Thistle Farms maintains focus on a crystal-clear mission

“I heard that you speak beautiful Spanish, right?” Becca Stevens asks Hannah.

The two are talking on the second floor of a warehouse in west Nashville as Hannah works in the Global Partners division of Thistle Farms. How she perfected a second language, how she came to be having this conversation at all are part of a harrowing personal history that Hannah is working her way out of.

Thistle Farms exterior
The Thistle Farms building is on Charlotte Pike in Nashville, Tennessee.

Stevens, an Episcopal priest, founded Thistle Farms 20 years ago as a social enterprise to provide a pathway to healing for women caught in cycles of sex trafficking, prostitution and addiction. It offers a two-year residential program with a safe home, job training, health care, case management and employment for women with experiences like Hannah’s, all free of charge.

Hannah (whose last name is being withheld to protect her privacy) became fluent in Spanish while entangled in prostitution and drug use in Mexico. She recounts two horrific years there and how she can’t believe she made it out alive.

“On a daily basis, people would ask me, ‘What are you doing here?’ and all I could say was, ‘I’m lost.’ That was my best answer. I was so, so lost,” Hannah says, choking back tears.

Thistle Farms staff
Hannah is a finished Goods Inventory Assistant in Global Partners.

Cycle of injustice

Stevens isn’t surprised by what Hannah shared during their conversation — things like first being trafficked by her own mother. But unsurprised doesn’t mean unaffected.

“At Thistle Farms, we don’t ask, ‘What did you do?’ We ask, ‘What happened to you?’” she said later in an interview.

Among the lessons Stevens has learned over the last two decades is that parents battling addiction often do whatever is necessary to feed their habit. For Hannah, as for the majority of Thistle Farms graduates, trauma began early. Abused young girls may turn to substances to numb the pain, then to prostitution to support the addiction.

Stevens has survived her own trauma. Her father, also a Nashville priest, was killed by a drunk driver when she was 5. A lay leader in the church sexually abused her years later.

How does your church or organization explore the deeper causes of need in your community?

Most of the women at Thistle Farms first experienced sexual abuse between the ages of 7 and 11, and began using alcohol or drugs by 13. Many first received payment for sex between the ages of 14 and 16. Most became victims of systems that commoditize, criminalize and abuse them, profiting off their vulnerability.

woman holds a candle
The number one product that Thistle Farms sells is candles.

Sexual trafficking is a reality in big cities as well as small rural communities across the country and around the world. In the U.S., some 4,312 victims and survivors contacted the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2019, up 20% from the prior year and part of an upward trend over time. These numbers are notoriously underreported and hard to track, according to Polaris, a nonprofit that operates the hotline and monitors national data on sexual and human trafficking.

It has been a long road for Hannah; this marks her return to Thistle Farms. While 75% of Thistle Farms’ residential program participants are leading healthy, financially independent lives five years after graduation, Hannah lasted only six months after her initial stay 10 years ago.

“But you’re back now, and that’s because they loved you. Shelia loves you,” Stevens told her, speaking of Shelia Simpkins-McClain, Thistle Farms’ residential program director and a 2007 program graduate.

“Shelia never gave up on you. And you know, it’s crazy — our newest global partner is there in Oaxaca, right where you were,” Stevens said.

“Your language skill is a gift. You are going with us next time.”

Love, light and hope

The message of Thistle Farms, along with the theology that undergirds it, is elegantly simple: “Love Heals.” The words are on T-shirts worn by Thistle Farms graduates and on the labels of candleholders that current residents fill with aromatic melted wax.

In the manufacturing arm of the social enterprise, these women produce some 100,000 candles annually, as well as lavender- and citrus-scented body lotions, essential oils, linen sprays, and other products for body and home. The proceeds fund 65% of the nonprofit’s operating costs. The workroom looks like a sterile, stainless steel industrial space, but it smells like a luxury spa.

