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social justice

 Beauty & Love in Brokenness

Beauty & Love in Brokenness

On a recent trip…I started recounting all the sisters of the community of Thistle Farms who have died as saints and survivors of some of the oldest pain the world inflicts on young women. If I could create a stained glass, I would make a field of wildflowers with thistles and healing plants. There would be sunlight pouring down, and I would piece together all the names I could recall.

"Be Quiet So That I Can Hear:" A Sermon on Silence

"Be Quiet So That I Can Hear:" A Sermon on Silence

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Deuteronomy 18: 15-20

Mark 1:21-28

I know it’s important to know when to be quiet. One time when one of my kids was little and had done something horrible, I was explaining in detail why he was in trouble. He finally turned and said to me, “Be quiet so I can hear.” It is true for all of us who have had the gift of parenting that kids are really the best teachers in the world. He was saying, “Be silent. I want to hear what is going on in me. I want to know how to grow and how to do what I need to do.”

The lesson from Deuteronomy is to learn to be silent. The lesson from Mark is that in the midst of a busy Sabbath day in Capernaum the vortex of chaos is thriving. Everything starts spinning out of control. There is so much noise and someone in the front of the temple is spouting nonsense. People must have been thinking—be quiet so we can hear. Jesus knows it is both the demons within and without in this world and it is not of God.

He does his healing work by saying, “Be silent.” For the love of God, be silent. And with those simple words, healing began. Jesus spends the rest of his day healing anyone he can through both words and deeds—Peter’s mom, people coming through the door in the evening. Then he goes to a lonely place to be quiet. This busy day ends with his going to a lonely, deserted place.

Why? So, he can hear again.

And so, it is that preachers have been trying to figure out how to preach on silence. St Francis preached that the best deeds, the best preaching of love, is done not in words, but in the way we are together.

I want to share two vignettes about how I have been preached to—not in words:

Several years ago, one of the women from Thistle Farms went with me to Texas to share her story of healing and hope in the community of Thistle Farms. She, like most of the women, was abused early on and hit the streets at a young age. One of the joys of getting to do this work is being on a woman’s first trip, the first time a woman sees the top side of the clouds, the first time she goes into a community and says, “Guess what? Women heal and women recover. It works.” It is exciting and wonderful. This particular woman started on the plane ha getting knots in her stomach, thinking her words are not going to be sufficient. She started editing. She missed dinner that night at the hotel. I think I heard her read her version of her story three or four times.

The next morning, she got up and said, “I rewrote it and I want you to hear it again.” I was like, “Dear God. It’s beautiful, you’re amazing, it’s perfect, you’re great. The words are awesome.” But she became more nervous. When we arrived at the community where she was to speak, I got up and I said, “This is making me nervous. I think it will go much better for her and for us if we just go ahead, cut to the chase, and give her a standing ovation now.”

She stood up, then everyone stood up with her and started applauding. She started weeping, we all started crying, and it was a big love fest without any words. The words were so much less important than her witness, standing up there being able to say, “Here I am.” And that people could love her.

Two weeks ago, my husband and I had the privilege of being theologians-in-residence at Episcopal High School.  Whenever I go to a high school, specifically part of the story I tell is my own story of sexual abuse that started in the church, and I think it’s an important story. I don’t go into detail. I talk about there is healing and that part of the power of sexual assault has to do with silence.

As communities, we need to hear the stories well. We need to be there for each other. When people are little, they don’t have those words, but as they get into high school, they learn those words for their own bodies and their own lives and how to begin to speak that with power. So, I told my story and that night one of the chaplains said, “It was really powerful what you did today and what you said was beautiful. How did you heal from all that?” I said healing was a process, and that I had a lot of sickness still in me when I started Thistle Farms/Magdalene, and it was kind of hard. That I would get triggered a lot and I knew I had to go back to confront my abuser and to go to a therapist. He asked, “What was that like?” And I told the story of going back to my abuser.

I looked over and my husband, to whom I have been married for 30 years, was crying. I don’t know if you know what that is like. To know that you have been with someone for 30 years and they can weep for you, but it is very humbling. He could not have preached love more powerfully.

Think about all the times in your life when someone finally said, “Be silent” and you were able to find the gift of silence. Stop all the noise, the senseless demons within and without us in this world and feel feelings –whether someone clapped for you or somebody wept with you, or maybe it was that you finally just took a breath and allowed the spirit to speak. This is a busy day. There is a lot of noise in our world, and there are a lot of people chattering away.

So, if you take anything away from this—take this: speak the words of God when you need to. Preach through your deeds. And every now and then, for the love of God, be silent.

Guest Blog: Magdalene Omaha Kick-Off October 2016

Guest Blog: Magdalene Omaha Kick-Off October 2016

I have never been a part of something so powerful – and all of that comes from your absolutely tireless and courageous efforts to ensure sisters can find their way home here.

Thank you to Teresa, a dear sister on the Magdalene Omaha Board, for this guest blog thanking Thistle Farms for visiting Omaha for the Magdalene Omaha kick-off celebration (October 14-16, 2016).

My heart is too full of thanks for your recent visit and efforts here in Omaha.  I don’t even know how to put into words what you have done here.  How much you have transformed me, the board, Trinity Cathedral, the Omaha community, and all the good that’s already rippling through the state as a consequence of you lavishly sharing your love with us here this weekend!  I have never been a part of something so powerful – and all of that comes from your absolutely tireless and courageous efforts to ensure sisters can find their way home here.

