Where women build new lives
For those with a history of prostitution and drug abuse, the Magdalene community offers a second chance.
When the Rev. Becca Stevens began visiting Nashville jails a decade ago, one visit turned into a high school reunion of sorts: One of her former classmates was the police officer at the desk that day, and another was a prostitute behind bars.Skip to next paragraph
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Struck by the thought that "all of us could be in another's position," Ms. Stevens, an Episcopal priest, pondered what she could do to make a difference.
In 1997, Stevens founded Magdalene, a two-year residential community for women with a criminal history of prostitution and drug abuse. Conceived as a place of sanctuary and recovery - to provide safety, discipline, and an unconditional love that the women have never known - it has apparently worked wonders.
The community has grown from one to four houses, plus a new beauty-products business where a number of the women work. More than 50 women have turned their lives around - to be "clean," hopeful, and productive.
"I was 42 years old and didn't have a life," says Clemmie Greenlee, who was on drugs and on the streets for some 20 years. "God woke me up and I found He has work for me to do." A 2003 graduate of Magdalene, Ms. Greenlee is now married and working in the community to counter gang violence among youths. She also runs a recovery house for substance abusers. An exuberant woman who exudes joy, Greenlee adds, "They see me going strong, and it gives them hope."
Other graduates have gone on to school, married, or found jobs, and some have been reunited with their children.
Ronal Serpas, chief of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, sees Magdalene as "a tremendous and important work." While the police do their duty and arrest people, "I believe rehabilitation is the answer," he says.
What most of the women have had in common is sexual abuse at an early age (sometimes by a family member), often followed by an early introduction to drugs. They didn't get to the streets on their own, Stevens says, but through a failure of family and community as well as some bad choices. "But you don't make a lot of choices if you get raped at 8 years old," she adds. Drugs become a way to escape the pain, and prostitution the means to the drugs.
"I was introduced to moonshine at 5 years old, to smoking weed at 6, and was raped by my first cousin at 8," Cynthia M. explains, in a too-typical story. Her father died the next year. Angry and fearful, she ran off to the streets and drugs. "At 13, I had my first child, thinking that a baby would give me the love I was yearning for," she says. "I didn't have anybody to show me the way."
After tumultuous years that brought two more children and episodes of treatment and relapse - at one point she weighed just 64 pounds - she asked God to take her life or send her to jail. Soon arrested, she prayed fervently in jail for a month and "finally found a sense of God."
Not long after, Cynthia was led to Magdalene. "From that day forward, I was blessed. These people didn't know me, and yet the love was so unconditional," she says. Now in her 19th "clean" month, she serves as store manager at Thistle Farms, the cottage business operated by Magdalene residents. Handling inventory and quality control, she clearly enjoys describing the various bath and beauty products to potential buyers.
Named for the wildflower growing on the road that Nashville prostitutes frequent, Thistle Farms produces all-natural balms, candles, sachets, bath salts, and body scrub. They are sold online and in retail stores in Tennessee and eight other states. They're promoted by special events (concerts by Naomi Judd) and at "satellite parties," like Tupperware parties, where a video of the women's stories is shown. The business was created to give the women workplace skills, and because, with arrests on their records, it's difficult at first to find work.