Nashvillian Becca Stevens is a woman of faith. Not a flowery faith that simply flows from one's lips. But a faith that grew arms and legs and encompassed an unseen sector of our city and then grew and grew and embraced people of all classes and races and even those living in other countries. Her work with Magdalene, Thistle Farms and now Thistle Stop Cafe earned her the designation, by President Obama, as a Champion of Change.
Backstory: Stevens is an Episcopal priest/chaplain of Vanderbilt University's St. Augustine Chapel. When she became active in addressing the issue of homelessness in Nashville she asked a question: "Where are the homeless women?" (When you see homeless in Nashville--maybe in most cities--you see mostly men.) The answer wasn't pretty: They were living lives of prostitution, drug and alcohol addiction and trafficking. Enter Magdalene, a residency program Stevens founded in 1997. For two years, women are offered housing, food, medical and dental care, therapy, education and job training, free of charge and without 24-hour live-in staff. On average, residents range in age from 20 to 50, were first sexually abused between ages seven to 11, have been arrested 100 times and have spent 12 years on the street prostituting. Seventy percent of residents lead healthy, sober lives two-and-a-half years after entering the program. At any given time there are 80 to 100 women on a waiting list.
While Magdalene was successful, Stevens quickly realized that the program helped women overcome their addictions but few were able to find work in the community for various reasons, including their arrests records. Helping women become "clean" was not enough. The women needed jobs. Enter Thistle Farms.
Thistle Farms is a highly successful social enterprise of the women of Magdelene. By hand the women create natural body care products that are as good for the body as they are for the earth. All proceeds support Thistle Farms and Magdalene. Into every product goes the belief that love is the most powerful force for change in the world. Thistle Farms uses all natural ingredients and earth-friendly practices. Products are made with premium ingredients, such as cotton wicks, soybean-based ecowax, olive and coconut oils, sunflower seeds, and essential oils. Every product is handmade by the women of Thistle Farms to offer healing to the world. And some of that healing has also extended to third world women who are collaborating with Thistle Farms to make, in some cases, upcycled and handmade cloth packaging to contain some of Thistle Farm's essential oils and travel packages. Thistle Farms has 200 retail partners, including 27 Whole Foods stores in the southeast. Products can also be purchased online at Thistlefarms.org
Now: Thistle Stop Cafe. This summer, the next stop for the women of Magdelene and Thistle Farms became Thistle Stop Cafe located at 5128 Charlotte Pike next to the Thistle Farms office and manufacturing facility. It's the attractive, two-story, white-painted brick building with the giant metal thistle sculpture on the north side, which serves the adjacent garden as a rain catcher designed by uber talented Nashville son, artist Ben Caldwell. The cafe is light-filled, both from the outdoors and the bright smiles of the women from Magdalene who operate the coffee and bar and fresh food offerings--sandwiches and salads--from AM@PM cafe of another talented native son, Arnold Myint. The fare, like the bodycare products the women make, are beyond wholesome with Spark of Life and Vegan Vee and Just Love Coffee also supplying the good eats. Adding to the comfy atmosphere of tables and cushy sofas is the rich, dark bourbon-colored floors of 150-year-old pine scrapped from Al Gore's old tobacco barn in Carthage, Tenn. And those tea cups! The light fixtures above each table are made from tea cups donated from around the world.
Both the Thistle Farm endeavors are infused with committed, loving volunteers who sew, serve, make paper products and more. This truly is a community endeavor.
This fall, on October 13-15, Thistle Farms will host a national conference to aid prostitution, trafficking and addiction survivors. The three-day event will focus upon on best practices for residential communities and social enterprises and conclude with a free-to-the-public fundraising benefit concert of top Nashville talent performing at the historic Ryman auditorium
To learn more about Thistle Farms and the community of Magdalene, about how you can visit the cafe; volunteer or donate to Thistle Farms-Magdalene and/or purchase products, go to ThistleFarms.org.You'll be glad you did. Promise. My heart has been stretched wide open. And filled with healing love.
*Why the Thistle?: "Considered a weed, thistles grow on the streets and alleyways where the women of Thistle Farms & Magdalene walked. But, thistles have a deep tap root that can shoot through thick concrete and survive drought. And in spite of their prickly appearance, their royal and soft purple center makes the thistle a mysterious and gorgeous flower."