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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Love heals: Vanderbilt Episcopal Reverend Becca Stevens lands a CNN Hero Nomination

Rev. Becca Stevens has been exploring ways to help battered women since she arrived on campus in 1994. Photo courtesy Kristin Sweeting.

Many students know it as the building with an “A Frame” shape, located between the Tri-Delta and Kappa Alpha Theta houses on Greek row. But for Rev. Becca Stevens, her “little A-Frame chapel” at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church has become her “loving home” over the past 20 years, where she has served as a Reverend for the Vanderbilt community. Here at the chapel she would explore an idea that would define her career’s work: helping impoverished women with troubled pasts.

Becca Stevens first arrived on the Vanderbilt campus in 1994, as a divinity school student and an aspiring Episcopal priest. She had already been exploring the possibility of helping Nashville women from the start.

Photo courtesy Peggy Napier.
Thistle, the main ingredient in the products for which the company is named, is a prickly plant that blossoms into a beautiful soft, purple flower, a powerful symbol for many of the recovering women. Photo courtesy Peggy Napier.

“When I arrived at Vanderbilt around 1994, I already had the idea of wanting to start a sanctuary for women,” said Stevens, who was a 2014 recipient of the Divinity School’s Distinguished Alumni Award. “I really wanted to make a safe place for women to come in and heal. That would be a dream. And I knew that Vanderbilt would be a good place and a good environment to start that dream with.”

In 1997, with the help of several students and other members of the Vanderbilt community, Rev. Stevens began her project. She launched Magdalene, a program to house destitute former prostitutes and drug addicts in the Nashville community. Her goal was simple: use love to inspire these battered women to discover their hidden potentials. She later coined Magdalene’s motto, “Love Heals.” The women would live alongside each other, with no authority supervisor, for two years. Housing, food, healthcare, therapy, substance abuse support, legal help and education would be provided to them free of charge.

I could have never predicted this”

The program began with only four women in one house, who Stevens and her colleagues had managed to bring off the streets. Today, the Magdalene program has expanded to five houses and cares for for 36 women.

Still, Stevens felt like something was missing. She had observed how despite making a recovery from their troubled pasts, many women remained extremely poor after graduation. Perhaps the women had difficulty finding work because of their previous criminal history. Then it struck her. Why not employ them herself?

Photo courtesy Peggy Napier.
Photo courtesy Peggy Napier.

In 2001, Rev. Stevens expanded her Magdalene program to create a social enterprise called Thistle Farms that would provide her Magdalene residents and graduates with paying jobs. The company she envisioned would produce body care products and candles, perfect for the healing message she was trying to convey to her potential customers and her new employees.

The main material used in the first products, thistle, for which the company is named, is even more symbolic. A type of prickly plant that grows in tough environments, thistles are often thought of as nuisances that are hard to get rid of. Despite its tough outer appearance, the flower that blossoms from the weed is a beautiful soft, purple flower, great for using in beauty care products. Many of the former prostitutes and drug addicts saw themselves as thistles, disregarded by society, but better appreciated once they fully blossomed.

“Like a rough weed, like we are, when we’re out there on the streets. We was rough and tough, went through hell and back, got into situations and we just survived the cold and the drought like the thistle does. It don’t need no water. It comes up out of the concrete, and it transforms into a beautiful flower,” said Penny Hall, a former prostitute who works for Thistle Farms, in a 2011 interview with NPR.

Thistle Farms now creates natural bath and body products in an 11,000 square foot facility in Nashville.
Thistle Farms now creates natural bath and body products in an 11,000 square foot facility in Nashville.

Since its 2001 inception, Thistle Farms has taken a life of its own, much to Reverend Steven’s delight. From its humble beginnings of five women experimenting in a Vanderbilt kitchen stirring body balm and candles, Thistle Farms now creates natural bath and body products in an 11,000 square foot facility in Nashville. In addition, the social enterprise opened up a café in Charlotte Pike, and an artisan studio, where employees learn sewing, papermaking, screen-printing and metalwork. The studio produces necklaces, lavender drawer sachets, tea towels, greeting cards and journals for sale, as well as provides the product packaging elements for the rest of the business to use. In total, 54 Magdalene residents and graduates are currently employed. Last year, Thistle Farms boasted over $2,000,000 in sales revenue through sales of its products in 500 stores throughout the US, and dished out $850,000 to its employees.

