It’s relatively quiet in the Thistle Stop Café, a lull between the early morning rush and the lunch crowd influx. Behind the counter, a woman is using the downtime to organize a tray of teacups; no two match, but all are uniquely ornate and lovely. As soon as a customer approaches the counter, she sets the tray aside and greets him with a welcoming smile as she takes his order.
This is no ordinary cafe. The barista is a graduate of Magdalene, a local two-year residential program that offers housing, therapy, education and job training to women recovering from prostitution, trafficking, addiction and life on the streets. If five or 10 years ago, you had told this woman that someday she’d have a safe place to live and a full-time job, she wouldn’t have believed you. She didn’t believe she deserved another chance.
The Magdalene program, which operates without any state or federal funding, was founded in 1997 by Episcopal priest and St. Augustine chaplain Becca Stevens. The Thistle Stop Café, at 5128 Charlotte Ave., is the latest extension of the nonprofit, which launched Magdalene’s social enterprise, Thistle Farms, in 2001, providing job training through the production, packing and sales of natural bath and body care products.
While the Thistle Farms line of products, available in more than 200 retail outlets, has certainly helped raise the profile of the work being done at Magdalene, the cafe provides the opportunity for Magdalene graduates to directly interact with customers, and to share their recovery stories, true to the cafe’s ethos of “a story in every cup,” beautifully exemplified by the more than 800 donated mismatched cups the cafe has collected for serving tea and coffee.
The cafe provides another avenue for women to gain financial independence through educational and vocational training and an incredible amount of support through the post-Magdalene transition. Additionally, this little cafe is part of a global movement uniting communities to combat sexual violence and empower women. And joining the movement can start with the smallest of steps, such as buying a cup of coffee.
Jennifer is a Magdalene graduate and one of the new employees at the Thistle Stop Café. We’re sitting in the sewing studio at Thistle Farms, nestled between the cafe and the nonprofit’s manufacturing facility. Passers-by peer in the front window, perhaps still unsure of which door leads to the newly opened cafe. The facility, clean yet cluttered, is somewhat sterile in that functional way — necessarily so, for an enterprise that produces soaps, lotions and the like — and is cheerfully decorated, kind of like a children’s hospital.
And as in a children’s hospital, the bright accents and positive imagery are a contrast to the pain residents have endured. Jennifer, a blond 40-something woman, is ebullient and fiery, with a large personality that instantly draws you in. After some icebreaking banter about the weather — both of us grew up the Midwest and think it’s funny how people in Nashville freak out over one inch of snow — Jennifer tells the story of how Magdalene literally saved her life.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, she was the youngest of 12 children in a strict Catholic family. Her father, a war veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, was an alcoholic who employed severe disciplinary tactics with his children. Jennifer and her sisters were sexually abused by his brother at a very young age.
“I used to wait on the bus and pray that the front seat would be open so I wouldn’t have to walk past the other kids, because I thought I was dirty,” Jennifer said, tears welling in her eyes. “And that’s not what a child should be worried about, waiting on a bus to go to school.”
Jennifer first smoked pot at age 12, and then started running away from home, working her way up and down the East Coast, where her life became a blur of truck drivers, pedophiles, drugs and sexual assault. At age 16, she returned to Dayton. Within the next four months, she found out she was pregnant, turned 17 and got married.
“I’m thinking, ‘My world is going to change,’ ” she said. “ ‘This is what it’s all about. I’m going to be a mother, I am a wife, and he’s going to take care of me.’ ”
Two years later, Jennifer got pregnant again, but lost her son in childbirth.
“Two minutes before the delivery, my son passed away,” she explained, gasping for air through her tears. “He never took that first breath. And that was it. It was far too much at that time in my life. I divorced my husband. I started working in strip clubs. I changed my name, and I just started living the biggest lie.”
What followed was years of strip clubs, escort services and gentlemen’s clubs. Her drug problem escalated until she was a full-blown heroin addict, her body covered in scars. At that point, she couldn’t work in the clubs anymore, so she resorted to prostitution.
