Healer & Truth-Teller: Becca Stevens
Becca Stevens is an Episcopal priest, a chaplain at Vanderbilt University, and the founder of two innovative ministries devoted to helping women rebuild their lives. Magdalene is a residential program that serves women, free of charge, for two years. Thistle Farms employs 40 residents and graduates who manufacture and market all-natural bath and beauty products that are sold in over 200 retail stores around the world. She calls herself a snake oil seller because she “takes natural oils, mixes them with a good story, sells them in an open market, and believes they help heal the world.” The most recent of her nine books is Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling (Jericho Books, 2013). In 2011 Stevens was named one of 15 Champions of Change by the White House as well as Social Entrepreneur of the Year in Nashville, Tenn., where she lives with her husband and three sons.
Can you talk about how business and ministry dovetail in the work you do?
There is a beautiful intersection where healing and justice meet. It’s on the same corner where ministry and business dovetail. It is the space where we put nuts and bolts into the ideal of love so it has weight and can make the journey of healing. In 1997 we began housing women with criminal histories of prostitution and addiction. By 2001 we knew that if we were interested in healing we needed to move beyond just housing and start a social enterprise. Without the ability to earn a living wage, the women we were serving would always be dependent on systems and people to get by. The business has moved the ministry in beautiful and surprising ways, helping us educate thousands of people we would never have reached otherwise. It spreads the word that love heals and provides us with more than a million dollars a year to keep the ministry going. I am so grateful that by going down many side roads I ended up finding this beautiful intersection.
In what ways do you encounter Christ in the people you serve?
We have a saying at Thistle Farms—“There goes God.” It is a spiritual practice to recognize the holy in the people we encounter. That means we see Christ, not just in the women who are residents of Magdalene and employees of Thistle Farms, but also in the donors and volunteers who keep us going. That means we see love in the people who buy products online and the women who never make it to our doorsteps. In my own life, several strangers have seen Christ in me and helped me. When we see Christ in others, it is a response of gratitude for all the mercy people have shown us. When we all see Christ in each other, surely we will be in the kingdom of heaven.
What are the three things you count on most when working in transformational ministry?
The very first thing is community. It is the entity where the sum is truly greater than its parts. It is what holds us up and holds us accountable. Community helps provide the means to live into our individual visions. Community to me feels like a gift from the Holy Spirit that makes things more abundant and gives us a way to make the burden easier and refreshes us.
The second thing I count on is time. If I wait long enough, most things pass. Hard times and scarce seasons always pass and, if we can keep going in faith, things generally get much better. I love that I have 20 years of doing this ministry under my belt. It is truly a walk and not a run, and there is time to do the work well.
The third thing I count on is words. I trust that I can write and speak the truths that I have felt for most of my life, and those words are my contribution to healing. I am so, so grateful that I have been entrusted to write books about healing and have been invited to speak around the country to share some words of hope. I don’t get the words right very often, but the more I pay attention to the ministry we are doing and the women we are serving, the closer the words get to expressing the depth and radical nature of love.
What is the most exciting transformation you’ve witnessed in your work?
A woman who was sold into prostitution at the age of 13 and lived for 20 years on the streets and in jails came to work at Thistle Farms almost two years ago and has blossomed from a scared and angry woman to a proud and passionate leader of the sales team. Last week she traveled to Chicago as a designated young leader-in-training for a national association. She said until she came into this community she had no idea how smart or beautiful she was. She is glowing in her transformation, and she reminds me how powerfully love heals.
What do you think pastors need to know about sexual violence in order to serve their communities better?
First, that there are survivors of sexual violence in every congregation. If a pastor doesn’t know about it, it’s not because it’s not there but because it’s not a safe space to talk about sexual violence.
Second, in sexual abuse of children, it is not enough for a pastor to repeat the safety rules for kids. It’s just as important for pastors to say that if an adult has violated those rules, children can talk about that with a designated and trained pastoral counselor. Sometimes kids think that since an adult broke the safety rules with them, they might be in trouble. If an adult decides to molest a child, even if a child knows all the safety rules, that child is vulnerable and can be manipulated. Pastors reflect the power of love when they reach out to the most vulnerable and offer a safe place to come and ease the burden of shame and secrecy so healing is possible for everyone.
Third, the designations in our world that label women as abused, trafficked, or prostituted are not clear lines. All of those lines blur in the harsh light of sexual violence. There are universal effects of sexual violence that are borne on the individual backs of women—timeless and deep wounds that affect women throughout their lives. In 20 years of doing this work and healing from my own childhood abuse I have learned that people do not “get over it.” They just get deeper than it. They get to a place where the sexual violence they have known is not the story but just part of a larger story of healing and truth-telling. Our job as pastors is not to help people get over stuff. It is simply to go deep enough with folks who are healing so that they can find the roots of love that give them the nourishment and stability to flourish.
Watch a recent ABC report about Thistle Farms.