Vanderbilt’s Episcopal chaplain provides recovering addicts and prostitutes a place to heal.
by Whitney Weeks
Photography by John Russell and Daniel Dubois
Ten years ago, the Rev. Becca Stevens had what she calls “a really little thought.”
That “little thought” became Magdalene, a two-year residential program that helps women get off of Nashville’s streets, off illegal drugs and out of the cycle of abuse. Since its inception, more than 100 women have successfully completed the program, and millions of dollars have been raised to keep it going.
“I wanted it to be sweet and small,” said Stevens, who is an Episcopal priest and the chaplain of St. Augustine’s Chapel on the Vanderbilt campus. “I really wanted to do things the way I would want things done to me if I were coming out of jail or off the streets. Then everyone else put their thoughts into it, and that’s when it became a big thought.”
Magdalene is not a traditional, linear recovery program or even an entity located under a single roof. It is a loving, nurturing community that invites women with a criminal history of drug abuse and prostitution to re-learn how to live. The program includes housing, counseling sessions, 12-step meetings, classes on parenting and financial management, spiritual guidance and employment opportunities through the organization’s cottage industry, Thistle Farms.
One of Magdalene’s success stories is Tracey Warfield.
At 16, Warfield began using drugs. Her mother and father sold drugs, and her brother was a drug dealer, too.
“I thought it was the thing to do because of the people I was around and what I grew up with,” she said. “I thought if I did drugs, I (would) fit in with the world.”
That world eventually led to drug abuse, prostitution and an abusive relationship that, in Warfield’s words, “took me to take my ex-boyfriend’s life.”
While in jail facing charges of manslaughter, Warfield met Stevens, who invited her to come to Magdalene.
“I never thought that there was a way out. I didn’t even imagine it,” Warfield said. “And when I got here (to Magdalene), I seen other women like me. It was an experience that was kind of overwhelming.”
All of the women who come to Magdalene have a criminal record. Thirty percent are HIV- or Hepatitis C-positive. They bear physical and emotional scars from years on the streets abusing drugs, selling their bodies and suffering violence at the hands of family members, pimps and johns. All have endured rape at some point in their lives, and the majority have a history of childhood sexual abuse.
Magdalene’s uniqueness comes from its ability to address the wide range of needs facing women who are attempting to shed a life of drug abuse and prostitution. The residents live in one of four Magdalene-owned houses free of charge and are given the luxury of time to heal away from drug dealers and abusive relationships.
“It’s not easy, especially if you just came off the streets,” Warfield said. “You don’t (have) a clue about how to recover, how to stay clean, how to be responsible.
“How do you even just wake up and take a bath? You don’t know none of that stuff.”
“It’s a violent, hellish world out there, and you truly begin here at Magdalene by first learning to relax and heal,” Stevens said. “You start to learn how to live together, and you are given time to learn that people are not your enemies – they are your friends.”
So begins a journey that is rooted in a loving community that helps women recover from their drug and alcohol addictions, reconcile with their children, secure mental and physical health care, receive educational and employment training and, ultimately, create for themselves a whole new life.
The congregation of St. Augustine’s is a big part of the healing process. On Sunday mornings, former prostitutes and drug addicts fill the pews alongside members of the Nashville community, including Vanderbilt faculty, staff and students. They share their stories and partake in communion together, finding commonalities in what some would think of as very different worlds.
“These individuals are some of the most powerful women I have ever met,” said Lynne McFarland, an advanced practice nurse at Vanderbilt. “They have experienced levels of abuse that result in shells of hardness and cynicism, (but) they are open in a way that gets to the heart of everything. I love that when I am with (them), I am not judged and I am not a judge. That is so freeing.”
That sense of community is what makes the program work, Stevens said.
“There’s a sickness in our culture and it creates a community that puts these women onto the streets. They aren’t born thinking they want to be on the street; the story is much more complicated,” she said. “And so, if it takes a failed and abusive community to get her onto the streets, we believe it’s going to take a community to bring her off the streets.”
For those dedicated to the Magdalene program, that means helping a pregnant resident register at Target for a baby shower for the first time. It means combing the dark streets to find a resident who has relapsed. It means getting the word out so that money can be raised to keep the program not only growing, but thriving.
One way Magdalene sustains itself, in addition to private donations, is Thistle Farms, a cottage industry that produces bath and body products and candles. All aspects of the business, including the creation of products, are handled by its employees, who are almost exclusively the women of Magdalene.
From mixing product formulas to filling hundreds of orders at a time, Thistle Farms employees discover what it means to make money in a way that doesn’t involve degradation, hustling or violence.
Katrina Davidson, director of sales, has worked for Thistle Farms for two years. In her current role, she ensures the company’s products are carried in more than 50 local and national retail venues.
“I was in Magdalene for five or six months and then I began working at Thistle Farms,” she said. “In 2001, (the product line) was just a little tin candle and a bath salt. … Look at how it has grown.”
With a recently launched line of new products, as well as fresh packaging for some old favorites, Thistle Farms’ wares are available online, in retail stores and through home parties. During sales events held in private homes, members of the Magdalene community share their product knowledge as well as their personal stories.
“It isn’t about making people feel sorry for these women,” Stevens said. “It’s about inspiring others to make changes in their own lives. By hearing the individual successes of these women, we hope to inspire others to do their very best.”
Of the women who enter Magdalene, two and a half years later 75 percent of them are still clean and sober, Stevens said.
“I’m three years clean,” Warfield said. “I’m in a transition house. I have responsibilities. That’s a good thing because I didn’t have no responsibilities when I was out there. I didn’t care about anything except getting high.
“Coming to Magdalene gave me my life back and made me into the woman that God wanted me to be. So now I just take it one day at a time.”About St. Augustine’s Episcopal Chapel
Begun with seed money from Nashville’s St. George’s Episcopal Church and Christ Church Cathedral, St. Augustine’s Episcopal Chapel has served the Vanderbilt community since the mid-1950s. The chapel, located at 24th and Kensington avenues, is currently closed for renovations. In the interim, services are being held at Benton Chapel, located at 21st Avenue South and Scarritt Place. For more information, visit www.vanderbilt.edu/staugustines
. To read Becca Stevens’ blog, visit www.beccastevens.org
. About Thistle Farms
Thistle Farms is a non-profit business operated by the women of Magdalene, who create bath and body products that are environmentally friendly. All sales support the residents of Magdalene. The name comes from the thistles that grow between the cracks of pavement on the streets and alleys where the women of Magdalene once walked. To buy Thistle Farms products, host a home party, find a retailer or make a donation, visit www.thistlefarms.org
Whitney Weeks is a freelance writer and the former director of strategic communications for Vanderbilt’s Division of Public Affairs.
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