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VOL. 40 | NO. 52 | Friday, December 23, 2016

Becca Stevens: ‘She’s our angel in plain clothes’

A hero for women who have lived lives with none

By Vicky Travis

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Possibly the difference between Becca Stevens and the rest of us mortals is her drive to act while others take time to ponder.

Procrastination is not an option, as she forges ahead seemingly without worry or doubt. “Don’t think about it,” is her advice.

Stevens, an Episcopal priest in Nashville, was recently honored as a Top 10 finalist as one of CNN’s Heroes for her work with women in recovery from prostitution, sex trafficking and addiction.

Her mission began when she opened Magdalene House in Nashville in 1997. The first home welcomed five women off the streets, offering love and healing from prostitution, sex trafficking and addiction. By 1999, Stevens had three recovery houses, and eight women had graduated from the program.

Among her many successes, Thistle Farms evolved out of the Magdalene program with residents making and selling products such as candles and soap based on recipes found in the Old Testament.

Stevens’ work resonated, grew and opened the gates for dreams she didn’t know she would have. Dreams that would touch thousands of lives.

‘Love heals’

“She’s our angel in plain clothes,” says Katrina Robertson, now 11 years clean and sober, loving life and her job as national sales director at Thistle Farms. “The bigger picture is the outside community embracing us. We couldn’t do what we do without the community.”

Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville donated $10,000 to help launch the Magdalene program in 1997. No state or federal money is ever used. Revenue also comes in the form of grants and an annual fundraiser.

Thistle Farms will celebrate its 20th anniversary in August 2017, and now has five homes in Nashville for up to 32 women.

Becca Stevens, named one of 10 in CNN’s annual Heroes of 2016, has been an Episcopal priest for about 25 years and has written more than a dozen books.

She founded Thistle Farms, a community of women who are healing from prostitution, trafficking and addiction. The social enterprise run by the community employs survivors and creates revenue for the ministry by making and selling products such as candles and soap.

Stevens has been featured in the New York Times, on ABC World News, NPR, PBS and most recently on the CNN Heroes special, which aired Dec. 11.

In 2011, the White House named her a “Champion of Change,” and she was named Humanitarian of the Year by the Small Business Council of America and the TJ Martell Foundation.

She was inducted into the Tennessee Women’s Hall of Fame. She has been conferred honorary doctorates from Sewanee: The University of the South and General Theological Seminary, New York.
She is a graduate of Sewanee and Vanderbilt Divinity School.

She is married to songwriter Marcus Hummon and has three children.

The two-year residency program also gives medical care, therapy, education and job training. A waitlist to get in caps at 100. That’s just in Nashville.

Thistle Farms partners with 60 housing-first women’s freedom programs around the country, and Stevens’ speaking and travel schedule stays full as she shares her “love heals” message.

Stevens, who is also chaplain at St. Augustine’s Chapel at Vanderbilt University, is the author of more than a dozen books, the latest being “Love Heals,” which will publish in fall 2017. Her book “Snake Oil” reveals her childhood trauma and its lessons.

Her father was killed by a drunk driver when she was 5, leaving her mother a widow at 35 alone to raise five children. A trusted church leader who stepped in under the guise of friendship would sexually abuse Stevens over the next two years.

“I think that event coupled with the sexual abuse laid the groundwork for cultivating a compassionate heart for women I would meet later on the streets and in prison,” she says.

Stevens writes in the book, “The abuse taught me that I could trust my own voice and be patient in the healing process, and that the mercy I experienced in my life was stronger than judgment. These lessons all played important roles as I reached out to serve others.”

Her experience

“Becca turned her broken experience into understanding humanity,” husband Marcus Hummon says. “She saw through her own experience a way out.”

Tracey Warfield-Talley, manufacturing manager, works on labeling lotion bottles at the Thistle Farms manufacturing facility on Charlotte Pike. This year’s sales topped $2 million, thanks in part to Whole Foods adding Thistle Farms products to 450 stores.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Stevens lives her truth that the lines dividing people are thin. Each woman who enters the homes is welcomed to the circle, and often asked simply, without blame, “What happened to you?”

“Her walk showed her that thin line,” Hummon explains. “It’s her main truth, profound and simple.”

