For People with bishop Rob Wright

Thistle Farms and Healing with The Rev. Becca Stevens

For People
Thistle Farms and Healing with The Rev. Becca Stevens

About the episode

How do we heal from our wounds? Why does sitting in our wounds feel normal? The Rev. Becca Stevens, the fiery and passionate soul behind Thistle Farms, wonders with Bishop Wright across the intersections of woundedness, healing, and faith in the latest For People.

In this episode, Bishop Wright has a conversation with Becca about their pilgrimage to Nepal, the work of Thistle Farms, and how wounds and healing can bring forth God’s beauty into the world.

Becca’s tireless work to create nurturing environments for women survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and addiction will leave you in awe and motivated for action. Hear her share how her personal journey has shaped her mission to live authentically and serve others. Listen in for the full conversation.

Becca Stevens is a speaker, entrepreneur, author, priest, and founder and President of Thistle Farms. She has founded 14 nonprofits and justice enterprises, mentored another 60, and has raised over $75 million to support them. Becca has been featured on PBS NewsHour, The Today Show, CNN, ABC World News, named a CNN Hero, and White House Champion of Change, and holds five honorary doctorates. Drawn from 25 years of leadership in mission-driven work, Becca leads important conversations across the country with an inspiring message that love is the strongest force for change in the world.

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Speaker 1: 0:00

I wanted church and community to be safe and beautiful. I knew my mom was the director of a community center in Nashville. I knew the great things community could do and the awful things community could do. So I think my heart was just open for women who had had those same experiences, without even knowing that we had this shared story, even though you know my story is so dull and comparison really to the horrific stories I’ve heard in probably 20 languages.

Speaker 2: 0:30

This is For People with Bishop Rob Wright. Hi everyone, bishop Robright here and we have a rare treat today. I get to introduce you to one of my friends, the Reverend Becca Stevens. She is the founder and president of Thistle Farms. She’s in Nashville, Tennessee, but, as you will soon hear, she’s global. Hi Becca.

Speaker 1: 0:59

Hi, what a joy to be introduced as one of your friends. It’s been a lifelong goal, so that’s huge.

Speaker 2: 1:07

Well, a goal for both of us. How about that that I could call you friend? A little bit about Becca, if you don’t know. She’s been profiled on PBS, the Today Show, CNN, ABC World News, the New York Times, CNN. She’s an author, she’s a priest, she’s a mom, she is the wife of Marcus, a Grammy award-winning composer, and she’s also a graduate of the University of the South and Vanderbilt Divinity School. So, Becca, you are the founder and president of Thistle Farms. I think a lot of people know of you based on that distinction. What is Thistle Farms and why is it noteworthy?

Speaker 1: 1:51

So Thistle Farms started like 26 years ago right here in Nashville, Tennessee, with one single house to welcome in women who are survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and addiction, but it’s grown into a global movement for women’s freedom. So over the past 26 years we’ve added justice enterprises, we have sister organizations around the country and more than 40 global partners all women who are amazing survivors, who are taking their rightful place as healers of their community.

Speaker 2: 2:28

Wow. So I mean, I sort of know this, but I think we all need to know it from you. So, of all the work that any one of us can do on any day, why do you have a heart for this work?

Speaker 1: 2:42

Yeah, like you said, probably for all of us, we take our passions from our own experiences. Right, and for me, my dad was an Episcopal priest who was killed by a drunk driver when I was five years old. So my first memory really is grief. And from there it started in an Episcopal church in Nashville, Tennessee, where I first began to experience sexual abuse by one of the elders in the church. And so I think for my whole life I wanted church and community to be safe and beautiful. I knew my mom was the director of a community center in Nashville. I knew the great things community could do and the awful things community could do. So, I think my heart was just open for women who had had those same experiences, without even knowing that we had this shared story, even though, you know, my story is so dull in comparison, really, to the horrific stories I’ve heard in probably 20 languages.

