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VOL. 45 | NO. 45 | Friday, November 5, 2021

A mother’s long-silent voice returns to inspire

A guiding presense in Stevens’ latest book

By Margaret Sizemore

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Becca Stevens shares intimate details about her life’s journey, in books, in sermons, in friendly conversation. They flow as generously as the fragrant oils she uses to anoint her children’s feet, the wounded women she loves and serves, and the congregants at her little chapel at Vanderbilt University.

She is known as the founder and president of Thistle Farms in Nashville, with its growing global network. She’s perhaps best known as the apostle of the message “Love Heals,” upon which the Thistle Farms foundation was built 25 years ago.

She is seeking to deepen that message with a new book, “Practically Divine,” and she draws on the strong, binding thread of her mother’s voice to tell the story.

“The idea of ‘Practically Divine’ is use what you have that is practical and experience the divine. Practically divine to me means almost and just enough,” Stevens says of her book, published last month by Harper Horizon.

“I hope it’s a reminder for everybody to feel like what they have inside them is enough to take them wherever they need to go on this journey, and I hope it is a way for people to feel like justice isn’t something we do on the side. It’s a way we live,” she continues.

In the opening chapter – “In Broad Daylight” (her mom’s exclamation at perpetrators who did their shameless deeds in plain view), Stevens tells of being sexually abused as a child by a church elder. “Practically Divine” closes with a vision of “The Feast” – “shared hosting where we serve one another so we all can eat.” A feast of peace flavored with small acts of love.

Her mother, Anne Stevens, died in 1997 from a terminal brain disease. Stevens says she didn’t intend to build her book’s framework upon her mom’s sayings; it turned out that way “from the beginning to the end.” The life stories and insights paired with the sayings are an invitation to awareness of divine love in daily experiences.

“It really happened organically that I was in the (Thistle Farms) café and I start the book off with her just basically getting into my head, and I can hear her voice,” she continues. “She’s been dead 25 years … she never got to see Thistle Farms start. And I was like, ‘Omigosh, how is she still in my head?’ But all of us have our mothers’ voices when you need them coming into our head.”

Anne Stevens became a widow Nov. 22, 1968, her 35th birthday. Her husband was the Rev. Gladstone H. Stevens, the rector of the fairly new St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Nashville, which he helped start. He was planning to come home and have lunch with his family after making a pastoral visit to a family in crisis.

A short distance from his home, his car was struck by a drunken driver. Stevens recalled the day in her 2013 book “Snake Oil” and has recounted it many times over as part of her healing story. News accounts say he was 41. Stevens was 5 years old at the time, the fourth of five Stevens siblings. The youngest, her only brother, Gladstone Hudson Stevens, was only 2.

“Yeah, she was amazing, five kids, raising them on your own at 35 years old,” Stevens says of her mother, Anne Stevens, a registered nurse who died in 1997.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“Yeah, she was amazing, five kids, raising them on your own at 35 years old,” Stevens remembers. “She was awesome, she was strong, she was fierce and she was funny and creative, so she was a good voice to have in my head.”

Anne Stevens was a registered nurse in New York before the family moved to Nashville. Many here knew her through her longtime service as executive director of St. Luke’s Community House in Nashville. Escuela Anne Stevens in Ecuador, which opened in 1999 under the umbrella of Becca’s Center for Contemplative Justice, is named for her.

The new book, within the chapter on “Bound by Grace,” tells of “how my mom lived and died in a graceful state.” Becca Stevens was a couple of months’ pregnant and having a miscarriage the morning her mother was hospitalized and later diagnosed with a variant of “mad cow” disease.

It was also a week before the Magdalene house, the precursor of Thistle Farms, was to open its doors to its first five women residents living on the streets. She went to her doctor and then drove to the hospital. As her mom was being settled into her room, the nurse caring for her asked if her mother was the wife of her childhood pastor.

“I was the little girl at the house your father stopped by before he died,” the nurse told her. Stevens recounted the story during one of her summer sermons at St. Augustine’s Chapel at Vanderbilt. “There were probably only a handful of people on the planet who knew (dad’s) name in this town,” she acknowledges. The nurse said the priest’s care for the family saved her parents’ marriage; she was honored to care for his wife, Becca’s mother.

“I had never heard any part of that story,” Stevens wrote. Synchronicity? Coincidence? “I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that even on the hardest days, if we can find the presence of mind to feel love’s presence, a peace that passes all understanding washes over us.”

