Artist Profiles

How to grow love amid thistles

Mural on the side of Thistle Farms in Nashville.

[NASHVILLE] The next morning began EARLY. I’m a night owl anyway, and I was on vacation. But Thistle Farms asked us to be at their facility by 8:45 for meditation before our tour. And boy, oh boy was it worth it.

I’ve been on mission trips, so I expected to be moved in unexpected ways. But I was bowled over by the warmth and energy that is Thistle Farms. Walking in is like a great big hug. And even that is inadequate. 

I was toting a man to a place where many women have been used and abused by men. And I knew I stuck out like a sore thumb with my walking shoes and gear and nervous smile. But as some 50 of us settled into a bright room fed by light from the street windows and filled with chairs wrapping in back-to-back rows, all the feelings of conspicuousness melted away. 

One woman began by sharing a passage from the Bible, telling us a bit of her background and offering a good morning to all. Hers was a story that could shock, but she delivered it calmly, succinctly and with assurance and acceptance. She welcomed everyone in the group, regulars and visitors, and then sent it around the room for everyone to speak as much or as little as they wanted. 

Some of the people in attendance—there were a handful of male staffers, too—just said hello. But others talked about things they had experienced in the past week. One woman described being at the gas station, filling her tank, when a man approached her with cash. And in fact she had been a prostitute before entering the Magdalene program. The devil is alive, she said. It’s easy to live right when you’re surrounded by support, but what do we do when no one’s around? Magdalene, however, has given her the tools to know how to respond. How to stay strong in the face of temptations from an old life. That brought a round of applause. 

Another woman described a conversation she had while out on Cinco de Mayo. She doesn’t drink anymore, which aroused the curiosity of a friend. If you have just one beer, the friend asked, can you still say you’re sober? Well, the young woman replied, if you have sex just one time, can you still say you’re a virgin? That brought a long laugh from the crowd. A volunteer chimed in that her daughter, who also is sober, tells people she’s allergic to alcohol. When they ask what happens when she drinks, she tells them she breaks out in a bad case of stupid. 

The room hummed with positive energy, whether the speaker was serious or humorous. One woman spoke of watching a pair of birds share parenting duties in a nest outside her window…a new concept to her. Another spoke of being given a key to the door of her Magdalene home, and how that was a key to a new life. When they got to me, I thanked them for allowing me to come and explained that I was starting a new business, the first products for which were coming from Thistle Farms. So many cheers and so much clapping! I felt light beams coming right out of those ladies. 

That was the thing I really noticed about Thistle Farms. Sometimes when you get a bunch of people together, they can snicker or form alliances or passively-aggressively tear each other down. But I didn’t sense any of that. This group was peacefully, solidly supportive of one another. No artificial ingredients. 

Then we all got up and took a tour of the operation with Jennifer, a Magdalene graduate-turned-employee and one of the most high energy, optimistic people you’d ever wanna meet. You can read lots and lots about this great organization on their website, but I’ll share the highlights of our tour with some photos.

Making shower gel at Thistle Farms in Nashville.

All of the products are made in Thistle Farms’ workshop right in Nashville, one at a time. They have a chemist on staff to help develop the ingredients. They include things like lavender grown by Benedictine nuns on a mountainside. If that doesn’t sound lovely, I don't know what does. 

Making candles at Thistle Farms.

Everything gets hand-labeled in the bright and airy space by a combination of Magdalene participants and volunteers.

Love Heals is the driving force behind Thistle Farms in Nashville.

They used to have to carry everything downstairs to the packaging and shipping area until “Al, the Improbable Philanthropist,” a musical therapist, decided to change that. He wrote a children’s book and donated the proceeds to Thistle Farms, which they used to construct their Al-evator. Get it? Al funded the elevator so it’s the Al-evator? Ha!

Plans for growth at Thistle Farms in Nashville.

Thistle Farms is selling a Hope Candle to raise money to build more Magdalene housing on this lot right behind their workshop/café complex. They regularly have a waiting list of women who wish to enter. 

The little chestnut tree that took so long to blossom...just as so many of the women at Thistle Farms in Nashville.

Jennifer stopped to show us this little chestnut tree growing in a small garden area to the side of the Thistle Farms buildings. In 2012, the organization hosted a Chestnuts and Sage fundraiser; part of the plan was to take a photo of a chestnut tree every year so that people who contributed could watch it—and Thistle Farms—grow. It was Jennifer’s job to take the pictures, and she lamented to founder Rebecca that they must have planted a dead tree, because for the longest time it was nothing but a stick. So when she spotted the first bud, she was overjoyed…just as her family must have been when they saw her leave her old life behind and blossom, she explained, pausing to let that sink in. It could be an emotional Hallmark movie, but the way Jennifer tells the story, it’s more like the best summer blockbuster ever.

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