Grace in Motion
What Bono does for AIDS awareness, Becca Stevens does for prostitutes. Of course, I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Bono, but I have seen some interviews, and he seems to be a really cool guy; someone who is celebrated as one of the most influential philanthropists of our time (cool) and yet his focus seems to be more on his cause than the fame he’s gained from it (so much cooler).
He and Becca Stevens seem to have that sense of humble service to humankind in common. After having the pleasure of meeting Becca, it was clear that there are two sides to her, too. To the world, she is known as an Episcopal Priest and founder of Magdalene House, a two-year residential community for women who are recovering from prostitution and drug abuse. Since the program began in 1997, it has become a national safe haven for hurting women all over the country. Due to its success, even now, there is a waiting list (a fact that Becca hates, by the way). However, upon meeting her in person, you gain a different impression than the bio lists on the Thistle Farm website. Different, but just as good.
“I haven’t had a bath yet today so I hope you don’t smell me,” she nonchalantly says with a faint grin, fresh out of a meditation meeting with the women of Magdalene. “I’m sorry, but it’s just been one of those days.”
At first glance, I’m tempted to ask, “Is this the Becca Stevens?” Her hair is in a loose ponytail, she has no make-upon, and she’s rockin’ flip-flops and sweats. Yet, as she begins talking — rather matter-of-fact-ly — about her love for Magdalene, her family life and her amazing ability to juggle it all, she suddenly radiates a kind of beauty that puts most supermodels to shame. Hers is not about what she puts on, but the deep sense of purpose that comes from within.
Becca has been featured in almost every publication in Nashville, and so her professional stats are pretty widespread. Her “ministry baby,” Magdalene, is an organization that, to date, has raised well over $7 million. The funds go toward providing spiritual and emotional support, along with life skills and abuse treatment for women ... free of charge. Out of Magdalene were born other service-related offspring including Thistle Farms, a highly-successful, non-profit business operated by the women of Magdalene. Although Becca appears laid-back, what gets her heart racing and marketing mind going is the mention of this company, which provides natural bath and body products. (I’ve tried them, and they are really good!)
Personally, I’ve had the honor of teaching creative writing classes to the women of Magdalene. I’ve also heard Becca preach a sermon or two at Vanderbilt’s St. Augustine’s Chapel. So, since I was pretty “read-up” on the press side of her, I took the opportunity to find out (and share) what I’ve always wanted to ask Mrs. Stevens.
First question: “What is the press question that tires you the most?”
She pauses for a moment and lightly laughs. “Oh, that’s easy,” she says. “‘What inspired you to start Magdalene?’ I’m not sure I was ever inspired. As life unfolds, and you keep your heart open to do what you can for others, the work that’s meant for you comes to you.”
As she adjusted her position in the fold-back chair, I could tell that she was becoming more comfortable. I took that as my cue. I shared with her that I’ve read a lot of what Magdalene has done for the women within the program, but I was curious to know what it had done for her ... what she had learned about herself on a personal level.
“We all have a story,” she says, looking towards the trees a few feet away from us, “and being a part of this ... amazing gift has reminded me to be grateful to be at a place in my life where I am not judged ... where my past errors or present inadequacies do not matter to the people I surround myself with.
“Daily, I’m surrounded by people who are much more interested in loving me than judging me. That kind of love ... the love I receive from my family, my friends, the staff and the women here at Magdalene, that leads me to knee-buckling gratitude. I’m pretty good at being a champion of people. When I want to defend you, I will, but when you find a place in life where you feel just as covered, that provides the perfect environment to grow and become a better person, a better wife, a better mother … just better.”
Perhaps that is what drives her, for better or for worse, to give her all to Magdalene, a ministry that has a myriad of success stories and a few sad tales as well. Because it is a two-year program (“I wanted it to be a small and beautiful experience where the first year you didn’t have to worry about anything but getting better.”), there are a handful of women who quit the program and leave. Yet, for them, the door is always open. To Becca, like any trial in life, a closed chapter is not necessarily the end of a book.