Speaker 2: 3:45


Speaker 1: 3:46

But I think that’s where my heart comes from is just knowing like with healthy community we can be transformed and set on a good path.

Speaker 2: 3:57

So so what does healthy community look like? So what are some of the what’s on that list for healthy community? Because we hear community this and community that, but you’ve been, you’ve been a founder and you’ve worked over, you know, like you said, better than two decades. So what does that actually look like healthy community?

Speaker 1: 4:13

To me it looks like exactly what Dr King talked about beloved community, community based in love, one that has resources, that has freedom, that has equity, that has choices, that has practical application, that is concerned about economic well being all those attributes of what a beloved community looks like.

Speaker 2: 4:39

Yeah, yeah, and you know and people forget sometimes that you’re an Episcopal priest. I mean, you know, you, you sort of hold being priests differently than we see it modeled in the in popularly. I mean, you don’t often wear a collar and you preach without shoes, which I personally like Say, say something about that. What’s that about for you? Because we’re all trying to get connected to God and you have a particular way to do that. So what’s that about?

Speaker 1: 5:09

Well, I don’t know. I think you know. Sometimes I think our practical theology also reflects our preferences. So being pretty casual and being barefoot really is probably a reflection of my personality. It happens to be well-grounded, traditionally and theologically, to take off your shoes on holy ground, to not, you know, put on the costumes but try to put it on your heart. Those things resonate with me. But there’s other things that I don’t do that are probably there’s a lot that I should do.

Speaker 2: 5:46

Well, we’re all a work in progress, but you know, we start with what really grabs our heart, and so you know, this kind of living into this vocation as authentically as you can, I think, is the way for Because we have to be modeling freedom. If we’re modeling anything, I think right, we’ve found the freedom in God, and so you know that should come out of our pores.

Speaker 1: 6:06

Honestly, Bishop, that’s part of the reason like I wanted to get to know you and to go to Nepal with you and to see this authentically beautiful world through some of the most vulnerable eyes. I think that you carry that, you know, unaffected, beautiful modesty with authority very well, and I think it’s a gift in priesthood to find spaces in ways that you can express your authentic self in a way that is healing for others. It’s the best you know.

Speaker 2: 6:41

I mean, I think that’s been my journey too is how to occupy the authority right as sincerely and earnestly as you can. I have actually found that that’s really the center of authority. I mean, you know, we have the organizational authority as priests, but there’s a whole other authority. I’m always reminded that they kept asking Jesus, you know, as he was walking around and being with people, that they said he shouldn’t be with. You know, where does he get his authority from? Right, and he was modeling authority in a way that continues to sort of grab my imagination. You talked about Nepal and I had the great fortune of getting a call from you and asking me if I would join you and a few others to go to Nepal. So say a little bit about why we went to Nepal and why that was so important, and what was the work there.

Speaker 1: 7:38

So why it’s important is that part of what’s happened for Thistle Farms as we have grown into a global movement, is we have these partners and we do. You know, we have a marketplace. That is an amazing space where we do programming, we give better margins, we give a network. There’s all these ways that this beautiful space is occupied by artisans who are survivors all over the world and really women tell some of the same stories in all different languages about the violence and vulnerability of poverty, about the universal issues of gender-based violence that they bear on their backs, and so this last few years and in the years to come, part of developing a really robust network is site visits and to really get to know each other and to see how can we invest in the best way with what their leadership is asking. So that requires getting your butt on a plane and going and sitting right. And eating food you don’t want to eat. And being humbled by being gifted with stoles from the women and songs and hearing stories, and that’s really understanding the context that they’re working within and understanding some different cultures and ways of expressing our love of God. And that’s really what that trip was about and I so much wanted you to go, as one of somebody who has embodied with authenticity in outward, invisible ways and in inward ways, the possibility of authority within our church. To see that and sit with us was a big deal for me.