“I do think realizing the line that separates any of us is thin is a great way to enter into justice work,’’ Stevens says. “It means you plan to do the work exactly as you would hope someone did it for you if you needed it.

“I think without knowing it, childhood trauma helped me feel compassion and some righteous anger for the women I was meeting.”

Universal message

“This is not just about women,” says Hal Cato, who is the first CEO of Thistle Farms. “It’s a human rights issue. Love heals is a universal message.”

And the world has noticed.

Stevens has earned several local and national humanitarian awards over the years, and this year was recently named one of 10 CNN Heroes.

“It’s an appropriate thing,” adds Charles Strobel, founder of Room in the Inn, of calling Stevens a hero.

“These women rarely see heroes in their lives. They see rapists, robbers, arresting police, the criminal justice system, and she breaks the mold with her message of love heals, teaching that we should heal with love rather than throw stones.”

“We’re all only as busy as we can be in 24 hours,” says Stevens in a video on ThistleFarms.org. “We can get busy doing nothing. Or we can make faith the first busyness.”

Linda Goldman, event packing assistant works on preparing items for shipping. Inset: Thistle Farms Clarity Soak Peppermint & Lavender Bath Salts.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“Becca Stevens’ passionate belief in love’s healing power is a message we all need to take to heart,” Nashville Mayor Megan Barry adds.

“Becca’s life and work show a profound commitment to helping women recover by giving them opportunities to tell their stories and to make and sell things – opportunities that let them reclaim their hearts and their hands.

“Thistle Farms is one of Nashville’s sweetest success stories, and no one fits the definition of ‘hero’ better than Becca Stevens. Her work, her leadership and her advocacy have made our city a better place.”

“Don’t think about the amount of work ahead,” Stevens advises as she squeezed in a phone call on the way to another airport, always living in the moment. “Here I am in Sanibel (Florida) today, what a gift, driving in this great rental van, seeing beautiful palm trees with friends.”

Her friends in the van on that recent December day included Dorris Walker, 60, who had shared her survival story with the audience the previous night. For years, she was in and out of jail. One of her acquaintances there would find healing at Thistle Farms and invite Walker.

“It was another two years before I went to Thistle Farms, but she had planted the word of hope.” Walker graduated in 2011 and is now Thistle Farms’ event coordinator for Tennessee.

“I just love this life. There’s nothing any better.”

Walker travels with Stevens and often shares her story, her hope, locally and nationally. One story after another, women connect and the #loveheals movement grows.

“I can’t count the number of people around the world she has reached,” Walker says.

Robertson agrees: “This goes way beyond just here.”

She takes each moment one at a time – the happy or the hurt.

“One woman just got married, and I did her wedding,” Stevens says. “But last month another overdosed. We take in stride.”

Love and hope guide her steps.

“Love is the most powerful force for social change,” Stevens adds. “For us, it’s about building a movement for women’s freedom through global partners and helping locally.”

Love in the work

In 2001, Stevens and Thistle Farms residents and graduates poured the first candles in a church basement, the humble beginnings for a company that would serve two purposes, employment for survivors and sustainability for the home.

This was social enterprise before those buzz words were a thing. To date, survivors have earned more than $850,000, and just as importantly, have become survivor-leaders in the company.

While new to Thistle Farms, Walker started on the floor making candles and then packing products. Because of the drugs she had done, she had a hard time remembering the products, so she made up a little song.

She worked hard and was promoted to work on events in Nashville and now at state events.

In 2015, Thistle Farms hired its first CEO, Cato, and this year hit $2 million in sales. In November, Thistle Farms products started being sold in 450 Whole Foods in the United States and Canada, shipping 50,000 candles for the rollout, which is more candles than all of last year, Stevens says.

“We’re just hitting our stride,” she adds.

After the CNN Heroes special aired Sunday Dec. 11, Thistle Farms had 462 new orders waiting Monday morning. The usual number of orders is between 40 and 60.

The west Nashville workplace hummed with activity, making body care products and candles, and employees and volunteers packed products as more orders rolled in throughout the day.

A purposeful, peaceful busyness permeates the offices and workspace on Charlotte Pike.

