Healing with Tea + Sympathy

Becca Stevens will have some emotional and chilling stories to tell when she speaks at the Daughters of Greatness Breakfast Series next week at the Muhammad Ali Center.

BeccaStevensPhoto1They’re stories of young girls who were sexually abused by people in positions of authority, by people the girls should have been able to trust, often sending these girls’ lives spiraling into the degradations of prostitution, homelessness, addiction, and prison.

One of those stories is Stevens’ own.

Her father was a pastor who moved his family from Connecticut to Nashville when Stevens was 4 years old. A few months later, he was killed by a drunk driver.

“When one tragedy occurs, it disrupts the family and opens the door for a whole lot of other ones,” she says.

In her case, the man who stepped in as elder of her father’s church began abusing her. She was 6 years old. The abuse went on for about two years.

“There’s a complete correlation between rape at a young age and addictive behavior,” Stevens says. “If you sexualize a girl, it warps her ideas of authority, safety, the way relationships are supposed to work.”

Stevens was one of the lucky ones. Thanks to a strong mother and her own innate survival instincts, she did well in school, went on to college and was ordained by the Vanderbilt University School of Divinity. She became priest and chaplain at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Chapel on the Vanderbilt campus.

But she says she felt, as well, a deep connection to those troubled women she saw on the streets of Nashville. It was a connection forged on shared experiences.

With a desire to heal and a determination to help, Stevens founded the Magdalene shelter program, offering what she feels are the two most powerful healing agents: sanctuary and community. To qualify, women must have a criminal history of prostitution, addiction and trafficking. And that usually means a history of sexual abuse, as well.

“In 20 years of doing this, I’ve never had a woman in the program who has not been raped,” Stevens says. “And, on average, the first rape occurred between the ages of 7 and 11.”

Each Magdalene House accommodates five to eight women, who are given two years of free housing.

“We tell them, ‘It’s your house, here are the keys, there’s no authority figure in charge of you, telling you want to do.’ That’s important, because they have a warped sense of authority from all the figures in their lives, from the men who first abused them to their johns, the police, prison wardens, parole officers, etc.”

Magdalene offers its residents access to employment, education, medical care and legal services, but Stevens is insistent that “we don’t heal them; we give them an environment in which to heal.”

She believes the sense of community is a powerful and undervalued healing agent. “Sometimes, we just need a small group of people loving each other and helping each other.”

What connects us all, she says, “is a strong desire to be loved and be needed, and for our lives to have meaning. It’s no different for people on the streets.”

Magdalene now has six houses in Nashville and has helped start about 22 “sister program” communities around the U.S.

Stevens’ newest venture is Thistle Stop Café, a tea house that offers employment to Magdalene residents. It’s a tea house, referencing the powerful dichotomy of tea as a soothing, calming drink with a history of violence.

“Tea has always been associated with war, trafficking and abuse,” she says. “The Opium Wars of the 1840s and 50s stemmed from Colonial Britain trading poppy from India to the Chinese, for tea.”

The poppy was used by the Chinese to make opium. The British desired the tea for its trading value and because tea came to play a crucial role in the British lifestyle throughout its worldwide empire. For decades in the 1600s and 1700s, the East India Tea Co. was the most powerful corporation in the world, ruling much of India with its own private army.

Stevens says it’s not coincidental that American colonists dumped tea into Boston harbor to make a statement to the British.

What’s more, the British planted the tea they got from China in their colonies all over the world, and these tea plantations became a vector for slave labor using local women, which is one reason its symbolism is so powerful to Magdalene residents.

Another powerful symbol for these women, Stevens believes, is Muhammad Ali. “His is a story of hope through defying authority,” she says.

He’s especially inspirational to African-Americans, which represent more than half of the women Magdalene serves. But his importance goes beyond race. “Ali’s story is that we’re more than what people have told us we are because of our poverty, race or gender.”

Ali also had the courage to speak out.

“We have to tell our stories, not internalize them,” Stevens says. “We carry our secrets because we feel guilty. You think to yourself, ‘I was way too open, or gregarious, or sad, I suggested or invited it’ You try to think ‘What was wrong with me?’ The answer is ‘Nothing!’”

The event featuring Stevens will take place Friday morning, Jan.16, at 8:30 p.m. at the Ali Center, 144 N. Sixth St. Tickets must be purchased in advance online at www.alicenter.org. Tickets are $15 for students with an ID, $20 for Ali Center members and $25 for non-members. The Center can be reached at 502.584.9254.