What is the underlying message your ministry shares with the world?

woman pours candle wax into molds
Filling candle molds with wax now takes place in the Thistle Farms warehouse, but it started in the basement of St. Augustine’s Chapel.

In the shipping department, the finished candles and other goods as well as Thistle Farms’ global artisan products are packaged in gift boxes imprinted with “Love is the most powerful force for change in the world.”

Stevens and her team light one of these candles in their weekly group circle and staff meeting.

“It symbolizes sanctuary and hope,” Stevens said. “We are lighting the way home for women coming off the streets.” She first launched the project as an outreach of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Chapel at Vanderbilt University, where she has served as chaplain since 1994.

weekly circle
Participants in the Circle ceremony say the Serenity Prayer at the end.

“This has been my first and only pastoral job,” said Stevens, who graduated from Vanderbilt’s Divinity School in 1990. “I mean, who remains a chaplain for almost 30 years? Almost nobody!”

But the low-pressure, high-autonomy position was a perfect fit.

“I knew from the get-go that what I needed was time and space to learn how to live into my calling,” she said.

“The gift of chaplaincy was that it came with a health insurance package and no one looking over my shoulder. Sometimes a blank slate is the biggest gift you can give someone.”

Stevens’ slate wasn’t blank for long. It helped that her congregation was small, numbering only 12 or so members when she began.

“So I knew I had the freedom to start Thistle Farms. Who can’t pastor a dozen people and still open a house for five women? That isn’t that hard!”

Stevens, who prefers preaching in bare feet and baptizing babies outdoors in creeks and rivers, did just that, opening the first residential home in east Nashville in 1997.

That site offered women a clean, safe place and a sense of freedom, with their own keys to come and go as they pleased.

Given a blank slate and the freedom to pursue any ministry you felt called to, what would you do?

After a few years, Stevens realized that meaningful employment and financial stability were also critical to full independence.

In 2001, she and the women began a makeshift candle-making operation, pouring wax from Kool-Aid pitchers and buckets in the chapel’s basement. Their brand was named for the resilient, deep-rooted thistle — often considered a weed despite healing properties — which flowers in the harsh conditions of back alleys and streets.

Today, St. Augustine’s has long outgrown its small A-frame chapel; its vibrant congregation primarily worships in Vanderbilt’s main sanctuary. Stevens remains chaplain but has been joined by a full staff.

And Thistle Farms now operates six residential houses in Nashville, three social enterprises, including Home & Body, Global Shared Trade and The Cafe at Thistle Farms — a popular breakfast and lunch spot in the front of the nonprofit’s main offices, adjacent to the manufacturing warehouse.

Thistle Farms cafe
The cafe at Thistle Farms is a popular place for patrons and includes an art installation made of donated teacups.

Beyond Nashville, Thistle Farms oversees a national network of aligned sister organizations offering more than 500 beds for women survivors across the country. It also hosts an annual conference, along with ongoing training, workshops and resources for partner organizations.

According to Sarah Suiter, associate professor of the practice of human and organizational development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, a key component of the organization’s success has been its clarity of mission.

“One thing we know about nonprofits, it’s critical that they understand their mission, and Thistle Farms has been crystal clear about theirs, and completely true to it. They don’t get distracted,” said Suiter, who volunteered there during her doctoral research and wrote her dissertation on the women of Thistle Farms.

“Becca has also been brilliant at creating a strong and open community, so the relational infrastructure exists such that people will speak up if they’re off mission and need to course-correct,” she said.

What would it take for you to build clarity of mission and relational infrastructure that supports sustainability?

women in an office
A light moment in the office at Thistle Farms with (from left)Angela Camarda, Terrie Moore, Amanda Wood, Becca Stevens, and Shannon Martin (back).

Another aspect of the organization’s sustainability is that “they grow according to what’s needed, and that’s determined by the women they serve,” Suiter said.

For example, the social enterprise aspect evolved from the need for the women to have economic security.

“It was demoralizing when they would go apply for jobs. So they brought the jobs to them,” Suiter said.