Her heart

Strobel, who has known Stevens since she was in Divinity School at Vanderbilt about 25 years ago, has long known Stevens’ heart to love the marginalized and depends on her friendship.

“She can be my conscience about things,” Strobel explains. “She’s that friend who never allows me to not be honest. I need people in life not afraid to tell me when I’m wrong, and hopefully I can do that for her.”

As Strobel passionately works for the homeless in Nashville, he understands the mentality of one step at a time.

“Social problems and injustice will overwhelm if you let it,” he points out. “You have to continue to stay involved.

“Ultimately, it starts with your mama,” he adds.

Like Strobel, Stevens followed her mother’s example to lift up the poor and poor in spirit. Anne Stevens was executive director of St. Luke’s Community Center in West Nashville from 1982-1997.

Strobel admits Stevens isn’t perfect.

“There are three things she needs to work on,” he says. “Finding her billfold, finding her cellphone and finding her car keys. If she could find those, she might be canonized.”

“Becca is an amazing lady and doesn’t have a selfish bone in her body,” Walker adds. “Her whole family treats us as part of their family. We’re not clients. We build community.”

Stevens met her husband, songwriter Marcus Hummon, while both were studying at Vanderbilt’s divinity school in the 1980s. He literally bumped into her at an MLK film festival at a church in East Nashville.

Soon after, that beautiful young woman sat next to him in a religious history class.

“For one of our first dates, she asked me to have a beer and clean a shelter,” Hummon remembers with a laugh. The shelter was part of St. Luke’s. “Wow, that’s my kind of girl.”

“I called my sister and told her that’s the woman I’m going to marry.’’

They married in 1988 when he was 27 and she was 25, within a year of that first meeting.

The young couple made it as Hummon wrote songs and Stevens continued in divinity school, teaching dance on the side. “We had a little place. Lived simply,” he recalls.

Their life has never been about money, but passions that include their three young adult sons. Oldest son Levi, 25, also a singer/songwriter, sends thank you notes to radio stations on Thistle Farms stationery. Caney, an artist and student at Sewanee: The University of the South and traveled with Stevens last summer “doing whatever needed to be done.”

Their youngest, Moses, 16, a student-athlete at University School, also has been involved.

“She works so hard, not just at her job but in being very present as a mom,” Hummon says. “It’s often not a lot of sleep and sometimes she’s up at 5 writing and thinking.”

Grammy-winning songwriter Hummon toured often in the 90s, enjoying his first No. 1 songwriting hit in 1992. Among his hits is “One of these Days,” which was covered by Tim McGraw. And then “Bless the Broken Road,” recorded by Rascal Flatts.

A couple of years ago, he was commissioned to write a play about Frederick Douglass, and the Cathedral has commissioned him to write a play on the Passion of Christ.

Now it’s Stevens who is more often on the road, speaking about 100 days a year.

“But it’s just work that needs to be done. It’s important,” he says. “I’m very, very supportive of that.”

Occasionally, they travel together, as they did this summer in Yellowstone, where Stevens was asked to preach and Hummon to provide the music.

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of Thistle Farms, which gets its name from a beautiful flower often considered a weed. But it has deep roots that help it survive harsh conditions and a royal purple, soft center.

Thistle Farms Global initiative, a marketplace of social enterprises to benefit women artisans across the world, was created in 2013.

“Something that keeps me going is having the freedom to dream,” Stevens says. A new dream coming to fruition in 2017 involves Syrian refugee women in Greece who will weave welcome mats from life jackets that will be sold by Thistle Farms.

A recent trip to visit a partner organization in San Francisco secured funding for looms, airfare and more.

“What they make, we will sell,” Stevens explains. And Hummon is writing a song for the new venture.

“I think the greatest gift of my faith life has been the work of Thistle Farms. It has filled a longing in my soul to believe that love heals and that love is powerful enough to change the story it seems like brokenness, injustice, and poverty have written for you,” Stevens says.

“?I think in many ways I believe in less things over the years, but what I am left believing I believe with my whole heart. My faith journey has been freeing and hopeful.

“I am so grateful that I get to witness love in action every day through family, Thistle Farms and St. Augustine’s.”

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