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When us and them, however we define those words, cease to exist, a love story ensues.  This is a love story.  Every single person in this room is a beloved character in this story.   It is our story of becoming us.  It is the story of learning to speak our truth in love and telling the story through our actions.   Thank you for helping write this story. Love stories teach us how rich life can be.   Two years ago we realized we had become thistle farmers and that the whole world is our farm and that we could harvest thistle anywhere we traveled.    We learned we could write our stories on our own ground up thistles we found on roadsides, abandoned mountain tops, and in flood-devastated lands.   A group of thistle farmers traveled to Africa that same year and found thistles on the edge of a memorial erected to commemorate 258,000 people killed during the genocide in Rwanda.  There are enough thistles in this world to cover all the love stories we could write and they are a perfect offering for this evening.   By the summer of 2009, Thistle Farms was making healing oils with geranium oil we learned about from Rwanda and wrapping them in our thistle paper.  We took these beautiful oils and paper around the country and began offering them as part of our line of thistle farms products.  During this same time we also began a prison tour, funded by the Cal Turner foundation, to take our message of hope and healing into the women’s prisons.  Into each prison we brought the book, “Find Your Way Home”, written by Magdalene and inscribed with a message of hope.  The last prison we visited a couple months ago was outside of Houston Texas.  It had no air-conditioning and the smell of women who had worked all day in the turnip fields permeated the prison.   We took 300 books for the prison women.  It took so long to inscribe the books that we missed the deadline for shipping them and had to check them in with the luggage.  Since I had to check the bag and pay the fee, I brought along some geranium oils that I couldn’t carry on the plane.   The next day we unloaded the books into bags, carried them through the prison security and passed them out to 300 prisoners.  A woman leaned over to me after she opened the book and said,” This book smells so beautiful.  You would be surprised, but small things make such a big difference.”  Love stories surprise us.  It was miraculous to me that a drop of geranium made its way from a group of women in Rwanda who embody hope as they go out to fields to grow new crops even after they have known such devastation.  Then that drop of oil made its way to Nashville where another group of women who have survived lives of abuse, addiction and prostitution embody hope and go to work each day to make healing products that say on every label, Love Heals.  Finally, that drop of oil made its way into the pages of a book written about hope, passed through prison walls and found its way to a woman who was open to breathing it in its hope and beauty.  In the scale of love a drop in the bucket is plenty.

Last year our theme was “The Face of Love” and we talked about how much Thistle Farms needed a new home.  I am so grateful to tell you that through a hundred miraculous and kind acts and an amazing donor, our dream came true to move into a newly renovated 11,000 square foot facility at 5122 Charlotte Avenue.  That love story could fill its own book.  One chapter was written when Melissa Wert, our manufacturing consultant, described to me in detail the kind of lab tables we needed at the new facility---metal, wheels, electric, and very expensive.  The next day I went to speak at an event at Environmental Science labs and I noticed that everyone was wearing lab coats.  After the presentation they asked what they could do to help and I said, “I would love your lab coats”!  Peter, the owner, explained they couldn’t give us lab coats, but that they could give us a dozen lab tables they had stored in a warehouse.  They were exactly, exactly what Melissa described the day before.  The same serendipitous generosity provided for our chairs, desks and wall decorations.  It has been humbling to watch that love story unfold.

There are many love stories this year to share---26 women have entered the program since last year to come and live free in one of the six residential houses. 18 have successfully graduated from the Intensive outpatient program, 15 have completed their computer courses, 35 women are currently employed at thistle farms where we still need to triple our sales to make sure women can work living hours.  11 women graduated the two year residential program in June.  50 women were served through outreach efforts. A few months ago Katie and Thomas got married down the street.  Katie is a graduate of Magdalene and a case worker at Mending Hearts.  Theirs is a story of surrender, courage and hope as each crossed a mountain of pain and addiction to arrive at a place to be open to love again.  During the ceremony the church could not contain the joy filling the space.  When Katie and Thomas finally kissed, people snapped pictures with every phone in the room, danced in aisles and burst into applause before the blessing.  It was powerful to witness how, when sorrow has carved such deep scars, there is a joy that runs deeper.  Love lets joy sate our souls and when it washes over us, we can’t help but cheer and cry and reach out.

But our love stories are not a fairy tale where we get to live happily ever after. There are still a hundred women on the waiting list.  Friends were sentenced to prison terms that will cost years of lives and millions of dollars. Three women we know where murdered on the streets, including a graduate of Magdalene named Rosalyn. She was a beautiful sister who in an abusive relationship, lost her job, her home and succumbed to addiction before her tragic death.  She too is part of our love story and grieving her is not a burden, but a luxury as we remember every person in the world is a beloved child of God and in a love story, grief won’t break us, but instead gives us renewed strength and the impetus to start writing a new chapter of the story of love in all our lives.  Despite all the mess ups I have made this year and all the mess ups people in our community have made---there is still love and there is still hope for all of us.

This is a year where our love story, like all love stories will unfold, not in words, but in deeds.  It will unfold not in people praising us, but joining in the effort to help change a culture that still buys and sells women, that holds the secrets of abuse as sacred and turns a blind eye to the needs of sisters on the streets.   Our goal tonight to keep the houses open and the business running is to raise $225,000; it is so doable.  Beyond that we need everyone to buy and use our products to spread the news.   Don’t have anything else in your bathrooms at home or at your business but Thistle Farms products.  Light a candle and say a prayer for this work.  This year we need to renovate one of our homes, increase our retail accounts to over $10,000 a month, solidify our relationship to whole foods, visit another 100 congregations here and around the country, visit more prisons,  and  teach another fifty groups who will visit Magdalene from other cities how to adapt this model.   Our goals are no loftier than you would expect in a love story.   Love stories are truth. And truth can be more harrowing than fiction.  It will be the unbelievable story and we are the heroes.