“They’re good at listening and honoring the expertise of the women they serve. From the earliest days, Becca created a culture where everyone, from major donors to volunteers to the residents, feels valued for what they contribute, and that makes people want to get involved. I remember one of the first things she told me: ‘Everyone takes out the trash’ — which means everyone feels equally valued. No one is above taking out the trash.”

Stevens still serves as Thistle Farms president, but in 2015 she and the board brought on Hal Cato, a seasoned nonprofit leader, to serve as CEO. Under Cato’s leadership, the nonprofit’s annual budget has grown from $1 million when he arrived to $8.8 million in 2021. They plan to move into a new manufacturing facility in March, more than doubling production capacity.

‘The next right step’

Despite such dramatic growth, Stevens has not felt tension between the demands of pastoral ministry and nurturing a nonprofit.

“I’ve found that when I have focused on the justice work, everything else falls in place for the church work. The evangelism, the finances, the preaching, the worship — it all follows suit, the way form follows function,” she said.

Rather than thinking in terms of balancing 20 hours of justice work with 20 hours of ministry, she instead has focused on trying to “take the next right step.”

“Every example in Scripture is of people surrendering to the day. We see disciples dropping their net to go hear Jesus. They’re getting on a boat, going to sit on the hillside and hear what he has to say. It’s not always about long strategy sessions and endless committee meetings. Sometimes it’s just a matter of doing the next right thing. And being willing to make mistakes,” Stevens said.

While Thistle Farms grew out of Stevens’ ministry at St. Augustine’s, the two expanded and evolved together. “The congregation formed around the justice work,” Stevens said. “People came in droves because we were practical, we were relevant, we were deeply spiritual. They wanted to come see what this was about, to worship with us, to give financially to grow the ministry. I think if pastors claim the freedom to do their hearts’ calling, then the ministry forms around that in a healthy way.”

What could be the next right step for your church or organization or for you?

warehouse interior
Hundreds of products are made and sent all over the United States from the Thistle Farms warehouse.

Love as a business model

Over time, Stevens recognized her limits and realized that to scale and manage growth, she would need to bring in experts to help. In addition to Cato, there’s now a senior leadership team of 16, with 105 employees total — 70% of whom are survivors. Similarly, St. Augustine’s Chapel now has four priests and a full program staff. While the chapel remains a major supporter of Thistle Farms, the two are independent entities.

“You have to give responsibility and leadership. For many people who start things, it’s hard to let it go. I’ve always been grateful to let stuff go,” Stevens said. “I mean, I started this cafe where we’re sitting right now, but I have no idea how to run it.”

What Stevens does understand is the theological grounding behind the cafe and behind providing safety for traumatized women.

“I don’t know anything about food service, but I do know that hospitality is a big deal. I learned that in divinity school; it’s paramount in the gospel,” she said. “So I didn’t start with food. I started with hospitality.”

At the cafe’s entrance, a chandelier art installation of suspended teacups underscores one of the nonprofit’s founding principles — “that everyone has a story, and there’s a story in every cup,” Stevens said. “That everybody’s welcome here. Then the rest grew out of that.”

On the ceiling of the cafe are 1,200 cups sent in by supporters.

For example, Stevens said, when Nashville’s foodies first discovered a menu of warmed-up sandwiches, they said “no, no, no” and advised the fledging cafe on what farm-to-table menu items to serve, what equipment to buy.

Eight years later, the cafe is bustling, providing healthy meals for guests, the tranquility and healing of tea, “a space for those who hunger for justice,” as the website says, and jobs that offer hope, dignity and economic freedom for Thistle Farms residents, graduates and other survivors.

“I think if pastors trusted that our theological grounding could grow powerful businesses, we would do it more often,” Stevens said. “Love is a good business model. Love challenges markets; it can change old systems. If we’re talking about economics and women’s freedom, that is healing work! That’s pastoral care.”

