As they gathered up armloads of Thistle Farms bath and body products from the exhibit hall sales table, shoppers also gathered up and embraced the women who came to share their stories of recovery and healing with the Ninth Triennial Gathering of Women of the ELCA, meeting in Charlotte, N.C., July 24-27.
The women are from Magdalene, a two-year residential program in Nashville, Tenn., established for women who have survived addiction, trafficking and prostitution. Thistle Farms is the social enterprise operated by the women, where they create the natural bath and body products. The product is now in 380 stores across the country.
“Thistle Farms is and always will be my light. It has taught me how to become the person I am today and not the person I was 14 months ago,” said Deborah Hickson, who went through the program at Magdalene and now works as head receptionist at Thistle Farms. “It’s so full of love and spirit and inspiration.”
Hickson’s life was much different 14 months ago when she was “living with anybody just to survive.” After 14 years of addiction, Hickson said she woke up the morning of her son’s 19th birthday and decided she’d had enough. After a time spent in rehab, she met a woman from Magdalene who invited her to a graduation ceremony for women completing the program. “As soon as I walked into the church, the spirit hit me and I fell to my knees and cried, and I knew that was the program that I needed to be in,” she said.
The Magdalene program was founded in 1997 by Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest who serves as chaplain at St. Augustine’s chapel at Vanderbilt University. All services are free, including housing, food, medical and dental needs, therapy, education and job training. Stevens was the triennial gathering keynote speaker July 26.
“Becca brings us in and all that she asks from us (is) to recover and become the women that we were always supposed to be,” said Hickson.
“It is truly a blessing for me to be at Magdalene house, it gave me a place to go,” said Tianja Jackson, who was sent to prison for prior offenses that had been pending while she lived at Magdalene and worked at Thistle Farms.
“I did three years in prison. And the whole time I was there, they (the other residents) wrote me letters, they came to visited me, they sent me books, they supported me. It did something to me, it changed the way I felt about people in general because all the people I had been around was bad people.”
Jackson said she is grateful to have a community that loves and supports her. “I didn’t come back with a hard heart. I was just so grateful for the support they gave me and they loved me back to life. To not have to go back to the same abusive relationships, the same streets as I had before. I am four-years clean now and I’m doing great,” she said, adding that she recently took a big step when she received her GED. Jackson is currently studying to become a licensed drug and alcohol counselor.
Hickson said meeting and talking to the women of the ELCA filled her spirit. “To see the love and the strength and the support that we’ve been given, I’m amazed. It’s nothing short of a blessing.”
Candice Hill Buchbinder/ELCA News Service