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.