In addition, Reverend Stevens has looked outside of Nashville to continue making an impact. Through the Thistle Farms “Global Market” sect, she has managed to inspire others to provide women with employment in a similar manner, using the Thistle Farms model as inspiration.

“I could have never predicted this…we currently have 22 international partners and 52 independently funded sister communities around the country, in addition to the five residences in Nashville. We help with referral services, housing, and help give jobs to more than 2,000 women a year now. And we will continue growing,” said Stevens.

In Nashville, Rev. Steven’s original Magdalene program continues to be in great demand. In its 19-year history, three out of every four residents graduates successfully and resumes a normal life. The waiting list, which is capped at 100, is always full of women yearning for a second chance.

“Becca is a natural leader who inspires people to place their trust in God and community.”

It is because of this never ending demand that Stevens hopes she can continue growing Magdalene and Thistle Farm’s reach.

“The goal is to keep going, to really grow this, what we think of it now, as an international movement for women’s freedom,” Stevens said. “Because it’s not about just helping the current 36 women. We have made referrals all over the country to other programs, we have hired women from all over the world to do a lot of our social enterprise stuff, so I feel like we affect a lot more than 30 women.”

Stevens success has been well-documented over the years. An inductee of the Tennessee Women’s Hall of Fame, just this fall, she was nominated for the annual CNN Hero Award, an award show where ten finalists who show exceptional devotion for a project in their community, are each awarded $10,000 for their efforts. The winner, voted on the CNN website, will receive an additional $100,000 for their cause. Rev. Stevens sees this nomination as yet another opportunity to drastically expand Thistle Farms’ outreach in improving the lives of women.

“This (nomination) actually translates into real money, real lives saved, real national recognition. So we continue growing the whole movement. It has some major consequences for us,” said Stevens in a recent interview with the Hustler.

Rev. Steven’s Vanderbilt colleagues have supported her work throughout the years. University Chaplain and Director of Religious Life, Rev. Mark Forrester remembers when the project first started.

“I was present as a colleague when Becca first ventured into the Magdalene Project with women who had led lives of prostitution and addiction on the streets of Nashville,” Forrester said. “Several years later the cottage industry known as Thistle Farms began in our church kitchen at St. Augustine’s on Greek Row.”

Forrester attributes Steven’s successes to her character and praised her leadership over the years.

“Becca is a natural leader who inspires people to place their trust in God and community,” he said. “The one attribute that sets Becca apart is her empathy for people who have been pushed to the margins of society and discarded as worthless and beyond redemption. And yet her ability to reach the addict, the prostitute and the homeless is always tempered by a kind yet firm challenge to live up to their God-given potential.”

For Rev. Stevens, she credits the community around her for their support and she hopes she can continue building upon this in the future.  

“I have a great community that I get to work with,” Stevens said. “My board carries a lot of the load. I am just a small part of it. That’s not me being modest. That is the honest truth. Thistle Farms is an amazing group of survivor leaders and passionate people who have given a lot of their time and energy to grow it. And the same is true with everyone in Vanderbilt community who has helped me throughout the years.”  


Rev. Stevens hopes the Vanderbilt community can continue fueling her dream by voting for her for CNN Hero of the Year. The award’s voting continues until December 6th at midnight on the CNN Hero website. (Link to:

Up to 10 votes are allotted per day, and the winners will be announced on December 11th, when the award show is aired on CNN.

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About the Contributor
Izzy Ercan, Former Author

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VU Alum
7 years ago

Good heavens. One would think a newspaper would have a style guide that teaches that “Reverend” is an adjective, not a noun. Stevens is no more “a Reverend” than she is “a blue” or “a sad”. Furthermore, “Reverend” is always preceded by “The”.

The Rev. Stevens deserves congratulations for her award, though, and our gratitude for the great work she’s done.