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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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.