Speaker 2: 9:29

So it was Becca leading the trip, and then Marcus was there her husband, myself and Bishop Phoebe Rove from West Tennessee, as well as Mike Kinman, who is the rector of all saints in Pasadena. So I’m a motley crew and what I loved about our time is there was a chemistry immediately. Everybody just sort of got there and jumped into conversation and sort of had each other’s back instantly and that was just a great experience for me. I’ve been struggling since I’ve been back to try to articulate what I experienced and I think you know and I’ll try to stumble here I think one of the things that has really stayed with me, stuck to me, was just how grateful I am to be to have been asked to be on that trip and how grateful I am to just sort of have the awareness of God that I have. That puts me beside lots of different kinds of people and the welcome that I received with you, the welcome that we received, was just tremendous going places and having people just really sort of honor you. It just drove a deep, a deep feeling of gratitude in me and, like I said, for somebody who talks for a living, I’ve really stumbled at trying to articulate what that was like, but it was just, it was I guess it’s beyond words it was just. It was just tremendous, a tremendous experience for me.

Speaker 1: 10:58

Well, I hope you’ll, I want, really want you to go to Peru. That’s the next place. So, if you’re, you know, I just think that there’s a whole bunch more to learn and the more we sit in those humble circles, the better off we are, especially, you know, if the desire is to be authentic, than to sit in real circles of people as they’re figuring out you know how to feed their kids and honor old traditions and make new ways. It’s the best. For me it’s the best. And the other thing I want to say about all that too, is that you know it doesn’t work just on paper and on grants and on zoom. When we talk about community, it does mean just be together. Yeah, and I think that’s why church will survive. It might not look like it does and it may look super different, but we know that community is the oldest entity the world knows for healing and absolutely we got to be. We got to be together.

Speaker 2: 12:04

Hi listeners, thank you for listening to For People. A space of digital evangelism. You can keep up with us on Instagram and Facebook at Bishop Rob Wright. And now back to four people. I mean, isn’t that something? I mean there it is, and you know, especially in the church and especially in my role, people are really anxious about you know what that’s going to look like, what’s going to happen to the buildings and the stuff and the structures, and those concerns are legitimate. I understand people have, you know, invested so deeply in these things. But what gives me hope, even even as the church is changing, is exactly what you said. I know that spirit will find its way to work through people and when it works through people, together, you know, achieving important goals, caring for each other, healing one another that’s church. That’s my experience at church. That’s the best experience I have of church. The steeple steeples are great and all the other stuff are fantastic, but it’s it’s the people that we remember who, for some reason, god got ahold of them or they got ahold of God, or something like both, and that they open themselves up to others unusually so, and that’s the stuff I remember.

Speaker 1: 13:18

Absolutely. And I also, you know, along with that, I’ve been a chaplain at Vanderbilt for almost, almost 30 years, because I really don’t leave anything. That’s the honest truth. I go somewhere and I’m just there forever, but we worship at the Divinity School at Vanderbilt and there is zero parking, there is zero membership. It’s a borrowed building and we still have a church and a community. We have whatever. 350, 400 people come on a Sunday morning, wow, and we sing and we break bread and we’re a community and you know we’ll bury people and bury people. And there’s some freedom in it because there’s no power in it, there’s nothing we own, there’s nothing we can lose.

Speaker 2: 14:05


Speaker 1: 14:05

So all the things it’s true that like sometimes, all the things you fear, like, if we lose that, what will we be? And the truth is we’ll still be community, like you just said. I do believe it.

Speaker 2: 14:15

Yeah, no, it’s true, it’s true. It’s just, we’re always at these intersections that you know, jesus told these wonderful stories. We’re always at these intersections of those stories, right, which way will we choose? And you know, I was just leading worship yesterday doing some baptisms, and you know, one of the great privileges of bishop is you get to sort of, you know, invite people into saying the baptismal covenant, again covenant, right. And so you know, there’s all the questions about justice and the questions about human dignity and all that sort of stuff. And you know, when you fall into sin, will you repent and return to the Lord, all that. But for some reason yesterday I heard again in a new way maybe I’m new, the words are the same. But will you put your trust in his grace and love, your whole trust in his grace and love? And I think there’s something in that for all of us right now, especially when we’re talking about what the future holds, whether we’re talking organizationally or otherwise. You know, do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? And so that just grabbed the hold of me yesterday in a new way.