“I remember the thought process, walking out to the street,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Jennifer, you put your foot on that street, and you jump in one of those cars, and there’s no turning back. There’s just lonely men out there, so you just go out there and do it.’ So I talked myself into it, I told myself it was OK to sell your body.”
For nearly two decades, this was how she lived. She spoke to her ex-husband occasionally, as the two shared a child, and she had five more children over the years. In January 2010, after a fight with her ex-husband in which he pushed her head through a window, Jennifer reached the end of her rope. She turned to one of her sisters, who took her in.
She went to confession for the first time in 20 years, where she met a priest who told her about Magdalene. When she called Magdalene, she was disappointed to learn that there was a two-year waiting list.
But Jennifer was persistent; calling Magdalene every day. Finally, in March 2010, just two days before Jennifer’s birthday, she received the news that she could be admitted as soon as she could get to Nashville. She arrived later that week.
The program at Magdalene is unique compared with other addiction recovery programs. The nonprofit operates without any state or federal funding, relying entirely upon revenue from Thistle Farms, donations and grants. In addition to offering outreach to women still living on the streets, Magdalene provides two years of housing, education and treatment at no cost to the residents. After four months in the program, Magdalene residents must either find employment, return to school, and/or join Thistle Farms’ job training program.
There are currently six homes in the Nashville area housing 30 women, and there are no live-in staff members. Deb Markland, national education and outreach coordinator for Thistle Farms, said the housing model for Magdalene is an essential part of the treatment and recovery process.
“People are surprised that it’s two years, and that we don’t take any state or federal funding, and that we don’t have 24-hour supervision in the house,” Markland said. “It’s the Benedictine model of community; we give you a key to your house, you’re going to live in community with one another just like you or I would. These women have well-founded issues with authority; a lot of the authority figures in their lives were the ones who abused them in childhood”
Magdalene’s recovery program is grounded in 24 simple principles that outline the practical ways in which to live in community gracefully, a big step for many of these women coming off the streets. The Rev. Mike Kinman, dean of the Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis, is in the process of setting up a Magdalene house, and he stresses that the community surrounding the women in recovery is as integral as the treatment they receive throughout the process.
“What community does is different,” Kinman said. “The truth is, what drives any of our addictions is … factors in our lives that are much more complex than just fixing one thing, and they’re messy. Part of the problem is that you don’t see the 30-, 60-, 90- day programs having the kind of impact that Magdalene has … they’re not long enough. When you live together in community for two years, you can’t hide your stuff. It’s going to come to the surface. When it comes to the surface, we’re going to deal with it, and we’re going to deal with it together.”
Jennifer admits she was in shock for much of her first year at Magdalene, finally facing the fact that she’d essentially lost more than two decades of her life. Without heroin or other substances to take the edge off this harsh reality, she immersed herself in intense group and individual therapy.
“If all of that innocence hadn’t been ripped from me, if I had been productive for 25 years, where would I be right now?” she wondered. “I needed to deal with that. When I get these feelings of pain and shame and guilt, I always ran, up and down the highways, I could go somewhere else and pretend to be someone else. The first year, I could not cry; I would not cry. I thought I was some kind of badass, but I’m not. I’m a gentle, loving person. I had to find myself.”
Jennifer said her story is “a picnic” compared to what happened to some of the other women she’s met through Magdalene. For many of them, receiving any kind of love was a large part of the struggle toward recovery.
“And you know what? We do recover,” she added. “We become very productive members of the community, very valuable members of the community.”
While the Thistle Farms bath and body products have certainly raised awareness of Magdalene in Nashville and beyond, the cafe provides a unique opportunity for the community to see the results of what Magdalene does firsthand.
“For us, in many ways, it was the next natural step, because we want to be a place of hospitality, we want to be a place that is welcoming and healing,” Stevens explained. “To serve really good food and coffee and tea is a happy thing. … I hope that it’s a tangible symbol of what love looks like. That’s what the cafe is to me. Lavish and simple at the same time, exquisite and humble. … It makes me so happy to walk in there. This is what love looks like.”
