Tea is Powerful: An Interview with Rev. Becca Stevens

Some the Cafe Team at Thistle Stop Cafe, courtesy Thistle Farms

Interwoven moments of joy, brazenness, leadership, and humility

Nashville is filled with the songs of budding musicians floating through the air, the neon lights that dazzle the sky, and the energy pumping through the blood of artists trying to make it in the music epicenter of the country. Amidst the music, though, there are many unheard voices. For them, Nashville is a cacophonous open-air jail filled with the clanging chains of addiction, abuse, and prostitution. For the women of Magdalene, “Music City” is not filled with the dreams of “making it,” but with the nightmares of pimps, violence, drugs, and abandonment.

In 1997, an Episcopal priest decided to come alongside these women. Reverend Becca Stevens built Magdalene: a residential program for women who have endured this life on the streets, controlled by prostitution, trafficking and addiction.

Thistle Farms came later as a social enterprise run by the women to provide a healing process, job training, and financial stability. At Thistle Farms, women use their bruised and beaten hands to make bath and body products—products which are natural and good for the body as well as the earth. The sales benefit the  same women making them.

The name “Thistle Farms” comes from the thistle plant.

Thistles grow on the streets and alleys where residents and graduates of Magdalene walked. Considered weeds, thistles have a deep root that can shoot through concrete and survive drought. In spite of their prickly appearance, their royal and soft purple center makes the thistle a mysterious and gorgeous flower. Being a Thistle Farmer means the world is our farm and that we choose to love all creation. 1

When I found out about Thistle Farms, I was working in a transitional housing facility in New Jersey for people who were HIV positive. We struggled to find ways to empower people to make the necessary changes needed to escape lives of abuse, drugs, and homelessness. I learned how hard this work is, and how many programs are unsuccessful at truly caring for women survivors of prostitution, trafficking, and drug abuse. Unlike many of other housing programs, Magdalene and Thistle Farms has found a way to walk alongside women; to care for their whole being by combining radical hospitality and craft to build and empower.

I got the chance to speak with Stevens over the phone, and was blown away by her groundedness and humility despite the incredible difference she is making for so many women.

Rent-Free Radical Hospitality.

Kate: How did you come up with such a successful and beautiful model for getting these women back out into the world and the workforce?

Becca: The thing that makes the model work is two years—staying with somebody for two years–rent free, and with no authority in the house… that’s what makes it work. The social enterprise piece (Thistle Farms) came 4 years later, but the true model is radical hospitality.

My training in priesthood has always been about really developing community and pulling people in. One way to think of a social work is as helping people to begin to be independent and move out and leave their home. There is this beautiful tension in our community about pulling people in and keeping people safe, but also training them and getting them ready to head out. I think it’s that beautiful combination of social work and priesthood.

The Way of Tea and Justice.

Kate: You have a new book that’s coming out in November called The Way of Tea and Justice: Rescuing the World’s Favorite Beverage from Its Violent History. What prompted writing this book and what excites you about releasing it?

Thistle Cafe opening day, From Thistle Farms
Thistle Cafe opening day, From Thistle Farms

Becca: What spurred me on was beginning the journey of opening a new social enterprise, called the Thistle Stop Café. We have one million dollars of product revenue at Thistle Farms this year. And we have people coming from all over the world. This morning we have sixty visitors spending the day with us; seven of them are from England. They come from eight different states, and they want to learn [The Magdalene] model.

Our feeling was, “Oh my gosh, we have to feed them!” After all, we talk here about radical hospitality, loving without judgment and preparing for the guest as the honored person (all old school stuff). So, we have to be able to feed them, and we got the idea that it would be better to create eight to ten jobs for women in the process–running, managing, and working as baristas in a café.

We are a healing organization, right? We are all about healing, so all of our products are as good for the earth, good for the environment, as they are for the women and the communities that they are in: all-natural products. We have essential oils from all around the world and the essential oils are very healing. The other way to get the healing nature from plants is to create teas. So we thought, “Oh my gosh, we’re going to make tea the theme of this café.”