Speaker 1: 15:19

So what was your answer?

Speaker 2: 15:21

Well, you know we will, with God’s help. Right Is the church’s answer, but I think it deserves some intentional focus and meditation thought. You know, in marriage, in my health situations, you know, at the office, in my relationships with my young adult children, you know, as I’m facing whatever sort of scarcity I think I’m facing, Well, I put my whole trust in his grace and love. I think is the question that’s a catalytic question, that is so beautiful. Yeah, it’s funny, I always tell people, even though we’re, you know, the prayer book’s old and the scriptures is old, you know, but you’re different every day. Yeah, and you have these resources that will help locate yourself, you know, in a new way. So we bring our different selves to those same words, and I think that’s where the magic can actually happen.

Speaker 1: 16:17

You know I have a question. Wait, I’m sorry, I just have one question, was that not? It’s just that the idea of like to me and I think it’s maybe I just wanted to go back to one thing about Nepal is like when you read the news it’s super scary.

Speaker 2: 16:33


Speaker 1: 16:33

And you can’t put your whole trust in his grace and love. If you’re reading all the news like, okay, here’s the flood in Libya, the earthquake in Morocco, the book you know, the war in Ukraine, whatever, then you go locate yourself and you’re in a situation as foreign as you can be in, like in the hills of Nepal.

Speaker 2: 16:52


Speaker 1: 16:54

And you feel God’s presence and love. And when you said that word locate it somewhere I feel hopeful again that I can trust. I feel that hope.

Speaker 2: 17:07

I mean that’s such a good point because I think we can be overwhelmed by the global nature of news these days. I mean, we know what’s happening on the other side of the world in an instant, all the tragedy in an instant and, like you said, the floods, the earthquakes, the volcanoes, the fires, et cetera. But yeah, but in those I mean this is the gift of local community, right, but in local community, when I’m shoulder to shoulder Brian Stevens talks about proximity when I’m proximate to people, somehow that’s a great little laboratory for hope and we share hope. Sometimes I don’t have enough and you have some to lend. I mean this is one of the reasons I believe in community. I used to, when I was a rector of a congregation, I used to tell people, hey, we ought to really sing in this place. Singing is a measure of spiritual health in my opinion, and we ought to sing. And I used to tell them if today you have a song in you, you have enough sort of gusto to sing, sing, because you never know who’s sitting beside you. They may have had all the song beat out of them this week. So it’s a community property, I think, and, like I said, that’s the best gift of community that’s not going to go away. You are an author. You’ve written a book called Practically Divine. Is that right?

Speaker 1: 18:31


Speaker 2: 18:32

Say a little bit about that book, Because I mean I just love the double entendre in the title and so why did you write that and what were you thinking?

Speaker 1: 18:40

I’m thinking you know it all started with. He was actually the grandson of the man who was my first abuser walking into the cafe at Thistle Farms. So Thistle Farms has a physical headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, and we have a cafe that probably does like a million something dollars a year in business. We have a retail store. People are coming in and out all the time and this guy walked in and asked for me and went over there and he of course he didn’t know the story about his grandfather, but he had been going through his own stuff and was searching and he was the exact age his grandfather was when I was abused by him. Wow, and he looked like his grandfather. So a half a century after the first event in my life, I’m revisiting it in a powerful way, like feeling like my five-year-old self, not like my 55-year-old self, and that was the beginning of that story about. Of course he was coming there, of course you know that things come full circle in this practically divine way and practically, of course, meaning actually practically like love cares about practicality, not about dogma as much and divine being this spark where you feel something holy in all kinds of moments. It’s practically divine, like almost divine, and actually there is a divine spark that is very practical. So I started just sharing stories. There’s a lot about the journey of this phycial farms, the wisdom from women I’ve gotten to sit with for 25 years, a lot of wisdom from my mom. You know it’s just. It’s a fun book. I hope and I hope it’s kind of a deep book that carries us through all the aspects of our brokenness and transformation, that helps us remember all of us are practically divine.

