Who is Mary Magdalene? We may never know, historically. But I might have met her one day last year in Nashville, Tennessee, at the Thistle Stop Café. The energy in and around this breakfast-and-lunch spot was overpowering. I felt as if an archangel hovered and sheltered this place within its indestructible wings: guarding, protecting, sustaining.
What’s so special about this storefront café? It’s one of several enterprises run by an outfit called Thistle Farms. It fronts the slogan “Love Heals.”
I have to tell you: that’s the reality of the place. It’s not a cuddly kind of love. It’s love that is fierce, moment-to-moment presence — hard-earned, razor’s edge, breath-by-breath presence. What emerges when you’ve been knee-deep in death and choose to step through it into life.
Before I say anything more, here’s some background on Mary Magdalene:
Legends, blockbuster movies, and scraps of evidence about Mary Magdalene raise more questions than they answer. Was she a penitent prostitute whom Jesus forgave and graced with redemption? Was she his wife, mother of their child? Was she his most capable disciple, the apostle who most truly walked the talk of his teaching? Was she his consort, partner, collaborator in creating a compelling path of love? Did she teach him everything he went on to preach?
Certainly, she’s a mirror. How we hold her tells us something about who we are.
Mixing and matching various New Testament texts, the Roman Catholic Church ignored Mary Magdalene’s role as Jesus’ closest disciple, first among the apostles. Pope Gregory officially cast her as a prostitute in the year 591. The Church continued calling her a prostitute until 1969.
This new scholarship draws on both the familiar gospels and on ancient texts excluded from the New Testament’s approved table of contents. Mary Magdalene comes forward as “first among the apostles” not simply … because she was the first on the scene at the resurrection but in a more fundamental way: because she gets the message. Of all the disciples, she is the only one who fully understands what Jesus is teaching and can reproduce it in her own life.
Even though the Church rehabilitated Mary Magdalene’s reputation in 1969, it continued applying her name to its labor camps for “fallen” women — the Magdalene Laundries — for more than two decades. The last of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland closed in 1996.
In 1996, Magdalene’s name appeared in Nashville, in relation to a different sort of establishment for women.
This Magdalene is a residential program serving women coming off the streets and out of jail — women who’ve survived prostitution, trafficking, addiction, and homelessness. It’s radical, extravagant hospitality: Magdalene provides women long term housing, food, medical and dental treatment, drug rehab, therapy, and education without charging residents a cent or receiving government funding.
Thistle Farms is Magdalene’s sister organization and social enterprise providing job training and paid employment. The business includes hand-crafted papermaking, herbal body careproduct manufacturing, and the remarkable Thistle Stop Café. Established in 2001, Thistle Farms’ annual sales now top million, profits reinvested to support the residential program.
More than a thousand people from more than a hundred cities have visited Magdalene and Thistle Farms during the past two years, eager to see what makes the residential program and the social enterprise so successful.
One of about fifty visitors, I spent a day in Nashville last year. Magdalene women toured us through one of the program’s houses, the manufacturing facilities, and the sewing and papermaking studios.
We gathered in the Thistle Stop Café for a morning meditation with Thistle Farms employees, lunch, and afternoon discussions with Cary Rayson, Magdalene’s executive director, and Becca Stevens, Episcopal priest and Magdalene’s founder.
Among the many questions they addressed: What sets women up for prostitution? In Becca’s words:
If prostitution is the world’s oldest “profession,” then child sexual abuse is one generation older. The experience of unmitigated sexual abuse in childhood is the single most common event in the lives of women at Magdalene.
Current statistics reveal that one in ten children in the United States are sexually abused by the time they are eighteen. As Becca noted, the fifty of us who’d come to check out Thistle Farms that day were there for a reason, a resonance.
There in the Thistle Stop Café, speaking with and listening to the Magdalene women, the seasoned program staff, the dedicated community volunteers — that’s when and where I felt an energy so strong it nearly knocked me off my feet.
Well, no wonder. Written into its mission, emblazoned wherever the words will fit, the truth that Magdalene enacts is: Love is the most powerful force in the world for change. Powerful enough, certainly, to change my position from the vertical.
Magdalene makes her presence known in this place through this force-of-nature love. And through the transformation, the resurrection of women’s lives. The wisdom and creativity that shape home and work settings into venues for community healing. The letting go and letting be that open into compassion and generosity, abundant grace.
At one point in her presentation, Becca answered a question about whether and how her vision had changed since starting Magdalene. She replied:
I’ve learned that our job is not to change the world. Our job is to change ourselves so that we may more fully love the world as it is.
Her words cleared a deep silence in the room. After several moments of stillness, a woman asked Becca to say those words again, and many notebooks opened to a new page. No wonder: That’s as fine a teaching on “letting be” as I’ve ever heard.
Magdalene and Thistle Farms serve as a model, inspiring similar projects already established or on their way in the United States and abroad. Cities including New Orleans, St. Louis, and Sylva, North Carolina are now home to Magdalene-style programs.
The Magdalene women are also convening a global coalition of social enterprises that employ marginalized women and move them out of poverty. Called Shared Trade, this coalition is designed to promote business development on a cooperative basis.
Magdalene and friends appear to be alive and well in Nashville and in points around the world. She may be coming soon to a neighborhood near you.