Healing in community

As Thistle Farms celebrates its 20th anniversary by opening its newest residential house and moving into an expanded manufacturing warehouse, Cato envisions slowing down a bit to focus on solidifying the services and support the organization offers its national network.

“The demand is there. Every time we offer a workshop, it immediately sells out,” Cato said. Thistle Farms does not charge any fees or dues for sister organizations to join the network. It’s simply part of the organization’s mission.

women sitting in a large circle
The Circle is where people gather the strength to continue recovery and for meditation in the program.

“We want to do everything we can to be part of the learning curve,” he said. “We are happy to share the mistakes we’ve made and learned from, the best practices we’ve adopted.”

A fundamental best practice is proclaiming the healing power of love without tying that to what might traditionally be called a faith-based mission. Instead, Cato said, the Thistle Farms community has faith in each other and in everyone’s inherent goodness and value.

“That’s everything here,” he said.

“We aren’t here to rescue or save. We don’t do either one,” he said. “We create the space for women to save and heal themselves.

“We know that people heal in community. We’re really, really good at creating and holding a space for them.”

group of people look happy
Circle participants cheer each other on as they share what is going on in their lives.

For Hannah, sorting items in the Global Partners inventory department at the warehouse, that healing space has been what she has needed to start over. At this moment, she sorts colorful breadbaskets from Uganda and napkin rings handcrafted by women survivors in Rwanda and Ghana. They are among 39 artisan groups that Thistle Farms partners with worldwide.

“I didn’t apply to work in Global because I want to sit here and put tags on things, though I do it with pride,” Hannah says. “I did it because I believe in the mission. I love how the global division is helping other women who’ve had similar experiences to mine. Those women I met in Mexico and others like them, economically and in many other ways, they are way worse off than I was.”

Hannah asks Stevens what it feels like to touch so many lives.

“Honestly, I’m so grateful there’s still a space for me here,” Stevens says. “So many capable people have come through and made Thistle Farms what it is.

“You know, if it had been left up to me, we’d still be in a chapel basement at Vanderbilt pouring candles out of a bucket. I’m pretty clear that this is love at work, not me.”



Becca Stevens

“Practically Divine”

Becca Stevens has a gift for putting people at ease, perhaps because she doesn’t get caught up in pretense or in aspirations to perfection.

“When the shiny vest of perfection is peeled off, talk is truth, and we all breathe deeper,” she writes in her newest book, “Practically Divine.”

About the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi — finding beauty within the flaws and faults — she writes, “This is some of the best news in the whole world, that our imperfections are where divine freedom lives.”

Theologically, this makes way for grace and healing, which Stevens knows well after 25-plus years ministering to women traumatized by sexual trafficking, addiction and abuse. As she illustrates in story after story, letting go of illusions of perfection also frees us to harness our creativity and thrive in community.

The book is part ode to Stevens’ resilient, practical mother, widowed with five young children to raise, and is framed around favorite phrases she frequently repeated that Stevens still hears echoing in her own head “like sitcom theme song lyrics.”

It’s also a celebration of small, tangible practices that Stevens believes create room for the sacred: rituals of preparing tea, knitting, walking in the woods. Woven throughout are tales of the women of Thistle Farms, and of Stevens’ own journey as a survivor of sexual abuse.

“Our job is to learn to love the world,” she writes. “Experience is nine-tenths of love.”

It is the doing, the creating with one’s hands, that can open up the heart and imagination, finding the divine in simple, practical, imperfect ways.

Questions to consider

  • How does your church or organization explore the deeper causes of need in your community?
  • What is the underlying message your ministry shares with the world?
  • Given a blank slate and the freedom to pursue any ministry you felt called to, what would you do?
  • What would it take for you to build clarity of mission and relational infrastructure that supports sustainability?
  • What could be the next right step for your church or organization or for you?

In the fall of 2018, Haywood Street Congregation, an urban church serving the homeless, poor and marginalized in Asheville, North Carolina, put out an unusual call on social media: “Send us your horse hair. Any horse hair, not just mane or tail.”