Speaker 2: 20:37

Let’s. I mean, wow, there’s a lot to say there. Let’s talk about wounds for a minute. You know, one of the great resources you know in spirit is that you know our wounds are part of us but they don’t get to totally define us right. I mean we can experience life through the wounds. I mean this is, this is the genius of God, that God makes gold out of garbage, right? And what I hear too much these days, I think, is I don’t hear the second part, I hear only the recitation of the wounds, but I don’t hear nearly enough about the process of facing them and moving through them. You know Jesus comes back, you know from the dead presents himself, and he only shows his wounds because he’s asked, because he shows up as more than his wounds, right, and that’s the gift, that’s the gift, one of the gifts he gives. You know that that brand-new Easter community. So so say a little bit about Wounds, because you know, in this grandson walking in, you know yours, yours get could have gotten triggered there and it could have just Paralyzed you, laid you low, I mean, it could have taken you back to dark places, but but somehow you found a way to keep moving in all of that not only keep moving, but actually to create space for other people who have wounds that need tending.

Speaker 1: 21:57

Absolutely to care for them.

Speaker 2: 21:59

Yeah, so so say, say something about not stopping with the wound.

Speaker 1: 22:03

Well, I think I just want to say the word tie TY. Her name is tie Angela. I’ve learned from so many people. I mean, if you ever want to invite One of the graduates from Thistle Farms to come in and give a master’s class on forgiveness and healing wounds, Absolutely tie. She I met her probably 20 years ago and she has the story that so many women have of like, so much abuse. It’s such a young age that you’re out on the streets by the time you’re 14, you know being prostituted by drug dealers and she was caught up in a sting. She got all these arrests. She came out she still had one pending arrest, but she came to Thistle Farms. She did all this healing work no cost to the state. She did a beautiful job and then, like two years later, she, by this time she’s working full-time as the candle maker for thistle farms, our symbol of light. Yeah and this DA from rural Tennessee. They called her back on this last charge and then they sentenced her to 14 more years. So she got put in chains and taken away from us and went back into prison. We had advocates, we had attorneys, we had a whole community. They got her out in a little bit over three years in. In the day she got out she came back to Thistle Farms and walked into the manufacturing space and started pouring candles. And I saw her and I just started weeping about like, how, like, how. I just want to know how. Like, when we say, how do you do that? And it’s like, how the hell, are you not so mad? You’re just not going to blow up the world. Yeah they did? They just put you in a cell for more than three years for nothing. Yeah, you know, forget lost wages, forget. You know you can’t see your family or friends in the world. You can’t. You’ve lost your apartment and car. It’s like you were in a box for three years. And she talked about it and I said you have to go preach this. And so she flew with me to Austin, Texas, to an Episcopal church out there and she was really nervous about sharing her story and she stood up in front of a congregation of about 400 people with all her notes and she got super choked up before she said a word and she’s wet and the entire congregation stood up crying and giving her a standing ovation before she said a word and it was like, oh my gosh, in the end there’s no words. It’s this beautiful Not moment, but this practice and when you see it, it’s so powerful and it’s like love just fills the space. And I keep thinking like, of course you want to get, you know the, you know the wounded part of your body Healed enough, so it becomes this strength and beauty that people are drawn to and you know it heals them and it’s like Thai is the Director of the entire manufacturing division of thistle farm. She overseas $5 million in sales and with she has, just in her department, 40 or 50 workers that she trains every year. She is, she’s powerful and it’s not because of her words, it’s because she has lived a life that is not stuck on the woundedness. It is so full of compassion that you just want to hug her when you see her.