The beautiful 2,300-square-foot cafe offers healthy, locally sourced sandwiches, salads and baked goods from vendors such as chef Arnold Myint, Spark of Life Healing Foods, Dozen Bakery and Vegan Vee, along with coffee and tea service. The cafe currently employs five full-time employees, with another one in training, and Stevens hopes to add more as the cafe gets busier. It’s currently open on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., and groups can reserve the space for afternoon tea service, special events and songwriters nights.
“There are so many women who are looking for a chance, to have a job, to have meaning and purpose, like all of us want in our lives,” Stevens said. “There’s not a barista in the cafe who hasn’t experienced sexual violence, and most of them from a really young age. All of the women have survived lives of trafficking, prostitution and addiction, and they’re now full-time employees with benefits.”
Instead of being discouraged or intimidated by the big picture — and the undeniably vast worldwide problem of sexual violence against women — Stevens and the employees and volunteers at Magdalene and Thistle Farms see the work that they do, exemplified through the cafe, as part of a larger global movement, and one that can have a massive impact.
“We’re not just a residential center, we’re not just a cafe, we’re not just a manufacturer of bath and body care products — we’re part of a movement,” Stevens said. “And the movement is literally standing in solidarity with women who are coming in from off the streets, as a community, to welcome them back. To say we can combat the universal issue of sexual violence, we can help stop trafficking domestically in the United States of America. We can have an impact on the whole culture, not just the subculture of women.”
Stevens balances her many responsibilities with Magdalene, Thistle Farms and St. Augustine in addition to being the mother of three boys and the wife of songwriter Marcus Hummon. The author of nine books, she has been honored locally and nationally, named the 2000 Nashvillian of the Year by The City Paper’s sister publication, Nashville Scene, and as one of the White House’s 15 Champions of Change in 2011. She consults with groups seeking to launch similar residential programs or social enterprises in their communities, frequently traveling with Magdalene graduates. In the past year, they’ve visited more than 20 cities. They also hold monthly workshops in Nashville, inviting groups to see the process and the results firsthand.
“We’ve welcomed more than a thousand individuals in the past year-and-a-half, who have come from 125 different cities, who are trying to duplicate or replicate some of our best practices,” she said.
The community of Magdalene extends far past the U.S. border, forming international partnerships with groups in Kenya, Rwanda and Ghana. Since 2008, Thistle Farms has worked directly with women in Rwanda — many survivors of genocide — to source the geranium oil used in some of the bath and body care products.
“They make the geranium oil we use, which is a great mosquito repellant,” Stevens said. “The women of Rwanda and Nashville share so much; it’s such a similar story. Both feel the effects of sexual violence, and the beauty of what healing looks like. It’s fun to be partners with people where you’re sharing ideas and you’re sharing how women can be moved up on the value chain. ”
Sexual violence affects women around the globe, but Stevens looks at the opportunity of recovery and support from the community — and, ultimately, love — as a way to combat and eradicate this violence. A big step forward in this movement, she believes, will happen this October with Thistle Farms/Magdalene’s first national conference, titled Welcome to the Circle: A Global Movement for Community Healing.
A natural extension of monthly workshops, the conference, which will be held at the Scarritt-Bennett Center, will provide a forum to strengthen the network and share best practices for groups working to help survivors of prostitution, trafficking and addiction. Markland said the conference will offer participants a more immersive experience to learn how to apply the Magdalene and Thistle Farms models in their communities.
“We’re learning from them, they’re learning from us,” Markland said. “They are social workers, health care professionals, students, clergy, and as it’s grown, the demand to widen the conversation has grown, so we decided that it’s time to host this conference.”
Kinman, who met Stevens at a conference in 1998, has attended several monthly workshops in Nashville over the years. He will co-lead a workshop at the conference, called “Duplicating the Model,” just before the first St. Louis Magdalene house opens at the end of 2013.
The conference will also serve as the launch of the Shared Trade Alliance, inviting likeminded groups around the world to combine resources to form a more cohesive network. Through recovery from violence and sustainable employment, Stevens said the coalition would strive to bring women out of poverty permanently.
“We have to join small groups coming together, because that helps with marketing, and leveraging our economic position, so we can be successful,” Stevens said.
