Love Heals

A tour of Thistle Farms, where women who have survived prostitution, trafficking and addiction now create healing balms

by Mary Button

Thistle Farms has a art and sewing studio in addition to their production kitchen, distribution offices, and the Thistle Stop Cafe.

The Bible is full of stories about oils, perfumes, incense and anointing. Almost the entire thirtieth chapter of Exodus is dedicated to the Lord’s instructions on how to anoint. Samuel anoints Saul the first king of a unified Israel and later David, is anointed king of Israel by a council of elders. The history of Israel can be traced with healing oils.

Rev. Becca Stevens tells stories with the help of oils, too. She is an Episcopal priest and the founder of Thistle Farms, a social enterprise operated by the women of Magdalene in Nashville, Tennessee. Magdalene is a residential program for women who have survived lives of prostitution, trafficking, addiction and life on the streets. Founded in 1997, the Magdalene Program is distinctive in the long-term care and hospitality that it offers. For a full two years, it offers housing, food, medical care, therapy, education and job training without charging the residents or receiving government funding. After four months at Magdalene the women can begin job training at Thistle Farms, a social enterprise founded in 2001 that creates bath and beauty products that are “as good for the earth as for the body.”

In July 2014, I had the privilege of touring Thistle Farms. It takes up most of a city block that includes a café, sewing, paper and art studios, manufacturing and distribution facilities and administrative offices (the six residential Magdalene houses are located in neighborhoods close by). I began my day with tea at the Thistle Stop Café. Less than a year old, the café is the newest addition to the Thistle Farms ministries. Teacups from around the world hang together to create lovely, delicate chandeliers, and the café floor is beautiful, repurposed wood, salvaged from Al Gore, Sr.’s tobacco barn. The menu features salads, paninis, pastries and, of course, tea, which at Thistle Farms represents harmony, tranquility and community.

Like all things associated with Thistle Farms, every tiny detail is an outward manifestation of the Thistle Farms mantra: “Love Heals.” Immediately upon entering the café, I felt as if I had entered another universe. This is obviously one of those sacred, communal places where people can linger, talk, laugh and connect. The beauty of the place is found in its intimate graces, as explained by Rev. Stevens: “When you’re sitting in Thistle Stop Café, you see those beautiful, valuable tea cups dangling over your head, and the floor that’s over 150 years old. On the ingredients, it’s a farm-to-table menu. All of these are outward and visible signs of the deeper inward spiritual truth that we are beloved and valuable.”

As I leave the café, pass the art studios and walk into the main reception area, I am met with the calming scent of lavender. I also meet Sherri, a graduate of Magdalene who has worked with Thistle Farms for two years and will be my tour guide around the facilities. We first enter a room where the entire community meets for morning meetings centered on the Benedictine Rule. When asked about how they apply the rule, Stevens explains, “We translate the Benedictine model in three ways. One is radical hospitality, two is love without judgment, and three is that all of us work toward healing for the betterment of the next person coming along. So in other words, the women who are working at the café are working so that for a woman who’s still on the street, there’s going be a job for her, there’s going be a place for her.” Sherri tells me about her years of prostitution and addiction, but she shines as she describes the great care she takes with her work at Thistle Farms. It becomes clear to me that the women of Magdalene are indeed living out a special kind of radical hospitality, one with forward-thinking intentionality that is born of remembering the woman who will come after you.

Nowhere is that intentionality more clear than in the Thistle Farms manufacturing area, brightly lit and filled with workstations for all the different products. Sherri shows me how the candles, lotions, lip balms and healing oils are all made with diligent attention. The oils, as Stevens describes them, are beautiful, high-quality and even expensive products; she says, “We use beautiful oils that are healing and expensive to remind us that when we put that on our bodies, that’s what we are.” Sherri shows me how they prepare the products, secure labels by hand, store the boxes and ship them to individuals and retail stories across the country.

After we tour the manufacturing and distribution areas, we go upstairs to the Thistle Farms administrative offices. Earlier in the year I had attended a Thistle Farms event in Memphis and met several Magdalene graduates; to my delight I am remembered and greeted with hugs. In this moment I feel like I am part of a family, and if Thistle Farms feels like home, it’s because it’s supposed to. Stevens says, “We intentionally work with a small group of women, very intensely. It’s people’s home, not shelter, not treatment. This is your home, this is where you stay, and we stay for years with women.” This long-term commitment means that many women from Magdalene choose to continue working in various departments at Thistle Farms, not just manufacturing but also sales, outreach and development.

When I ask Rev. Stevens how churches can model the work of Thistle Farms in their own community, she talks about the call to action in her work: “We’re all a part of the same movement, in that we are all working globally toward women’s health and freedom in their local communities. In other words, you and I are attached to the women in Rwanda, you’re attached to the women you’re receiving drinks from at the Thistle Stop Café, we’re attached to a woman in Memphis who’s walking on the street. Whether it means opening up a small local house, or buying Thistle Farms products, or even speaking your own truth about your own history and what it meant—all of those things are part of the same movement and we’re already connected. All of us just need to see that.”

There are hundreds of little details about my trip to Thistle Farms that have stayed with me, and parts of my conversation with Rev. Stevens that I have turned over and over in my mind. But the most meaningful thing I’ve done since my visit is to use my lavender body balm. Every evening, I rub the balm on my body and I think about the women I met at Thistle Farms and the stories they told me. Then I go to bed blessed by their prayers for healing.

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