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Sanctuary from the streets

13 June 2014

Becca Stevens, a guest at this year's Greenbelt Festival, launched a rescue service for sexworkers in Nashville - and a company to provide alternative work. Kay West  reports


The Wednesday-morning meditation circle

The Wednesday-morning meditation circle

DRIVE around Nashville, andit is not hard to find signs of the Magdalene residential programme, and its daughter, the social enterprise Thistle Farms. People-carriers crammed with children, the bumpers of luxury cars, and beaten-up pick-up trucks sport deep-purple oval stickers: "I AM A THISTLE FARMER."

People sip coffee from oversized mugs printed with the same slogan. And everywhere are the words of this movement's mantra, "Love Heals" - on bottles of liquid soap in restaurant cloakrooms, and scented candles in suburban bathrooms, together with a host of other toiletries.

All this started with a conversation in 1997. The Revd Becca Stevens - an Episcopalian priest at St Augustine's Chapel, on the campus of Vanderbilt University, in Nashville - was talking to neighbours and friends who worked in the criminal-justice system.

They told her about the lives of sexworkers plying their trade on the dangerous streets of Nashville. They described the lack of options open to them, as they left prison with a criminal history of prostitution, on top of addiction.

She began to form the idea of a place of rest and healing. "I was hearing horrible stories of abuse and victimisation, and no one was helping them - they were arresting them," she says. "I did not want to evangelise: I just wanted to make a safe place for them, a sanctuary."

And this is what she did, setting up the Magdalene residential programme. Inititally, she set up a house for five women who wanted help to change their lives. The pattern of rehabilitation she established there has remained more or less the same for the subsequent 16 years.

RESIDENTS are given free accommodation for two years. The first 90 days are simply devoted to rest and recovery. There are no staff on the premises, and no demands made on the women, other than staying clean of drugs, and sober.

Over the remaining course of their time, they receive counselling, legal aid, medical and dental care, educational opportunities, and job training. One of the most significant - and effective - elements of the programme is providing the chance to reconcile themselves with their fam-ilies, and regain the custody of the children they have left behind.

Within those walls, the women are offered refuge and love in a non-judgemental community. For many, this is the first time that they have had a safe place of their own, with a door that they can lock. Virtually every woman who turns to sex work has suffered sexual abuse, typically before adolescence. "There is a myth that this is a choice," Ms Stevens says. "If prostitution is a choice, what were the options?"

She funded the first house with grants and donations. These included fees paid by men arrested for soliciting prostitutes who attended a "John School" (an education programme for first-time offenders in Nashville) instead of a fine.

There are now six houses, two of which provide transition for Magdalene "graduates" while they find independent housing. The houses accommodate 30 residents in all. Seventy-two per cent of the women who have been through Magdalene are still drug-free and sober two-and-a-half years later.

Regina Mullins was one of the first five residents of the first Magdalene house. She had spent eight years on the streets, which included countless arrests, and time in jail. She had been robbed, raped, beaten, thrown from a moving car, and lost her three sons.

"The drugs weren't getting me high enough to do what I did, and I hated the men so much I couldn't trick them any more," she says.

The day she moved into the Magdalene house, she was welcomed by the four women who were already there. "I cried and cried. The house was so nice; my room was so beautiful; my bed was so soft. I couldn't believe it was happening to me." Today, she is Magdalene's residence manager, overseeing the houses; she is also one of the organisation's most polished public speakers.

MS STEVENS, who is now 51, grew up as the daughter of an Episcopal priest, the Revd Gladstone Stevens, and his wife, Anne. On her mother's birthday, in 1968, her father was killed by a drunk driver.

Her mother went from being a clergy wife to being the single mother of five, devoting her life to the service of children through a church-based community centre, which served an impoverished population.

"My mother made a whole life out of caring for the least of us," Ms Stevens says. "She worked as much as 70 hours a week, and I was the product of the idea that [raising a child] really does take a village. I can see that Magdalene had its birth in that story."

Not incidental was another part of Ms Stevens's story: she was sexually assaulted by a churchwarden at the age of seven. It took many years for her to comprehend its effect on her life, but she says: "All of the good and all of the bad that happens to us is part of our path. I believe that what happened to me at his hands led my heart to the women of Magdalene."

After graduating from the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, she returned to Nashville, and the Vanderbilt Divinity School, putting herself forward for ordination.

At Vanderbilt, she met her husband-to-be, the songwriter Marcus Hummon. Their first date was cleaning a flat in a building being refurbished for the homeless. They married in 1988, and she was ordained in 1991.

THISTLE FARMS came out of another conversation between Ms Stevens and long-time supporters about the need to teach marketable skills to residents, find jobs for graduates, and provide income for the programme.