“We’re trying to close the value chain, the gap between someone producing a product and the person who is consuming the product, and trying to cut out the unnecessary middle man,” Markland continued. “If we’ve learned something in the 15 years that we’ve been working in this field, there’s no reason for somebody else to go out and reinvent it. We’re really open, and we share everything, all of our budgets, and our handbooks, our grant text. Hopefully, we can then come together and have some economic leverage.”
For example, Thistle Farms can buy their geranium oil directly from the women in Rwanda rather than going through a distributor, and follow suit with their other suppliers. Because, as Stevens points out, the purpose of selling the product isn’t simply to sell a good product: It’s to give the women the financial freedom to escape a world of poverty and abuse, whether they’re harvesting geranium oil in a field in Rwanda or packaging candles in a facility on Charlotte Pike in Nashville.
“The women that work for us are the whole mission of the group,” Stevens said. “We don’t hire a bunch of women because we love making candles; we make tons of candles because we love the women. If we can make an alliance with 15 or 20 groups across the globe, and we have four groups we’re working with now in Africa, maybe our database isn’t 25,000 or 30,000, maybe it can be 300,000. And then we can really start selling this stuff.”
After Jennifer graduated from Magdalene in 2012, she moved into a transition house. She got her driver’s license back and opened up a savings account — Thistle Farms offers employees a matched savings/individual development account — and she wants to further her education. She now lives in East Nashville and is excited about her job with the Thistle Stop Café, which brought an increase in both responsibilities and income. She dreams of owning land on the Harpeth River, where she hopes to build a simple log cabin. She wants three dobermans, who she has already named: Wolfgang, Helmut and Axel.
Jennifer beams as she talks about her children, who she said have welcomed her back with open arms. Her eldest runs a business with her ex-husband, one of her daughters just graduated college and another daughter is preparing to take her state board exams for health care and business administration. She has seven grandchildren — and another on the way — and she dreams of all of her children and grandchildren visiting her, playing in the yard, fishing on the lake.
“I remember when I first met Jennifer,” Stevens recalled. “There wasn’t tons of life in her eyes, there wasn’t a sparkle in her smile, there was no joy in her walking. But when you see her now, she has so much boundless energy that is geared towards not just having a full life, but helping other people, helping her kids, helping friends. … She’s happy! What an amazing side effect of doing all of that hard work of healing and recovery and restitution. She’s made a beautiful life here.”
Stevens stressed that Nashville is an integral part of why Magdalene and Thistle Farms have been so successful.
“Nashville has stepped up in being a part of a community of healing for women coming off the streets — I don’t think any other city in America could have done what Nashville has done as far as helping us grow this movement,” she said. “We’ve been able to do it without any federal or state money; it’s all been gifts. All of it. We do it because we have so many volunteers from Nashville who come together.”
Stevens said if we want to eliminate sexual violence against women, the issue has to be openly discussed, enabling treatment and recovery for the victims.
“In the South, one thing that still we do pretty well is keep the secret of sexual abuse, and that’s how it gets all its power,” she explained. “What we hope is that the first thing people do is tell their story and speak their truth, so that sexual abuse loses its power in our world. To let kids know you can talk about it without the world falling apart. That’s how you stop it.”
And for those who may not have been directly affected by sexual abuse, they can be a part of Thistle Farms’ global movement in other ways.
“People can come into the cafe and develop relationships with the women of Magdalene and Thistle Farms and learn about the community,” Stevens said. “Just come on by and get a sandwich. Then you’ll start seeing the whole story. People can put our products in public places — that’s another thing we love. We’ve got interns and residents from people who have read about our products in bathrooms. Isn’t that crazy? You don’t know who you’re going to reach by just having it there for them to see.”
It’s the small steps that can bring big results. A sandwich, a cup of coffee or a bottle of hand soap in a public restroom, the label emblazoned with the organization’s namesake and symbol, the thistle. The thistle, though a beautiful purple flower, is also a hardy, prickly plant that can grow through concrete and survive a drought. The thistle is a survivor, like the women of Magdalene, and against all odds, both will flourish.