You would not believe the reaction from people. One groups says, “Tea is so colonial. You have no business in tea if you are talking about justice, especially for women who have been in poverty.” They saw this as an oppressive history for women.

Other people were saying, “You have no business in tea, you have no idea what you’re doing, it is so important to do tea well that you’re going to mess it up.”

We got the whole spectrum. I thought, when I got all this feedback, “Tea is powerful.” To get that kind of reaction, both that “it is so horrible” and “so great you have no business,” made me want to learn everything about it.

So I went on a journey to learn about tea, and I learned about its connection to trafficking since its inception. I learned how tea has been a part of these beautiful religious traditions, how it’s been a part of women’s oppression, and how it’s been a part of healing.  It’s very complicated… tying the world’s oldest cultivated drink into the worlds oldest trade and oldest form of abuse was fascinating. So I gave up coffee and exclusively drank water and tea for the last couple years… and maybe beer.

Kate: So you gave up coffee for the purpose of writing this book?

Becca: Yes, I had to become a tea connoisseur; I had to immerse myself in the tea culture. You know that feeling in your life that’s like, “If you’re going to do this, you have to do it, you can’t pretend to do it.” That was the inspiration behind it. That was the need.

Since we’ve opened the café, it’s been a huge success. We are now developing one tea kit that we are selling in all of the 380 stores we are in around the country. We’re marketing it with this idea of “Shared Trade”. Shared Trade is going to be a fair share for women. Tea is probably the most unfairly traded commodity in the world at this point. Turning it into a “Shared Trade” is so that the women who are truly taking the lead in growing the crops are going to be the ones who get a fair share of this whole enterprise. We can be the distributors and can help direct money back to all of the programs. That’s the goal.

Integral to that is to start new social enterprises for women where the tea is being grown. I’m heading to Uganda and heading back to Rwanda where we’re going to continue to help set up social enterprises where there are good programs for women already, but that aren’t teaching them to be economically independent.

Can you hold on for one second?

She had to get updates on a baptism. And I am reminded that, within all of this, she has a church, a community, that she shepherds. And she finds a way to integrate her pastoral identity with her social enterprises and her ministry with prostitutes. Her life is integrated together, careful and intentional decisions in one area lead to ministry in another.

Love Heals.

Kate: Your model is “love heals,” and the power of love, but I also see a beautiful picture of community. What have you learned about love and community from all of these different of programs?

From Thistle Farms
From Thistle Farms

Becca: One of the things I’ve learned is that whether we’re successful, or we have setbacks, people want to hope with you. If you’re talking about love, people want to be on that journey. That is one of the most reassuring, graceful things I can talk about, because all of us, all of us within the world of social justice, are going to mess up, all of us are going to have fears about our own inadequacy, all of us are going to wonder, “Are we doing enough?” “Are we doing too much?” We’ll need love.

The idea of love is so powerful that people want to hope with us…that everyone in this work feels empowered and hopeful. This isn’t a question of success or failure, but a model of how we can live together in a new way. By nature, resurrection is a surprise. For all of these years I have been doing this work, it doesn’t matter how much you talk about it, it doesn’t matter how much you pray about it, it doesn’t matter how much you live into it, when you see this work and the fruits of this work and you see new life on women’s faces it is a surprise. I’ve seen women do a cartwheel for the first time ever in their life at Thistle Farms. It is a surprise. New life and justice and resurrection in its best form is a beautiful, beautiful surprise. You never get tired of looking and being surprised by love.

Kate:  It is incredible to see that amount of joy in these women. It comes through clearly in the videos you have. That is the ultimate testament to the impact that this is having in the women’s life.

Becca: It’s funny. I don’t understand why people think that social justice, loving the environment, and working for women’s freedom isn’t fun! Why do pastors have to make it not fun!? It can be hysterical! I have heard the women tell some of the funniest stories in the world. The predicament of women on the streets trying to run a business together: it is hysterical.

Kate: It is a joyful thing, and that is what social justice should bring, and yet it seems always to focus on the seriousness.

