love. This summer I was driving down a dirt road in Uganda with Canon Gideon, the founding director of Hope University who is here with us tonight. We were discussing how to be better advocates for women who have known the underside of bridges, the backside of anger, the inside of prison walls, and the short side of justice. I told Gideon the story of how, as I dug beneath the roots of my abuse, I decided I needed to confront my abuser. I was surprised that the first question the man who molested me asked was, “Who have you told?” In response, Gideon told me that on his journey, when he told the head of the seminary in 1988 that he was HIV positive, the first thing his Professor said, was, “Don’t tell anyone.” This is the night to tell anyone we want that Love Heals. This is the night to celebrate brave women who are free to speak their truth to anyone that has ears. This is the night to celebrate that in discovering our truth, we remember healing runs deeper and wider than the deep roots of addiction and violence. We untangle the mass of roots in communities committed to housing, recovery and trauma therapy, economic freedom, and love without judgment.

Many people who will hear or read this speech have been part of the second annual national conference and have been digging deeper into how it is possible that the NY Times reports that more than 100,000 women and girls in the US are at risk for trafficking.  That statistic is why Thistle Farms and Magdalene continue to offer education and outreach to assist more than 20 cities in creating sister communities around the country.  It is why we welcomed more than 2,000 people to our workshop days. We are digging deeper into how it is possible that over 85% of the women’s prison population is comprised of women who report rape and trauma as children.  The women on the inside are not suffering from post-traumatic stress; they are still in the middle of the trauma.  That statistic is why Shelia McClain and Dorinda Carter have led a program called "Magdalene on the Inside." We are digging deeper by addressing holistically the burden of isolation, mental health problems, and acute poverty from old trauma by launching new city-wide initiatives like the Nashville Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse, with the program team led by Donna Grayer and Cary Rayson.

We are digging deeper into the universal issues of sexual violence borne on the individual backs of women all over the globe and how freedom is experienced through work. To this end, we have launched Thistle Farms' new Shared Trade alliance with Frannie, Fiona and Abi that is bringing international trade to 14 partners globally. Thistle Farms is buying above wholesale and offering distribution in order to reduce the links in the chain between producer and consumer. Many of you know Thistle Farms hit the $1,000,000 in sales mark this year, but also know that is a small milestone for what we hope to accomplish.  We hope to scale up another 30% in sales to reduce the costs of goods and to hire an additional 15 women.

Years ago we named our social enterprise after the Thistle, the noxious weed with the deepest tap-root that can survive drought and flood. It can grow anywhere and feed bees, heal livers, and make exotic papers. It reminds us daily of how healing comes in unexpected places and is woven into the fabric of creation. Roots have to keep growing to live and we have tons of earth to move to keep this community healthy.This year we need to launch new products such as Hope Tea that cultivates among people a thirst for justice tea. As we started planning the Hope Tea enterprise this summer in Uganda, one woman told me she didn’t feel she would ever get to share her story of abuse and recovery in her work of farming in Uganda, and that the project was truly about hope.  A woman professor driving back from visiting the land that will house Hope University and Hope Tea showed me a small handful of dirt she had taken from the site.  "This land is blessed," she said, "and when this dream comes true, I will return this holy dirt."  The holy dirt of hope offers us all a chance to live into the deep roots of love.

We want to launch a capital campaign for Thistle Farms to expand our manufacturing capacity to make room for another 30 employees as well as room for visitors and volunteers. We want to welcome another 30 women from prison and the streets and continue to offer outreach to the hundreds of women who will knock on our doors.  Our goal is to raise $500,000 over the next two years.

Digging deep means we are willing to grieve fully and stand in the loose mangled soil and feel gratitude for all the mercy we have known. It means this year mourning the loss of three graduates and several women who went back to the streets. Digging deep means we are willing to do the grunt work and daily tasks so roots can experience long term growth. Digging deep means reaching into our resources and offering lavish gifts. We are still carrying a few rocks at a time out of vast fields where the forces of injustice, poverty and addiction are still covered. Sometimes, in truth, the task feels daunting.  But as a community, we are beginning to come into our own as a voice joining with other voices strong enough to change our culture so that child sex abuse is not a secret, young women raped feel like they can seek justice, where there is no tolerance for the buying and selling of human beings, where women feel like they can seek help with addictions without fear, and where there are enough recovery homes offering long-term community-based healing with meaningful work.  We need each other to do this work that is not issue-oriented, but community-rooted to make systemic change. 