“Practically Divine” was written during the pandemic, “and that became the biggest gift of COVID for me,” Stevens explains. “All my trips – I think I was booked for five different counties in the spring and summer of 2020 – all ended. I really lavished the writing of this. It was like I got to spend more time with the words, with the thoughts … in those early months of the pandemic it felt very tender.”

She dedicated her new book to her siblings. “They’re the best,” she enthuses after summarizing their current whereabouts. The eldest, Katie Ruth, is deceased. Sandra Lynn, a Ph.D., lives in Nashville and teaches occupational therapy at two area universities – “She’s a healer, too.’’ Pamela Jean is a deputy director for the state of Georgia, working with at-risk children, and Gladstone Hudson is a Catholic priest.

As adults, the author and her brother both entered the priesthood. Becca Stevens was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1991 in Nashville and has spent much of her priestly life as one of the chaplains at St. Augustine’s Chapel at Vanderbilt. Gladstone was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest for the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky, in 2000. He is now dean at the School of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore.

Stevens says she was a math major in college and is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, where she met her husband, Marcus Hummon. She tells the story of her ordination in Nashville in “Snake Oil,” which she says is one of about 10 books she has written over the years.

She was eight months pregnant, kneeling during the ceremony while a circle of priests laid hands on her head and shoulders: “For me, that meant that several of the priests who knew my father blessed my ordination. Ironically, my father, for all his beautiful thoughts, died thinking that women’s ordination would be the end of the church,” she wrote.

Stevens says as she kneeled “all I could see was black tasseled shoes. I knew in that moment that I was not going to be able to walk in their shoes. I wanted to travel on the hard, dry ground, and I needed shoes more appropriate for the journey I was making.”

Rather, the Rev. Becca Stevens often can be found preaching and serving at liturgies without any shoes at all; likewise, while speaking at retreats and such. She explained in “Snake Oil” that everyone in her family went barefoot growing up. During her ordination, with her feet bloated in pregnancy, she rejected clogs in favor of bare feet. She muses that it serves as a reminder to take a healing posture.

Stevens knew she did not want to be the rector of a parish. “For me, priesthood felt like a way to explore the world with a bit of freedom, in that you had permission to talk about love and justice, you know, and form community,” she notes. “I always knew I wanted to be involved with women who were coming off the streets and with communities that were interested in helping women come off the streets, I knew that.”

She credits her mother’s example of “showing love through practical means” as giving her the “wherewithal to open a home for women survivors of trafficking, prostitution and addiction… I did it because sanctuary is the most practical ideal of all,” she writes in her introduction to “Practically Divine.” “I wanted to do the work of healing from the inside out. And that begins with a safe home.”

She also credits her eldest son’s innocent notice of a billboard for a downtown adult club that featured a woman dressed as a cat as the spark that got her moving to open the first sanctuary home so many years ago. “I had the idea, but you know how we all have ideas. It’s like life gets in the way.

“I think we get used to seeing stuff like that, and then through a child’s eyes, it’s like, ‘Why is that lady smiling?’ It was like, this isn’t normal to dress a grown woman up like a cat, paste her up there and sell her probably for less than a cat. And it was his beautiful eyes that saw that as strange that helped me get going on this,” she adds.

She says she talked to friends – “you know, community is how ideas grow” – raised funding, found a house, organized a board and went to the jail to talk to women. There, she encountered a sweep of classmates from her years as a student at Overton High School: the priest, the jail guard, the counselor who gave her the first referral and the woman who was being referred. “Isn’t that crazy? And feeling, honestly, that because of life any of us could have changed places at any time.”

Since the opening of the Magdalene house 25 years ago, Stevens has founded 10 justice organizations with global connections, some tied to Thistle Farms and some independent. A few favorites include a conservation cemetery called Larkspur, founded in 2014 at Taylor Hollow in Westmoreland, and women’s artisan groups in Mexico, Ecuador, Botswana, Greece, as well as the Nashville-based Center for Contemplative Justice designed to shelter and nurture new organizations and ideas.

“The idea is to help all of us, truthfully, to deal with our own lives, to keep challenging a culture that still buys and sells women, to keep thinking creatively about how healing works, to feel hopeful. I mean, gosh, the ‘hope shot’ is what the world needs daily right now.’’

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