March 3, Tennessean, Brad Schmitt
The Rev. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest based at St. Augustine’s church at Vanderbilt University, is best known in Nashville as a champion for healing for prostitutes and other victims of sex trafficking and addictions. To that end, she has founded residential recovery program Magdalene House and Thistle Farms, which manufactures and sells oils and balms.
Stevens is now out with a book, “Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling” ($21.99, Jericho Books), which talks about her personal and professional journeys and describes how we can all become healers.
Can you describe the Magdalene and Thistle Farms programs?
Thistle Farms is a women’s social enterprise run by women who have survived lives of trafficking, prostitution and addiction. And it’s led by the women of Magdalene. … Magdalene is a two-year residential recovery community of six houses, and women can stay for two years at no cost to them and receive all the services you can imagine, all the services you would need to be on the journey of healing.
Why did you start those programs?
Having grown up in Nashville and always been concerned about people who were suffering in our community, I was particularly concerned about the lack of services targeted for women who are prostituting and trafficking themselves.
Like a lot of us who do ministry, it comes from our own brokenness. We have compassion for others in the places we are broken. Really, I shared some of the history. I don’t know what the women of Magdalene have gone through. I had enough of a taste of it to know how harmful it could be, so I have a lot of compassion for the women walking the streets.
You spoke some of your own brokenness. And in the book, you talk about two extraordinarily personal events.
I know, right?
You were a victim of sexual abuse as a child, right after your father was killed in an accident. Why were those important to include in the book?
Those events were formative in my life. I don’t mind sharing that part of the story. Those happened to me when I was little, and I was clearly, clearly innocent in those. And it makes me have sympathy for myself.
I also know when you sexualize kids of the ages of 6, 7 and 8, it makes it hard for the rest of your life to figure out what you’re supposed to know and what you’re supposed to not know, what you’re supposed to do and not do.
For teenagers, it’s especially hard. And I needed a lot of forgiveness and mercy. Thank God I have an amazing mother and family.
I think of the women of Magdalene who didn’t have the same resources, who didn’t have the same kind of safety net I had. Even if I didn’t understand it all, at least I didn’t fall all the way down.
The part of the book where I couldn’t breathe for a few seconds is where you confronted your abuser when you were an adult. What were your feelings through that?
My feelings were that I was having a lot of anxiety around my son becoming the same age I was around when my dad died and the abuse started. I was realizing I carried that stuff with me for a long, long time.
I felt like I was done carrying it and I wanted to give it back to him. I consulted some wise friends. I said, I have to give this back to him, to him and his wife and his family. I’m done. I have to love my children, I have to do it freely and I have to serve the women of Magdalene and not be bawling crying when someone tells me something about themselves that triggers something in me.
I need to get better. I need to get really strong. So I set up the meeting, put my collar on and went over to his house. I sat him and his wife down and told the story.
It was really awkward at the beginning. But he admitted everything so readily that it just kinda fired me up. I felt kinda proud of myself at the end of it, that I could do it.
I was surprised myself how readily he admitted to abusing you.
It was so weird. Of course, if that’s who you are, you’re gonna be weird. And I don’t know what all happened in his life, and I don’t necessarily want to know his story. That’s a lot to carry. But I do appreciate the fact that you don’t get to that place where you do that to little kids without an enormous amount of brokenness in your own life.
He should be held accountable, but he also needed a lot of mercy and he needed help. And I wanted him to find that.
Your neighbor, Mr. Price, was such a beautiful breeze through the book after the tragedies you suffered.
He’s the hero among snake-oil sellers. Mr. Price is the balm, the hero in the story of my childhood. He did know everything about homemade concoctions and the healing properties of everything in the yard and everything in the garage.
He was fiercely loving and funny and just a good man. He lived right down the street and he had a pick-up truck that was always in mint condition. Like, for 15 years, it was in mint condition. I wanna know how people do that!
You’ve raised millions of dollars in your ventures. Nashville is known as a home for conservative, religious viewpoints. I’m wondering if you’ve had pushback on working with prostitutes and drug addicts.
I’ve gotta say … that I’ve been surprised my whole life in Nashville, Tennessee, how embracing and welcoming people have been.
I’m talking about people have had me preaching in Church of Christ churches, I’m talking about people who you’d think would reject you have welcomed you in.
If you go
What: The Rev. Becca Stevens will discuss and sign copies of her book, “Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling.”
When: 6:30 p.m. March 12
Where: Nashville Public Library, 615 Church. St.
Admission: The event is free, but attendees must obtain tickets from www.salonat615.org.