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.