Maria had never left the four block radius in Nashville where she had been born. Her father was a pimp and a drug dealer and her mother was an addict and prostitute. She was in her mid-twenties but wasn’t sure of her exact age. She had gone to elementary school and could read and write but not well. Her experiences in life had been limited. She, like her mother, was an addict and a prostitute and life didn’t offer a lot of hope or promise for her future. That is, until she met Becca Stephens.
Becca Stephens is a priest in Nashville. She is the chaplain of the Episcopal campus ministry at Vanderbilt. Several years ago, Becca founded Magdalene House, a two-year residential program aimed at helping women get off the streets, get clean and sober, and begin to heal and learn new skills through counseling, employment, and community building. The program can house up to 28 women at a time and offers free rent and health care. It teaches women sustainable recovery and job skills. But most importantly, it offers a transformative experience in which women learn to forgive and love themselves and one another so that they might have a fresh start and another chance at life. Becca Stephens does more than rescue women off the streets of Nashville, she gives them new life.
Maria was one of the ones Becca offered new life. Maria was a prostitute, a thief, a drug mule and addict. In essence, she was a criminal, she had broken the law time and time again. Her actions and lifestyle contributed to the violence, sexual immortality, disease, and crime we associate with our poorer neighborhoods and communities. Her neighborhood was of the type most of us would go out of our way to avoid. There was an established police presence there, not to protect and to serve but to bust criminals as they were always searching for the next crime to go down. We define people like Maria as criminals and want to toss them in jail and throw away the key. There are consequences for breaking the rules, and people like Maria are at fault for breaking every rule that Jesus commands in our lesson from Matthew today and thus must be liable to the judgment of hell. When we lock up people like Maria, we are simply doing the work society and Jesus tells us we are responsible for as good Christians and good citizens. But there are those among us who don’t accept a simple understanding of what it means to break the law, to be judged for it and punished accordingly. People like Becca Stephens.
Maria is exactly the kind of person Becca Stephens seeks. Instead of judging and condemning people like Maria, Becca understands her call in partnering to work with God as one of salvation not condemnation. Becca searches for people like Maria to offer them a different life, to teach them about being a child of God, and to open a door to transformation through the love Christ has for each one of his creations. Becca found Maria and did just that. She gave her a home at Magdalene House and a job at Thistle Farms—the company she created for the women of Magdalene House to learn job skills and make money to fund the program. Thistle Farms makes and sells a variety of skin care and home products like lotions, lip balm, candles, and more. And though Thistle Farms is the name of the company, each product carries a label that says “Love Heals” because that is what Becca is doing.
Instead of judging others and condemning them or punishing them for breaking the rules, Becca reaches out in love and compassion from a place of empathy not judgment. She doesn’t care if the women she rescues are murderers, adulterers, divorcees, and liars—she sees them as humans, more than humans, children of God—and she affords them an opportunity for choice, something that the conditions of their life have never done for them.
Its easy for us to read Matthew’s Gospel today and see it as a list of rules that, if broken, employ consequences. Its easy for us to read Deuteronomy and think that there is a choice between life and prosperity, death and adversity. For some people, like the women at Magdalene House, like people in our own city of Montgomery, that isn’t a choice. All they have ever known is a life of death and adversity, of limitation and resistance to their ever improving themselves. They are born into poverty and crime ridden neighborhoods, attend schools in which the education system fails them, are third and fourth generation poor who can’t even be shown a better way by other family or friends because they don’t know a better way exists. Maria is one of those women and it is only because someone like Becca Stephens decided to move beyond the rules into a place of relationship that Maria can discover there is something more to this life—to discover hope.
For Maria to come to Magdalene House, someone had to reach out to her—to convince her there could be a different path, a different way of living and being in this world. Maria wasn’t going to call 211 for resources—she was afraid of anything that seemed like the system, wary of government provided resources beyond food stamps or welfare. She wasn’t going to call attention to herself and even if she was aware of resources that were out there to help her, she didn’t love herself enough to believe she was worthy of any help. Instead, she needed convincing of her worth, convincing that she might deserve a better set of circumstances than those she had always known.
Upon arrival at Magdalene House, Maria still couldn’t trust her new surroundings. She had never had any real relationships much less a friendship. It had been survival of the fittest on the streets and you didn’t trust other people in that world. Moving into Magdalene House meant a whole new way of living. She was fighting addiction and trying to be sober as well as learning how to be a friend and live in community. She may not have had to pay rent, but the cost was high to live in this place. Maria doubted herself, she doubted others and believed that they would give up on her just as so many other people had. There were times when she wanted to quit and, as awful as her life on the streets had been, return to the familiar, to what she had known before coming to this place. But Maria didn’t quit. Something in her kept pushing, kept working toward a better life. She had accepted the invitation Becca extended to be made new and though she didn’t yet truly believe she was a child of God, she wanted too.
Maria grew strong, over and over again in the face of self-doubt and the struggle with adversity in giving up her old life, her old habits, her old addictions, she was able to choose a new way of being, a new life. She maintained her recovery, going to AA and NA, Narcotics Anonymous, daily if she needed too. She worked hard in her new job at Thistle Farms. She learned life skills no one had ever taught her, like using an alarm clock and making sure she got to work on time, the importance of nutrition and eating healthy meals, good hygiene, and prayer. Though not well educated, she was extremely smart and worked toward her GED. Maria was a success story but more than that, she was a transformed person, redeemed and renewed through the power of God.
Becca often gets invited to speaking engagements in various places. When she goes, she always takes Thistle Farms products and two or three women from Magdalene House with her. A few years ago, Becca was invited to speak at Christ Church in Pensacola, FL. She invited Maria to go with her. Maria had never been outside of Nashville and until she came to Magdalene House, had not set foot off that four block radius she had been born in. She was thrilled to get to go. They boarded a plane—which of course terrified her—but she was determined to have a new life with new experiences so she flew for the first time. After the speaking engagement, they had a few hours before they needed to be back at the airport, so Becca took her and the other women to the beach. When they got there they took off their shoes and began to walk in the sand. Maria was grinning from ear to ear. She had never seen sand, much less felt its soft grittiness under her feet and through her toes. Nor had she seen the waves of the ocean or heard them crashing on the shore or felt the sea breeze on her face or heard the gulls’ cry or smelled the fresh, salty air. This new experience was one of pure bliss. Becca asked her if she would like to wade out into the water and she was quick to say yes. They rolled their jeans up past their knees and waded into the gently rolling sea. Maria giggled when the waves washed over her toes and laughed with delight as she stepped into the warm, salty water and then she became quiet. Becca who had been laughing with the other girls noticed Maria’s change and came near to ask her what was the matter. Maria extended her arms and looking out across a distant horizon of sea and sky said, “Do you mean to tell me this has been here all of my life?”
“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” Amen.
Epiphany 6A: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; I Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
Church of the Ascension, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, February 16, 2020
Rev. Candice B. Frazer