We may not see the harvest from the roots we are growing in our lifetime. But I trust love enough that I will do this work my whole life.  It is in these fields we can know the world can do its worst, and love will still flourish.  The vision of this community feeds the taproot of life that thrives like a thistle beyond our wildest hope and fills a field from a single plant. We are allowed to dream big, to speak of that dream, and to work on it our whole lives. This community is a glimpse of how beautiful that field is when hearts gather in hope. People see this field from afar, thrive on its bounty, and become inspired enough to plant their own.  It is as close to a miracle as I have seen.

Beggars

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Becca's sermon on August 17, 2014, the 20th anniversary of her becoming Chaplain at St. Augustine's Episcopal Chapel at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.  Scroll down to listen to the podcast of this sermon. The Canaanite Woman in Matthew

What are we supposed to do about beggars at the Church?  Do we give them money?  Send them away? I have often thought it was strange that in the middle of the Gospel there is this strange story of the Canaanite woman begging for help and then her famous banter with Jesus in which she states, “even the dogs deserve the crumbs under the table”.  It’s surprising that this one woman, just after he has fed more than 5,000 people is causing such a fuss.

Themes such as the place of the beggar in the life of the church are timeless and universal. The story of a Canaanite woman breaking rank and tradition by begging in the middle of Matthew’s gospel is a reminder that begging is in the middle of our faith. In the heart of Matthew’s mission another beggar comes with her hands out needing help for her daughter. I swear it never ends. Jesus was right, “the poor will always be with you.” She had no business or right asking for help, all she had was need.  The Canaanite woman came and even though the disciples were overwhelmed, need outweighs annoyance, and so she made her way towards Jesus in spite of the weariness of the community. But it is at this moment we learn the place of charity in the life of faith is transformational. In the exchange between the woman and Jesus the community realizes she is the proclaimer of the Gospel. She was the preacher who offers crumbs of hope to a community in need of inspiration. She was the faithful one who reminds us still that a church without beggars is a museum, and indeed we are the beggars at an altar where we are grateful for the abundance of a crumb.

Beggars have been central to the ministry of the church and the reason for its existence. Thistle Farms’ mission is centered on the belief that women who have survived the streets and prisons, who have wrestled addictions and withstood violence, proclaim mercy so profoundly that a whole community can find healing. There are many people who read this blog whose vocations are about recognizing the profound place of begging for both the giver and receiver and how love is offered in the exchange.  The leadership of Don and his whole team has nobly wrestled with how to serve the beggar with integrity, how love the Canaanite with dignity and how to preach love without judgment. Roy is a man who makes his way begging and has been at the chapel where I serve for twenty years.  He has always depended upon folks for his survival.  He and I are still debating if he lost his dentures or is someone stole them two weeks ago. Whatever happened the loss of those teeth is a reminder that begging is a full time job. Between transportation and finding caregivers, it takes a long time to replace lost items. Roy is doing it in his usual seesaw that leans first towards keen insight and wit and then more towards an internal mental struggle that I can’t fathom. He tells me that 20 years ago he brought me to my work, that he built the church and blesses the work. That may be true.  He always comes to church early, first to shower off the Saturday night street and then to fold bulletins. Over the years I have seen him beg on Sunday mornings and have seen him handcuffed in the parking lot after cursing an officer. I have seen him with the staff stretching their patience and watching them help. I have seen him be a faithful servant and be so angry that I crawl under the altar and hide.  After the chapel paid a portion of his teeth, I drove him to the synagogue up the street to get the next installment. I pulled off the road and after he got out, he walked into the street and stopped traffic so I could back up without waiting. He is something. He cannot be contained by a program, diagnosis or theology that asks us to simply serve the poor. He is the question in ministry, the embodiment of failed systems, the result of institutionalized poverty and often the teacher. I love his walk, his sense of humor and the fact that even when he gets banned or lost, he always comes home. He reminds me  that  “the poor will always be with you” is a blessing, not a curse.

This week as the news of Ebola in West Africa spreads, I have been reminded of the Yellow fever outbreak of 1878 in Memphis where beggars were overwhelming and the responders were scares. More than 5,000 died in the first three months and more than 30,000 people fled.  It was the Sisters of St. Mary in Tennessee that stayed with the sick and lost several members of their community in the service.  St. Mary’s had been founded just a few years before to offer sanctuary “for the reclamation of fallen women” according to their literature. But their mission was interrupted by the Epidemic and they cared for the sick and dying. One of the few surviving sisters moved to Sewanee, TN, in 1888 and now more than a 120 years later still serve and support the women of Thistle Farms.  Their work for more than 120 years has always been interrupted by the needs of Canaanite women who come begging and ultimately form who they are.