Becca: Yes! Why take the fun out of it, and the humor and all of that! We can laugh at ourselves and each other!

For example, we had a woman who went to her first physical therapy appointment. She is one of seventeen women graduates who are now managers. This is a woman who spent twenty six years walking around a ten block radius in Nashville, Tennessee. There were no walls, but she was trapped. Now she has health insurance, her own car, and a place to live. But after all those years of walking, she has had horrible damage to her back.

So, she goes to the physical therapy appointment (she had never even heard of one let alone been to one). The physical therapist said to her, “You’re going to need to take all of that off,” talking about the braces on the woman’s legs, and walked out to go see something.

Now, this woman thought she was at any other appointment at her doctor, so she stripped down butt naked for the physical therapist– except the braces! The physical therapist walked back in and just shrieked! The woman died laughing and said, “I’m so sorry; I guess I’ve got it backwards.” No one had ever told her the physical therapist wants your braces off and your clothes on. If you can’t come back and share that story and laugh about it then you are missing such a great gift.

The Theology of Arts and Crafts.

Kate: Another thing that I love about [Thistle Farms] is that you use arts and crafts and theology and justice all together. How do you see this play out in your work and where did you get this idea?

Becca: There are reasons women have cleaned their laundry together for several thousand years–because it’s boring to do it on your own. And there are reasons that we come together as women and share things (even if we call them playgroups now).

Arts and crafts is a great reason to rally together. What happens in a sewing bee or quilting circle, or whatever you want to call it, is that women share stories. And in that coming together and sharing stories, you can think “I’m not alone, its going to get better, and I have something to say.” All of those are so important: I’m not alone, it’s going to get better, and I have something to say.

You don’t necessarily find that in a formal church settings, and you don’t necessarily find that in recovery groups. Its around these quilting bees and making candles and doing the boring, mundane tasks of “arts and crafts” that women find this great gift of sharing and hearing their stories.

That is the idea behind Thistle Farms. There is this sweet place where social justice and arts and crafts intersect, and women are at the heart of that intersection. I think that is special.

It is awkward in a group setting when we are all just sitting there, and they say, “Tell your story.” You think, “I’m not going to talk about this stuff…there’s no way.” But you take that same group and now you’re making bath teas, you’re mixing lavender and oatmeal with oil, you’re putting it in tea bags and making a gift, and you’re telling stories, and you’re not even thinking about it.  All of a sudden you remember a story from when you were twelve years old you had forgotten. And it’s a beautiful story both for you and for every other woman sitting there.

Kate: Why the focus on such natural materials? Where did that idea come from?

Becca: Well, I guess from the Bible. When Moses went up to Mt. Sinai (Exodus 30:22-33) God gives him a natural oil recipe for healing. On the first day of creation is the tree of life. In the last vision of creation is the City of God with the tree of life made for the healing of the world. On a practical level that healing happens, in part, through oils. You get the sense that creation is intended to be a part of this healing journey that we all make, all of us. By healing journey I mean our sacramental walk towards God.

It’s almost like this work, this healing, this theology, it’s not complicated, it’s deep. I think we try to make it more complicated and shallower than it is. And that’s true for all of us, me too. Love is very, very uncomplicated and it’s very, very deep. Healing is the same way.

Kate: That definitely comes through in the image and act of mixing together thistles with trash to make paper at Thistle Farms. That is something incredibly deep and incredibly not complicated. 

Becca: Yes, that’s all the process is: you put water in the mixture of thistles and scraps and press it together and it becomes paper. It’s the easiest thing in the world. All this has been around for thousands of years and we think that we have to reinvent it. One of our spiritual principals is to follow behind. Nothing that we are doing in this community is new. It’s old.

As we closed our conversation, Becca offered some final reflections.

I am still on the learning curve. I have so much to learn. I am trying to live into it more, and I am trying to do it more. I am saying this stuff with all of the humility I can muster and I don’t want any interview to be happening without an acknowledgement that I’m still searching, I’m still looking.
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