On December 8th, Reverend Rebecca Stevens was visited the Circle as the 2013 Pyne Speaker to give talks in the Chapel and the Webb Marshall Room. Chaplain at St. Augustine’s Chapel at Vanderbilt University, Rev. Stevens has authored nine books and founded non-profit organizations Thistle Farms and Magdalene in 1997 to provide women with a two-year residential program at no cost. A true example of self-devotion to her cause, she has raised $15 million over the years and has been named by the White House as one of fifteen “Champions of Change” for her work.
Reverend Stevens chose the thistle as a symbol for the enterprise to represent the disadvantaged women that her organization seeks to help. The thistle is a weed that can grow in difficult conditions; it can shoot its roots through the concrete of the streets that the women of Magdalene walked on before joining the organization. Despite its prickly appearance, the thistle has a dazzling purple flower which blooms at its center under its thorns that represents the inherent beauty in each of the residents that Thistle Farm seeks to cultivate.
The Reverend was motivated to provide a sanctuary for these women partly because of her own experiences. In 1967, the same year in which her family moved from New York to Nashville, her father, also an Episcopalian priest, was killed in a car accident by a drunk driver. For the next two years she was sexually abused by the new senior warden from the same Episcopal church. From these traumatic childhood experiences, Rev. Stevens developed a deep empathy for abused women and sought ways to help women step out of their vicious cycles of drug abuse, prostitution, and violence on the streets into a more wholesome environment of self-advancement and security.
Inspired by this vision for helping women, Magdalene started in 1997 with the idea of housing five women in a residential facility for two years. Reverend’s central dogma in creating this space was to offer a program free of costs for the residents, with no abusive authority, and to give the women enough time to start their lives anew. She welcomed five women into her first facility in Nashville and slowly “rippled out.” It now boasts a community of forty productive members. On average, the women who came were “raped between the age of seven and eleven, hit the street as teenagers,” and often suffered a similar life like that of Shawna, a recent graduate who was abused by her grandfather and sold by her mother to a drug dealer when she was thirteen to become a prostitute. Upon joining Magdalene, Shawna took computer classes in order to become a supply manager. Today, she gives talks all around the country to promote Magdalene’s cause and encourage more women to join the community.
The Reverend’s small idea, stemming from just five women, expanded into her current initiative to spread love and justice. Today Magdalene is comprised of seven houses and has helped twenty communities across the U.S. to establish similar programs. Likewise, it recently hosted its first national conference at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville with members from thirty-one states to discuss its model; the event raised $450,000 for Magdalene so that each woman may be supported with the appropriate therapy, health care, and education needed in order to “move forward” in life.
There are around one hundred sixty women who have already graduated from the Magdalene and Thistle Farms programs, yet about 28% have not made it through the two years. The stories of these women were, at first, very discouraging to Rev. Stevens, and some of her doubts whether her program could protect these women from their previous lives of addiction and abuse were confirmed in certain cases.
For example, Julia, who was housed in Magdalene, relapsed after a call with her mom, and was kidnapped one day around a truck stop where many women are trafficked. Upon finding her corpse, police reports revealed that she was tortured for four hours, and then shot to death. While Rev. Stevens was devastated upon hearing the news, many said at Julia’s funeral that her death was “merciful because it ended for her.” This event was truly eye-opening for the Reverend, as she finally understood the hardships of life on the streets with the statements from Julia’s friends and saw how the community could unite with love and compassion even in the most painful times. She decided after this experience that she “would be doing this for the rest of her life because if love could reunite even in the worst situations that the world had to offer, [she] wanted to be a part of this world.”
To meet the financial needs of Magdalene, Rev. Stevens started Thistle Farms as a social enterprise located in Nashville. Much like Magdalene, Thistle Farms also had humble beginnings on the Vanderbilt campus, where the women and students gathered to make lip-balm and candles. In addition to changing lives for the better, Rev. Stevens can confidently assure that Thistle Farms and Magdalene have had positive economic impacts on both the women and the community at large. Always refusing to take out government loans, Rev. Stevens works with private donations coming from all over the world so that her organization will always remain free of debt and government involvement. With these funds, she began programs of social re-integration so that the women would become productive members of society, opening up small workshops to create bath and body products.
However, quickly realizing that the financial survival of Thistle Farms depended on this small industry and that her products were not recording the sales she had expected, Rev. Stevens hired a small marketing team to market her soap and cosmetics. Looking back on the decision, the Reverend sees this moment as a true turning point in the development of her organization. The team geared the marketing of the products towards a simpler slogan of “Love Heals,” and immediately saw a soaring in sales of up to a hundred percent. Today, Thistle Farms products have reached two hundred eighty stores across the United States, firmly establishing the non-profit financially and allowing it to forge commercial relationships with other women-run groups around the world, such as in Rwanda and India.
Recalling a memorable moment, Rev. Stevens told about the gratitude of a female prisoner at the City of Houston Jail when she received paper supplies that had been accidentally contaminated with geranium oil from Rwanda. The prisoner later told Rev. Stevens that amidst the odors of horse manure and turnips from her daily forced labor in the fields, the geranium oil was a liberating scent. Yet for the Reverend, it was a moment connecting two women on different continents who were both working towards self-improvement and justice under the leadership of Magdalene and Thistles Farm.
In addition, whereas a standard day of incarceration in state prisons would come up to a total of $87 dollars, her program spends only $44 dollars on average for every woman, including medical care, therapy, food and housing; in her presentation, the Rev. explained that this saves up to half a million dollars to the city of Nashville every year, and this at the scale of only forty women. The Reverend confides that when starting new centers, she has never faced any opposition from neighbors; rather, there is continuous support for her enterprise from the larger community.
Lastly, the most recent addition to the Thistle Farms enterprise is the Thistle Stop Cafe. In Reverend’s own words, “this was the only enterprise we made that made money from day one.” Before the opening of the cafe, Rev. Stevens collected tea cups from people from all over the world, asking each sender to write a short autobiography themselves to come along with the cup. Today, chandeliers made from these tea cups hang across the ceiling of the cafe as a constant reminder of the message of integration and compassion that the Reverend seeks to spread around the world.