Where women build new lives

For those with a history of prostitution and drug abuse, the Magdalene community offers a second chance.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

The sense of community among the women is palpable, whether at the business site or during a visit to the only residence that was newly built. Although Magdalene is funded only by grants and donations (no state or federal funds), furnishings in all four houses are new. This home has a cathedral ceiling, fireplace, and sunny inner courtyard.

"I wanted to treat people with dignity and respect, to have a lovely place where women could feel the extravagance of being loved, and that they are worth something," says Stevens, a mother of three and also chaplain at Vanderbilt University. She has raised $5 million for Magdalene, won awards for innovation and achievement, and been named Nashvillian of the Year.

Women in the houses are responsible for themselves (staff visit to run programs) and hold each other accountable.

"My recovery is very important to me, so if there is something going on we talk to each other about it," says Lisa S. At Magdalene for the second time after a relapse due to "running behind a man," Lisa came back when she realized that "he wasn't the one that cared about me, these ladies were."

With the models of caring, tenderness, and strength expressed by Stevens and program director Donna Grayer, the women learn to accept that they are worthy of love and capable of loving. That is evident when they embrace new residents.

For the first three months, newcomers are in treatment working on recovery from drugs. Medical and dental care, as well as basic education and computer skills, are provided. In-house programs offer a variety of classes given by volunteers, from life skills and parenting to art, dance, Bible study, and 12-step groups.

Religion is not a required element.

"If you are talking to people who have been in hell, they are on a spiritual path you need to be respectful of," Stevens says. "They are more honest than most people and have a lot to teach. You don't want people to think you have a Bible in your hand and something up your sleeve."

A weekly group session on spirituality run by therapist Jozuf Lyle draws 15 women this afternoon, and many eagerly join in. Dr. Lyle, who has worked with addicts for years, talks of their "real self - the child of God - that has been hidden under the programmed stuff" of their lives, and leads a moving, hour-long discussion on how to take responsibility, deal with negative images and attitudes, and not let the past be a deadweight. "My work is about your waking up," he says, "to believe more in the power that moves mountains" than in the mountain itself.

Some go back to old neighborhoods to encourage others. Magdalene has its own outreach, too, where the women set up tables, serve lunch, give out toiletry bags, and share information on safe houses and programs with women on the streets.

"Then if a call comes in - it's usually at 2 or 3 in morning when the dope runs out - we pick them up and take them to a safe place and get treatment started," says Regina Mullins, outreach coordinator.

But Magdalene's mission goes beyond helping the women. It is to change the culture so that prostitution is no longer acceptable. They work with police, for instance, on a "School for Johns" (a "John" is slang for a prostitute's customer) to discourage it. "Prostitution should not be considered a victimless crime, because the ladies are put in tremendous physical danger and emotional and mental harm," says Chief Serpas.

The program is having a ripple effect. Magdalene has helped start a community in Chattanooga, and another will open soon in South Carolina. Groups have visited from several states and Canada.

Hope is rising on the streets, too. When Magdalene opened its fourth house, with space for 8 women, 50 applied.

"There's a myth that once you are a prostitute you're never going to get better," Stevens says. "It's not true."

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