Begging is not an issue to be solved, but a way we wrestle our way through injustices, oppression, poverty and sickness.  A faith without begging is an act. Begging is the fount of innumerable blessings. None of us are above or below begging. I have been begging for my whole ministry.  The crumbs under the table can fill our cups to overflowing streams of gratitude and hope for this world.  But there are another 100 Canannite women at the door.  We have a lot more begging to do.

 

Photo credit Albert Pujol

A Psalm in Praise of the Oak

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Sunday in the Park The mystical oak has towered over a hill longer than any living memory like a regal sentry. She stretches out even branches, a welcome mat, for the passing hawks and owls like a perfect host. She claps her leafy hands to entertain howling coyotes like a happy mother. She keeps watch over the fog taking in a morning nap before sailing off on a sunlit ray like a forgiving friend. She marks everyday as Sabbath in her canopy like a beloved peacemaker. She kisses the enamored sun, then drops a leaf in his honor every evening like an obedient disciple. She stands her ground in dry springs and tends wildflowers at her rooted altar like a dutiful bridesmaid. She offers acorns as gifts to all, giving her mite in the holy of holies like a generous widow. At her sanctuary all pilgrims are blessed. In her shadow all our souls find rest. By her feet, silent, unbridled songs of gratitude for this wonder of creation rise easily into the air she gives us to breath. Our mother, friend, and disciple, the incarnation of love.

Just Our Luck

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My son Moses and I had only three dollars left at the Tennessee State Fair a couple of months ago. We passed by the fishing game as a carnival hawker beckoned us over. He told us for only two dollars we could take a turn with his fishing pole and hook one of the hundred small paper sacks that held a plastic toy or maybe, just maybe, hook the one that held a ticket for the large stuffed animal grand prize. Moses was excited and so I gave the guy all but my last dollar. As he handed the pole to Moses he said, "Good luck." Knowing this was our one shot I asked, "And where would that luck be?" He answered by whispering to Moses, "I would try the bottom left corner." Moses picked the bag he suggested and inside was the ticket for the huge stuffed dinosaur! He cheated for us! We tipped him our last dollar and told him it was hard to fathom a stranger cheating for us. It was not fair. He was completely generous, and I still wonder how he makes a living.

There are numerous stories in the Gospel that teach us about the generosity of God and how grace comes in unfair waves, called mercy, to carry us through rough waters. There is the story of the workers in the vineyard where the people who find their way to work at the end of the day are paid the same as those that came first. It is the story of life not being fair and God being even more generous than the sweet carnival man. It is a parable, linked to other parables about laborers in the fields, the hierarchy of the disciples, the reversal of fortune in the kingdom, and the economy of salvation. These stories remind us that we need to abandon all measure of fairness and rank in the face of God's generosity. God, who rains down mercy on the just and unjust, sees the wealth of the widow's mite, feeds a multitude with a few loaves and fishes, offers us so much love it cannot be contained. It is the sacred places where justice ends and mercy picks up. We experience it when we feel the scales of fairness and justice break and tender mercies flood our path. In thanksgiving we joyfully offer mercy to everyone else.

There is a woman who is a part of Magdalene, a two year recovery community for women who have survived lives of addiction, prostitution, and violence. She was on the streets of Detroit for 40 years. One day in 2006, her son-in-law was coming to Nashville, and she asked him for a ride. She knew no one, but made her way into Magdalene. If you met her today you would describe her as sunshine. She is beautiful and full of love and praise for all people. She describes the wondrous feeling of working as a cleaner in the judges' chambers. As the judges leave in the evening she is coming in, and they wave to her and thank her. She could be angry forever by all the wrongs done to her and guilty forever for all the wrongs she did to others. She could blame her childhood, her addiction, racism, the justice system and God for leaving her in the streets. Instead she cries when she talks about how God has given her more than she could ever imagine. The Carnie worker, the woman from Magdalene and the Gospel, remind us that life is not fair, thank God. We aren't promised fairness in the Gospel, only that our life will be rich, and we will live forever. So we don't have to worry about what we will eat or drink, or gas prices, or tomorrow. All we have to do is give thanks for any time we get to show our gratitude for God's gifts by loving our neighbors.

Photo credit: The Pic Pac