Some of you know that I’m in recovery – clean and sober 18 years in August.  Many years ago, when I still lived in the Washington, DC area, a woman named Donna who had a lengthy history of being trafficked and of addiction asked me to be her sponsor.  We went through a long and winding journey together that included me visiting her in jail, hospitals, treatment centers, and half-way houses.  She was not the last woman who had been trafficked that I would sponsor, but she held a special place in my heart.  I watched how hard she tried to leave the life, and how horrible the system was time and again.  And every time it seemed like she was turning a corner and just about to make great progress, there was a new obstacle – most especially lack of employment opportunities because of her record.

Donna didn’t make it, and while I have lost other friends in recovery over the years, losing her hit me hard and I never gave up believing that there had to be some better way to help survivors.  Then, after we launched the Friends of Tamar here and started to realize what a growing trafficking problem Omaha had, Bishop Scott Barker and Trinity Cathedral Dean Craig Loya provided funding so that I could attend a Thistle Farms Education Workshop.  I got to chat with Penny in the café as people gathered before the day started, and with Anika briefly after she gave the group I was in a tour.  Although I read everything that I was provided, it was my conversations with them that made me an absolute believer in this model.  I swelled with hope as I came back here and started to try to share all that I had learned.

But, as happens with all of us in this kind of work, earlier this year, I just hit a wall.  I felt like I was not making a difference here, we were not making progress fast enough, and I feared we may never be able to truly get this thing off the ground in Omaha. During that time, because I subscribe to the Thistle Farms e-newsletter, I received the May 25th e-newsletter with a link to the Thistle Farms - Magdalene 2016 Graduation video.  When I watched this – and I have watched it countless times since, as have several other people I shared it with including the members of our board (I call it my sunshine booster shot) – everything changed.  I got fired up again and redoubled efforts here.  Fabulous new board members joined the circle here in Omaha, and together we expanded efforts to build community partners.  Seeing these beautiful women exemplify the truest meaning of freedom and joy made the point better than any words of mine or anyone else’s here ever could.  That’s also exactly what all of you being here did so very, very powerfully – you drove home we need a Magdalene house here…now.  When Brooke gave me the names of who would be joining Becca on this trip, I just about fell out of my chair.  I asked if I had it right that Jovita & Lori, in this very video, would be with us – and how blessed are we that they were! 

I love that the four of you joined Becca here, and The Fantastic Five gave everything you had to help us get this going.  You sharing your experience, strength, and hope so generously truly built the foundation of our house here.  I love that you already are hearing and knowing the difference you made – your visit absolutely was a game-changer.  I know you gave so much for us, but know this too – feeling like we are part of the larger community has meant the world to all of us, and most especially me.  When Jovita answered my question in the October 15th Saturday morning Expert Roundtable meeting by talking about community and accountability as part of that, I realized that for me and for the board, that’s the change we all were experiencing this weekend that made it so special to us.  We aren’t just out here trying to do this alone now…we are a part of, and now we need to pay forward the love and energy you shared so beautifully with us, and all that you all taught us by what you shared.  We will make this happen here!  And from this moment forward, know that in more ways than you ever realized, you all are as much a part of Magdalene Omaha as any of us here!

With more love and gratitude for you than I know how to say,

Teresa H.

SCALABLE & SUSTAINABLE

SCALABLE & SUSTAINABLE

When people ask me if this model can be replicated elsewhere, I say, yes, because the wells of love and faith will never run dry when people come together and commit to treating the stranger as God, living in gratitude, and to loving without judgement.  

In the world of social entrepreneurism there are two basic questions: are you scalable and are you sustainable? I am so grateful that after two decades of this work, I can answer both easily, “Yes!” When we started Magdalene, the only vision we held was to keep a sanctuary open for 5 residents, at no cost to them. Now, we reach hundreds of women annually through the prison community, referrals, counseling, and legal services, as well as supporting 5 residential communities. The number of women employed by the Thistle Farms global effort in the Shared Trade network has reached more than 1,500.  When Thistle Farms started, we were employing 4 women for  6 hours a week and making candles in the kitchen of St. Augustine’s Chapel at Vanderbilt. Now, we employ more than 50 residents and graduates in our 11,000 square foot facility, as well as operate a Cafe, sell in more than 500 retail outlets, and bring in over 2 million in revenue annually.

Given that we are now the largest survivor-led social enterprise in the country, I can say in gratitude the community’s vision grew exponentially in proportion to how much we desired to love women, who have graced the doors and joined in the movement over the years. Given the exponential ripple effect of love, it's not hard to understand how we accomplish this rate of growth year after year. Our goal has been to be transparent in fundraising, remembering that all of us have been in the ditch, giving from a place of gratitude, being willing to take a leap of faith when called upon, learning to follow the lead when a new idea is good, and the earnest belief that love is the most powerful force for social change. So, when people ask me if this model can be replicated elsewhere, I say, yes, because the wells of love and faith will never run dry when people come together and commit to treating the stranger as God, living in gratitude, and to loving without judgement.  

Together, anything is possible. The more success we have, the more resources we draw in, the more women we are able to help. Last year, Thistle Farms put more than $850,000 back into the hands of residents and graduates of the Magdalene program, who are turning their pain into purpose. There are now over 30 sister programs in different cities in the United States that will expand the model and potential for growth even faster.  As our vision for this work expands in direct proportion to the healing power of more than 150 graduates of the residential program, I say we are just beginning to see the power of this work.

Photo courtesy of Taro Yamasaki

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