“Sometimes these women hear voices in their heads about their past lives and self-worth that simply seem like too much to bear,” says Becca. “Prostitution is about the suffering of women, and that’s what makes it such a huge moral issue for me. In my eyes, it is a cultural sickness that the media is way too ignorant about. Whenever the discussion is brought up to make prostitution legal, I think ‘That only protects the men. What about the women?’ Prostitutes are victims. No matter what you may hear or think, no one chooses the lifestyle of the streets. No one signs up to be raped or beaten.
“I remember when one of the women who prematurely left our program died. There were only about eight people at her funeral. She died in state custody beaten and bruised. But you know what? There was so much love and compassion for her in that room ... there was an undeniable empathy. If anyone was needing to rest, we all understood that it was her.
“There is a back story to the lives of these women that is not told nearly as much as it should be,” continues Becca. “A lot of people don’t embrace women who have been in prostitution because they would rather see them as ‘the other’ ... the stranger. But if you ever experience this with your daughter, your sister or your mother, you come to see that they are women who are horribly abused. The back story is always more complicated, but it’s where I want to go. I’m not trying to be the answer for prostitution; I just want to provide an option for women who are seeking recovery.”
You can see the passion in her eyes. You can hear the calling in her voice. It’s amazing that she finds the time to fight such a battle on top of that are the never-ending Magdalene demands. The morning we spoke, there was a plumbing incident that, let’s just say, kept the day from running as smoothly as Becca would’ve liked.
“A successful life is about surrender,” Becca sighs. “We all compromise, and we all accept that things don’t always go as planned. My family (which consists of Marcus, her husband of almost 20 years, and children Levi, 17; Caney, 12; and Moses, 8) is full of love, and my lifestyle is full of surprises. When I go thistle farming, the family goes with me, and it’s not a huge headache for anyone. We do what needs to be done, and it works. If you pay attention to what life and love are trying to teach you, the right things will come to help you in achieving your purpose.”
One of Becca’s favorite “life and love” memories consists of her first date with Marcus. The “romantic” event consisted of fixing up a transitional house. “Even then, just the fact that he was even in there, I knew that there was something very special about him … very ‘I can take it’ about him,” recalls Becca. “One day, I sent a telepathic message that I wanted him to marry me. When he did propose, I asked him if he ever got it, and he said, ‘Yeah.’ We met in September and married the following October.”
From the peace that comes in the way she speaks of her marriage, it’s seems like they’re still a match made in missionary heaven. Marcus helped fund the beginning stages of Magdalene and, along with Becca, continues to host events at their home for various women’s organizations year-round.
When asked what was the key to their marital success, Becca looked me in the eye and said, “We are co-leaders.” When asked to explain, she does. “He is not my spiritual leader, and I am not his. We do this thing together. If my husband is writing an opera, he does not run it by me first, and if there’s something that I know must be done, I don’t run it by him.”
“Maybe you do it telepathically,” I say.
“Good one,” she laughs. “Maybe.”
Either way, it works. And it works well. Whether it’s Magdalene, her pulpit ministry, her marriage and family or even the few moments she gets to herself, Becca believes that there is one thread tying them all together: honesty.
“I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about getting it all right,” Becca says as she stands up to prepare for her next scheduled meeting. “As long as you’re honestly trying to be about loving and healing, people can tell. Anything less than that is just a sell, and nobody’s buying it.
“I believe I was brought to Magdalene because, believe it or not, for many years, grace and mercy were hard for me to feel, but now, daily, I need it. And to see the power that those two things have to change someone ... on the hardest days, that’s what keeps me going.”
“Even on days when the plumbing’s down and you haven’t bathed?” I ask.
“Especially on those days. If you can extend mercy to your toilet, you can give it to just about anyone. Believe me,” she says, while rolling her eyes. “I’ve learned that the hard way.”