The request stemmed from the fact that horsehair is a key ingredient in the specialized plaster used in creating frescoes — and a major fresco project was underway in the Haywood Street sanctuary.

The horses around Asheville would be contributing their locks to a project conceived by artist Christopher Holt and the congregation’s pastor, the Rev. Brian Combs.

If you were to send your congregation a “postcard to [your] future selves,” what would you say? What would you send?

It is intended to illustrate the church’s vision for inclusive community and “offer a timeless witness to the gospel, in plaster and pigment, where the last are finally made first,” Combs said.

“I think of it as a love letter, a postcard to our future selves,” he said. “When the sweep of our short lives is gone, this work of beauty reflecting the essence of human experience will still be here, still declaring what Haywood believes — that everyone has sacred worth.”


Ancient practices and a fresh vision

Fresco painting is an ancient method of creating enduring murals, such as those found on the walls of Pompeii and the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The laborious, time-intensive technique of fresco, popular during the Italian Renaissance, is unique in that the pigment is applied to a layer of fresh, wet plaster, becoming permanently integrated with the underlying structure as the plaster dries.

Why was the choice to create a fresco significant? What does this art form’s permanence mean?

“There’s a living quality to a fresco; it has a soul about it — the holding of time itself. A fresco never grows darker; as it ages, it grows more luminous,” Holt said.

After the call for horsehair, Holt and his fresco team began by creating sketches of the people — members of the congregation’s ministry community — who would be pictured in the 27-by-10-foot composition covering the entire front wall of the sanctuary.

Often, the models would sit for their sketches while waiting for their seating at the church’s free, “come one, come all” weekly lunch, the Downtown Welcome Table.

Blue, a Haywood Street friend, or member of the community, sits for a preliminary sketch.

This signature ministry of the urban church is not a typical soup kitchen. Often prepared by Asheville’s top culinary stars, the Welcome Table lunch is a multicourse meal served on linen-covered tables set with china, cloth napkins and fresh flowers, a lavish offering signaling that all deserve dignity.

Together, the Welcome Table and the Haywood Street Fresco fill empty stomachs and feed hungry souls with relationships, beauty and a sense of sacred worth.

How does this story illustrate Leadership Education’s concept of traditioned innovation?

The first sketch was of Charles Burns, pictured prominently as a torchbearer in the top left of the finished mural.

“Charlie was a pivotal, founding member of this community. He stripped down the barriers between folks on the street and Haywood’s ministry, and he believed in this fresco project,” Holt said.

Burns didn’t live to see it completed, but his chiseled, cancer-weary face looks proudly out from the fresco.

“As long as that wall stands, I’m going to be at every service,” Burns said in a video interview weeks before his death. “There’s no other place on earth I would rather have my picture hanging than Haywood Street.”

Robert Stafford is the church’s beloved gardener and a board member. He’s also in the fresco, pictured holding three sunflowers, his bright, clear eyes peering out beneath his signature hat.

“I’m honored. To be immortalized on that wall forever is pretty neat,” said Stafford, who is formerly incarcerated and is open about his struggles with addiction. “Everybody in that picture has a story to tell.”

completed mural
The completed fresco.

Blessed are the poor

Telling these stories is exactly what Holt had in mind when he and Combs first began dreaming of such a project in early 2014. Holt, a classically trained artist who studied and apprenticed with Asheville-based fresco master Ben F. Long IV, is a friend of Combs’ and a frequent visitor to Haywood Street’s worship services.

“I’d sit in the back and draw,” Holt said.

Christopher Holt’s in progress drawing of Blue.

The front of the sanctuary was a large rectangular green wall — a blank slate. Having worked on Long’s frescos in other small chapels, Holt saw the potential. Even more, he and Combs recognized an opportunity to create something unique, and uniquely reflective of Haywood Street’s mission.

Rather than depicting biblical scenes and characters, as classical frescos typically do, this fresco would feature members of Haywood’s community.