"Because Magdalene is about healing, body products were the natural path to that," Ms Stevens says. "The thistle is the only flower that grows up from the side of the streets that many people have walked. We are all the farmers."

Thistle Farms was launched on Valentine's Day 2001, in the kitchen of St Augustine's small A-frame chapel, where, on three mornings a week, four residents and several volunteers blended oils, melted beeswax, mixed salts, and stuck labels on small tins and jars.

As retail outlets grew, so did the need for more products, more space, and more employees. After an interim few years in an unused clergy house, Thistle Farms acquired an 11,000-square-foot building on a main road. The location is on a bus route - a critical requirement for many of the 40 or so Magdalene residents and graduates who work there.

The plant includes "The Studios", where paper products are made from scratch, and where "Love Heals" patches are sewn on to pre-manufactured shirts.

"The Paper Studio" - a brightly lit room filled with dried flowers, and stacks of handmade papers ready to be cut into gift tags, note cards, and journals - is run by Penny Hall, a Magdalene graduate, who lived for many years under a bridge in Nashville before her recovery.

THE Paper Studio is where Jennifer Clinger, a 2012 graduate, got her first job at Thistle. After nearly two decades of undertaking brutal sex work on the notorious Dixie Strip, in Dayton, Ohio - in order to feed her heroin addiction - she found herself in the confessional of a Roman Catholic church.

Breaking down, she spent hours sobbing, sure that if she did not find help she would be dead within the year.

On 10 March 2010, she was given her own key to a Magdalene residence. "My brother dropped me off," she remembers. "There were all these women, strangers, hugging me and saying 'Welcome home.'

"There was so much love, but all I could think was 'You don't know the things I've done. You can't possibly love me.' For the first 60 days, I hardly unpacked. The hardest work I did was to sit down, and be still. I started to find out that not only can I love, but I can be loved.

"I started making paper, then candles. Then I learned shipping, then sales. I'm learning about PR, marketing, outreach, and development. I've done public speaking, and writing. I feel like the sky is the limit. Magdalene works on an individual basis because, although we share a pain, we are all different. If you fall down - and we all do - they help you back up. They call you back into the circle."

Every weekday at Thistle Farms begins with "The Circle", when employees gather in one room for prayer, meditation, and gratitude. Wednesday mornings are open to all, and on the day I visited, the place was packed.

In addition to staff, there were visiting clergy, social workers, representatives from newly forming groups in other states, a family from north Michigan on their spring break, the folk singer Maura O'Connell, earnest members of a Christian boy band, and a slew of novice volunteers.

The latter are likely to be directed to the paper studio, and their information added to the pool of hundreds on file.

After their shift ends, many will drift over to the third component of the building, the Thistle Stop Café, a coffee house, tea room, and café run by a combination of residents, graduates, staff, and volunteers.

THE Magdalene-Thistle Farms vision is spreading far beyond Middle Tennessee. Social workers, church ministers, people working in criminal justice, and community activists from near and far come to Nashville for monthly education workshops; and national conferences sell out.

Sister programmes are opening houses in cities including New Orleans, Memphis, St Louis, Atlanta, and Boston.

This year, the St Augustine's congregation - grown to more than 700 - will celebrate Ms Stevens's 20th year of chaplaincy by sponsoring a trip to Uganda. She plans to work alongside Canon Gideon Byamugisha to found a social enterprise that will benefit women with HIV.

She will then travel to Rwanda to develop further an existing alliance between Thistle Farms and Ikirezi - female survivors of the 1994 genocide - who produce the geranium oils used in Thistle products.

All this is part of Shared Trade, Thistle's newest endeavour, the seed of which was sown in a conversation she had with the PR and development co-ordinator Marlei Olson, and her husband, Dr John Kutsko, while they were returning from the 2012 Greenbelt Festival.

"We had met various groups at the festival, and we were talking about how the social-enterprise groups - especially ones where women are the workforce - are so challenged," Ms Stevens says. "We said we need an alliance." Shared Trade will unite organisations where the workforce of women is the mission and the goal is moving them permanently out of poverty.

MS STEVENS is a guest speaker at this year's Greenbelt Festival, in August, where she will also preside at the mainstage communion service. She will be accompanied by former Magdalene residents. Her son, Levi, and her husband, Marcus, are also performing at the festival as a country duo.

"Thistle Farms is a multi-million-dollar company now," Ms Stevens says. "This is a community venture with the idea that there is a communal vision and sharing of ideas and, as we pull these ideas together, something great will emerge.

"I think there has been a shift in how people view prostitution - that these women are recognised as victims, not criminals. . . I want to be a part of getting to the point where we are going to be done with buying and selling women. We are part of the movement that will accomplish that."

The Greenbelt Festival takes place from 22-25 August at Boughton House, Northamptonshire.


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