Speaker 2: 25:41

Yeah, channels right, vessels right, you know, overflowing into the rest of us. You know, demonstrating for the rest of us that it’s possible. You know, when we hear, when we hear that you know, stories like we heard last Sunday about. You know how many times shall we forgive? Seven times 70, right? You know, sometimes it’s easy to just from an intellectual standpoint, just say you know, jesus is, that’s just hyperbolic, jesus is ridiculous. You know, jesus is just. You know, engaging in preacher speak and then you meet the genuine articles Every once in a while and then you begin to see, oh, you know, that’s a reality. It was out, outside of my imagination until I met it again. You know, for me it’s CT Vivian, who’s now gone to live with God, but just a name that not everybody knows, but you should know. In terms of his ability to channel forgiveness, you know, and I think it’s, he’s one of the strongest. I’ve never seen people hold strength and gentleness together in the way that I saw in CT and it had everything to do with his Absolute commitment to nonviolence, to the dignity of everybody, even the people that he was having to Sort of forced to see his dignity, but gently and nonviolently. So. So thank God for Ty and thank God for CT, these people who actually make these Bible stories real, right. And then, and then you start to say, oh, you know, I kind of, oh, I get it. I think look what she did, with no words to that congregation. I bet you hearts were softened in her non-speaking.

Speaker 1: 27:10

Oh, my gosh, and it’s like it makes you think he like who wants to stay in the woundedness. Yeah, yeah, so much more. There’s so much more.

Speaker 2: 27:25

But woundedness is familiar. Right, woundedness is familiar. It’s this, I do know this. I do know this did happen to me. These are the hurt. So at least I can you know, maybe concretely, and all this other kind of stuff I think maybe doesn’t seem possible for some people. That’s why they might say this is why I stay stuck in woundedness.

Speaker 1: 27:43


Speaker 2: 27:46

It’s a whole lot. Well, I almost feel silly asking this last question as we wrap up, and that is given all you said about Ty, which is in some ways the answer. You know what? Which story, what Bible story or God’s story is Is is dancing in your imagination right now.

Speaker 1: 28:04

Well, it’s one that you made me think about again, when it’s, you know, for Matthew 6, consider the lilies of the field and how they neither toil nor spin, and even Solomon, are always gory and not arrayed like one of these, and that’s like what I want on my tombstone right, I mean. I love that. I love everything about the lilies of the field, and it was you who helped me see a few weeks ago that it’s also a slam kind of on Solomon. Yeah, and I never even thought of that before that the glory is also about demystifying royalty and power, and I loved it, so that’s the one dancing in my head. What about you?

Speaker 2: 28:46

Well, well, not well. I’m really stuck on yesterday. You know, yesterday, this whole notion of forgiveness seven times 70. Again, that’s why I was connecting that baptismal covenant question Will you put your trust in his grace and power? So that’s still working with me. But you know that the culmination to that part of the of Matthew that you talked about is the part of how much more Jesus says does your father care for you, how much more does God care for you. And I think I think we need to get that down, way down in our spirit, that no matter what Vogue says or the headline say, or Cosmo says or whatever says, somehow I mean a whole lot to God. I think that’s more than my worst decision, my worst day, my worst deed in God’s eyes. And if I could just remember that, and if we could remember that boy, what would you know? What could we accomplish? Yeah, no limits, no limits, no limits. Well, friends, we’ve had a moment to be with Becca Stevens, the founder and president of Thistle Farms. Becca, tell us how we can find out more about Thistle Farms and and be in touch.

Speaker 1: 29:54

Yes, if you want to buy your soap from us, which is what we need. Wwwthistlefarmsorg. Just look up Thistle Farms. You’ll see us immediately, and we would love people to be not only offer us their prayers, but also use our products, because it changes lives.

Speaker 2: 30:14

There you go, and we can. There’s also a way to give there too. I mean to buy the stuff, yes, of course, but there’s also a way to give on the website, right? Yeah for sure, Of course, right. Well, friends, it’s been great and and we’re signing off now with our friend Becca Stevens- All the love. Take care Love.