The Reverend Becca Stevens is an Episcopal priest serving as Chaplain at St Augustine’s at Vanderbilt University, and founder of Thistle Farms & Magdalene. Thistle Farms employs 40 residents and graduates of Magdalene, and houses a natural body care line, a paper and sewing studio and the Thistle Stop Café. Magdalene is the two-year residential program that serves women at no cost to them. Stevens has authored nine books and her latest book is Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling.
KW: What inspired you to write Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling?
BS: I had started learning about healing oils as part of my work as Founding Director of Thistle Farms and my work as a pastor. Thistle Farms is an all natural bath and body care company that employs close to 50 women who are survivors of trafficking, addiction, and prostitution. I wanted to reclaim the title of Snake Oil seller in a more positive light and take a new twist on the idea. After all, I had all the tools I needed to sell the promise of healing. I had a heart full of gratitude, a fair amount of brokenness, a healthy dose of skepticism, a hankering for entrepreneurship, and a big desire to help the underdog. All of those ingredients, mixed with being an advocate for women coming off the streets, created a recipe for writing book and wanting to help heal lives.
KW: Who are the people who have most influenced you and the work you do?
BS: I am my mother and father’s daughter to be sure. My Dad was a priest who was killed by a drunk driver when I was five. I grew up admiring the idea of him and how he died while living out his calling. My mother was a nurse who ran a community center and raised five kids by herself. She was practical and tough, and I grew up longing to be as down to earth as she was. In my work of establishing communities for survivals of trafficking, addiction, and prostitution and then establishing a social enterprise to support those communities I have blended the heart of my father and the practicality of my mom. I love ministries that are ideal, humble, and actually do work that sustains community.
KW: What do people most need to understand to be awakened to the need for their empathy and action on behalf of the hurting?
BS: I think people need to remember that they have been in the ditch. We do not share the same experience, but we all have been in need sometime in our lives. We can stay compassionate and empathetic when we can fan the flames of gratitude stirred by the truth that someone helped us out of the ditch and offered us food, clothing, and love. We are awakened to action when our hearts are ready to give in gratitude with no strings attached.
KW: In the course of your career as writer and activist, what has been one of the greatest difficulties? What has been one of the most empowering successes?
BS: A while back I quit trying to differentiate between success and failure. I have gone through things I think of as utter failures only to see in hindsight how powerfully love was working through those times and that truly they were some of the richest times that I have known. One of the worst times I went through was a graduate of our community who relapsed and then was murdered by a truck driver. I thought of the whole thing as a horrible failure—a failure of my work, of the injustices of the world, of all the systems that let her fall through cracks as deep as the grand canyon. At her funeral though, I wept and was left speechless by the thick spirit of love that filled the room. I have never felt the love of God as I did in her service. It was through that experience that I decided that if that was the worst the world could offer with poverty, addiction, abuse, and injustice just topping the list, I would do this work for the rest of my life just to experience how love is powerful enough to speak the last word.
KW: How have you, and how do you hope to see the contemporary Christian culture transformed in its approach to advocacy and social justice?
BS: In the book, Snake Oil, I offer practical recipes and idealistic musings for people to integrate into their daily living. I think we would do well to remember that healing is simply a sacramental way of walking towards wholeness. Working for justice and being advocates is a powerful way to preach about love and healing. I hope we become more practical Christians and pass on these mantras:
- It’s not about right thought, it’s about right action
- Any church without beggars is a museum
We can love the whole world, one person at a time, but it will take all of us our whole lives.
KW: What words do you have for those who are either interested in or have been long-engaged in social advocacy and are discouraged by the daunting magnitude of suffering in the world?
BS: We are not called to change the world. We are simply called to love it. To love the world, sometimes it means that we need to change. The injustices in our world are daunting in their magnitude and depth. It is right that it humbles us—but it can’t stop us from trying to wake up the next day and love the world all over again.