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A Movement for Women's Freedom

by Becca Stevens

Give me that old time religion is the refrain from the Gospel tune of the late 19th century. It’s a sweet mantra to hum while we, as communities of faith, explore how to respond to the universal issues of sexual violence, trafficking, and prostitution. The old wounds humanity carries from these issues demand that we respond with love, the oldest and deepest truth of religion.

Our culture is just beginning to see the scope of the problem—the connection between child sexual trauma and addiction, and the pathway to prison this traumatic history lays out.

This connection is clear at Magdalene and Thistle Farms. Magdalene is a two-year residential community for women who have survived lives of prostitution, trafficking, addiction, and life on the street, and Thistle Farms is a social enterprise run by the women that creates natural body-care products. Most of the women are, on average, first raped between the ages of seven and 11 and hit the streets in their teenage years. We are beginning to hear changes in the national conversation as people now recognize the fact that before women are criminalized, they have been victimized for years.

Yet in my conversations in hundreds of churches over the past 15 years, it feels like many still turn a blind eye to the connection between child abuse, runaways, and trafficking. Faith communities are still reluctant to speak out boldly against people being bought and sold as commodities and downloaded in two dimensions, giving no thought to the story of the people being used. There is still a sense that we can buy and sell images and use people without there being a cost to that person.

So we need some good old-fashioned religion to infuse our communities, and we need to use the most powerful force for social change in the world—LOVE. We need to become a living and breathing movement capable of embracing the backside of anger, the shadow side of our world, the underside of bridges, the short side of justice, and the inside of prisons.

It’s a movement for women’s freedom, grounded in the belief that love heals. This love is rooted in radical hospitality offered without judgment and cast wide enough to reach the hell of both the street and all kinds of entrenched prisons.

There was a moment about a year ago when I felt the shift, as Thistle Farms became more than a sanctuary and social enterprise. It became part of a movement, as dioceses and churches from across the country began to invite us to come and share the vision and speak about how we can all get involved to help women leave unworkable systems and violence to find their way home to sanctuary.

It’s beginning, but it will take many more communities that want to offer free long-term housing, begin radical social enterprises, and support work going on in communities such as Magdalene House in Nashville, Trinity Episcopal Church’s effort called Eden House in New Orleans, and the community supported by Christ Church Cathedral called Magdalene St. Louis. All of these are made possible with the time and talents of Episcopal churches.

To realize this movement requires that we become idealists. We have to dream of a world where children are safe and rape victims expect justice.

Idealism doesn’t mean we are Pollyanna-ish about the world. I have heard the war stories from Kigali, Houston, Lawala, Guayaquil, Omaha, Kampala, and every other city where I have traveled and where  people bear the common pain on their individual backs of sexual trauma. In each of these places, Magdalene House has been invited to partner with local groups and create an emerging network of sister organizations committed to helping each other with best practices and expanding to support our individual social enterprises.

We have just been invited to come back to Lexington, Kentucky, where a group from a local church has launched a new residential program called The Well. There are now 20 to 30 new emerging communities that share the work. They are a witness to the truth that women in loving and compassionate communities can recover and find restitution and freedom.

Love is both lavish and economical. It’s beyond seeing what our values are in the marketplace, to looking at how we can change the marketplace through increased economic and political leverage for others. In October, Thistle Farms, for example, held its first national conference and launched a new shared-trade initiative. People from more than 30 states showed up, and all in attendance committed to using our economic and political resources to help our collective work thrive.

As the movement to address the issues of trafficking, addiction, and prostitution grows, let us confirm that this work is sustainable. As more churches invest in long-term housing and social enterprise, we can save our communities millions of dollars by reducing recidivism, by helping women reclaim their families, by lowering court-restitution costs, and by ensuring gainful employment while decreasing disability payments to the women. Social enterprises can also support the work through the sale of products and services, as Thistle Farms does.

We can help protect the next generation, and we can live deeper into the truths we long to believe. This work can infuse our parish life with new spirit and revive the vitality of our common worship. Like the old-time religion, we can allow the Spirit to move us to free the captives, preach good news to the poor, and give sight to all of us who are still blind.

It also takes a great deal of humility to try to face universal issues by loving individual women in small groups. I have witnessed women who relapse back to the streets and die from the violence and drugs that thrive there and on newspaper back pages. We can do more to meet the economic, physical, psychological, educational, and spiritual needs of those women who have survived, by working humbly as a community.

Good news sometimes is the oldest news we know. We don’t have to overcomplicate it. We just have to take out the trash when the trash can is full and keep doing the daily work.

Last summer the Episcopal Church Women in Pensacola, Florida, invited us to come and help them start thinking about how to plant the seeds of a movement there. One of the graduates of Thistle Farms that went with me was Dorris Walker. When Dorris was a child, she witnessed the murder of her father, and she was abused as a very young teen. As a young woman she ended up walking a 10-block radius on the streets of Nashville for 26 years. In all that she had witnessed and endured, no one had ever shown her the beach. It was on the trip to Florida that her feet first touched the sugar sands and she saw the sunrise from the coast. When she stepped into the ocean and felt the tide for the first time in her life, she threw her arms up and asked, “Has this been doing this my whole life?” As long as the moon has been spinning around the earth, the tide has been coming in. Like love it is old and true. Sometimes it just takes a community to help us get to the shore to feel its power and remember the source.

Love heals, inspires, and changes us for its own sake


Becca Stevens is an Episcopal priest and founder of Magdalene, residential communities of women who have survived prostitution, trafficking, and addiction. In 2001 she founded Thistle Farms, which currently employs nearly 50 residents and graduates and houses a natural body-care line, a paper and sewing studio, and the Thistle Stop Café. She is a prolific writer and has been featured in The New York Times and on ABC World News, NPR, PBS, CNN, and Huffington Post. Her newest book, The Way of Tea & Justice: Rescuing the World’s Favorite Beverage from its Violent History, will be released in 2014.


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