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Q & A
Q&A: Women leave streets behind, find new hope Bill Fentum, Feb 8, 2010
In 1997 the Rev. Becca Stevens founded Magdalene, a residential program for women to escape a cycle of substance abuse and prostitution. Magdalene now owns five houses in Nashville, Tenn., where the women spend two years in recovery, then graduate to restart life on their own.
Magdalene’s non-profit business Thistle Farms keeps the ministry alive by selling the women’s handmade bath-and-body products. In November, Magdalene graduates launched a tour of eight U.S. cities, visiting women’s prisons and local churches to share their stories of hope, healing and grace.
Ms. Stevens, an Episcopal priest, talked recently with staff writer Bill Fentum.
You began the prison tour at Gadsden Correctional Facility in Florida. How did that go? Really well. We talked to the inmates about Magdalene and the whole idea of women helping each other in community. We also met with Killearn United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, to help them start a ministry at the prison. Since then we’ve had letters from several inmates and people at the church, telling us how much they were awakened and inspired.
One woman said: “I was abused as a child by my stepdad’s father. I’ve done everything you could imagine. I had no respect for myself or anyone else, and this is where it got me. But now I remember that once, I was a very spiritual person.” That’s a beautiful statement. Not that she knows where she is headed, but she does has memory of connection. It gives her a place to begin her journey.
Do you plan to stay in touch with the women? We’ll do our best, and maybe some will decide to live with us after they get out. Others will be part of new programs elsewhere. We’ll match every inmate who writes with a Magdalene staff member and a resident, so they have a pen pal who is actually in recovery. Then a church volunteer will also correspond with them to say “God loves you” and offer encouragement.
In Find Your Way Home (Abingdon Press), you say Magdalene was founded not only to help a subculture of women, but to transform the culture at large. Yes, and that’s why the tour includes both churches and prisons. Brokenness isn’t only inside prison walls. It’s also out in the world, in a culture that tolerates the buying and selling of human beings. We hear a lot of myths, like the idea that prostitution is a victimless crime. But it’s one of the most victim-filled crimes you can imagine. I haven’t met a prostitute yet who hadn’t been raped and needed a lot of healing. Their parents, their children, their siblings—it’s filled with victims.
Then there’s the whole community. In the Nashville area, 300 women commit seven acts a day and 90 percent of them have sexually transmitted diseases. Most of the men they service are married, which creates a widespread health problem. We have to educate the culture on the huge cost to our society, and the church cannot exempt itself from the conversation.
What attracted you to this ministry? Partly it was seeing that nobody else really wanted to work with these women because it was such a huge problem and they had such bad reputations. But I also have a personal connection. Almost all prostitutes were molested as children, and that’s my own story: When I was growing up, after my father died, one of the elders in our church sexually abused me for a couple of years. So it makes sense that I feel compassion for others in that situation.
How is the Magdalene community structured? It’s a non-hierarchical model where everyone is served, with nobody above anyone else. So whether you’re an intern, the executive director or a resident, you’re expected to take out the trash. We make mistakes all the time as we try to live out that model, but we show a lot of mercy if someone stumbles.
Also, Magdalene isn’t a franchise or a big social-service agency. Everything we depend on—programs, fund-raising strategies—were gifts suggested by someone, so we share our ideas freely with others to get ministries started for women in other cities.
What’s the story behind Thistle Farms? We started the business because we really couldn’t find jobs for a lot of the women. So we thought, “Forget it; we’ll just make some stuff.” We began with candles and body balms, and now we have about a dozen products made and sold by the women.
We chose the name as a symbol for Magdalene. The thistle has a reputation as a noxious weed with scary thorns, but it also has a beautiful, purple center. It’s actually a very useful flower. The down can be used to make paper, and milk-thistle extract is an herbal treatment for liver disease. Thistles are amazing—it’s becoming a whole theology for me.
In what ways does Magdalene offer spiritual support? Part of the recovery process is to be on a spiritual path, but what that path looks like is different for every resident. So one woman might get very involved in a local church while another might feel her recovery is served best in a meditative Bible study. But we’re not registered as a faith-based organization, and we’re careful not to push a set of religious beliefs on anyone. Probably 95 percent of the women identify themselves as Christians, but that choice is left to every individual.
Do women ever leave the program before graduating? Yes. A lot of times women leave early because they’ve got back custody of their children from foster care, so we help them find housing somewhere else. Or it could be over a man. Maybe they start seeing somebody when they’re 18 months into the program, so they can’t abide by the Magdalene rules anymore and have to leave.
Do some of them end up back on the streets? Yes, sometimes. But almost three quarters of the women who come into the program are still clean two-and-a-half years later. That doesn’t mean they don’t have relapses along the way. But we check in with them for six months after they graduate, and we find that most of them stay out of prostitution; they’re working and clean from drugs and alcohol. Really, it’s all connected. You can’t stay clean if you prostitute, so finding and keeping a job is crucial.
They spend the whole second year getting ready in economic stability classes. Each woman starts her own savings account, and we match the first $1,000 they save toward their own home or a car. They also learn life skills in recovery groups, and that continues even after graduation. For each individual, the whole process is geared toward the day when she gets out on her own, in her new home. It’s all a journey.
One of the Magdalene houses is in an area with a high crime rate. In the book, you say that’s exactly where the ministry needs to be, to change the neighborhood from within. How’s that working? It’s been great. Not only has no one ever broken into the house, but nothing has ever been stolen off the property. Not a bush, not a chair on the porch, nothing! And now and then a woman from the streets shows up at the door and tells us: “I’ve seen this house forever, and wanted to come up here for a long time. Now I’m ready to start.” It’s a beautiful thing.
We’ve also started Magdalene Arms, an outreach to women who are still addicted and prostituting. Regina Mullins, one of our first graduates, will pick a woman up at 2:00 in the morning if she’s scared and needs somewhere to go. She finds room for them at shelters around Nashville, where they can be safe for a month if we don’t have space ourselves.
And there’s a rehabilitation class for men who were arrested for soliciting prostitutes? Yes, it’s called the John School. We charge a fee and it lasts several hours, like a defensive-driving course. A Magdalene graduate shares her story, someone from the D.A.’s office helps the men understand the ties between the drug and sex industries, and someone from the health department talks to them about STDs and the risks for themselves and their families. So it’s both a source of income for us and a means of helping others besides the women on the streets.