Inspired by the Beatitudes, it would illustrate the church’s foundational belief that blessed are the poor, blessed are the lowly. The homeless often feel invisible to society, yet “what is most sacred is often most overlooked,” Combs said.

The medium is the message

It was a monumental and expensive undertaking — the antithesis of the modern inclination toward quick and cheap — and required a team of highly skilled artists. Holt and Combs first presented a proposal to the church board in 2014, estimating that the project might cost $150,000.

“The expense was the main retort we heard. Detractors called it wasteful. No utilitarian value, no measurable outcome. But that was exactly why I wanted to do it. Acts of ministry almost never show up on a ledger. Grace is immeasurable; that’s why it’s profound,” Combs said.

He noted that Jesus allowed a woman to wash his feet with costly oil: “He was constantly trespassing boundaries of expediency and efficiency.”

And while the fresco itself might not directly help someone struggling with substance abuse or put a roof over someone’s head, Combs and Holt argued that it would draw visitors and art enthusiasts from Asheville’s growing tourism base into the sanctuary and help spread the Haywood Street story.

“To show, through art, ‘This is how we treat every human being,’” Combs said.

How might the arts provide a means for your congregation to honor what you care about?

In addition to being “a gateway for positive growth for Haywood Street Church,” the fresco would amplify the sanctuary as a healing, inviting space, Holt said. “We need more places in the public sphere where people can retreat and reflect.”

In the end, the church board approved the project and a fresco committee ended up raising more than $300,000, largely through informal house parties and a community concert. This amount includes funding for future maintenance, programming and a docent.

Meanwhile, Holt recruited his assistants: artists John Dempsey III, Caleb Clark and Jill Hooper, along with apprentice Anselme Long, Ben Long’s son.

During the summer of 2018, Holt refined the conceptual composition — a rendering of a mountain backdrop with community members lifting up the Welcome Table.

By November, the church wall was reinforced with steel and the fresco frame went up. A substrate mix of the donated horsehair – about a pound of it – as well as plaster and lime was applied according to age-old techniques — the same process used in the early 1500s for the Sistine Chapel.

This application had to dry and cure for six months before the actual painting could begin, during which time Holt and his team sketched the models.

Watching Holt draw is like seeing “an act of pastoral care,” Combs said. “He treats everyone as a subject, not an object. You can’t not be present with someone when they are sitting for you. He embodies Haywood’s mission — relationships above all else.”

It’s also an act of hospitality, Holt said. “We sketched during the winter, so I invited them in from the cold, offered food, made them comfortable. I’d play whatever music they wanted. For Jimmy, I was blasting Ozzy Osbourne; for Popeye, it was the Stones.”

The fresco in progress. The top is completed while the bottom half still is in sinopia, which is an earth pigment used to create the underdrawing that forms a guide to the final painting.

When the artists were working in the sanctuary, anyone was welcome to come in and watch — or sleep in the pews.

One woman would regularly stop by. She’d ask to just sit and look.

“People are desperate for beauty,” Combs said.

Art for the people

In early October 2019, Holt added the final brushstrokes to complete the nearly two-year project. The scaffolding came down, and the jumble of dropcloths and buckets at the front of the sanctuary was cleared away.

The Rev. Brian Combs recognized that “people are desperate for beauty.” What does that look like in your context?

A formal blessing and celebration of the Haywood Street Fresco will take place Nov. 13-14, 2019, but there are already regular docent-led viewing hours each week.

“Time and again, I’ve watched Haywood Street create a space for people to become their most pure, authentic version of themselves,” Holt said. “This opportunity, to create art in a space so laden with meaning, has done that for me. That others are finding joy and beauty, happiness and sadness in this fresco is all I need.”

For Combs, and for fresco team member Hooper, the fact that it is truly art for everyone is central to the fresco’s impact — and a special honor for those whose images are part of the finished work.

“Now they’ll forever be part of this painting that will be viewed by generations long past our lifetimes,” Hooper said.

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • If you were to send your congregation a “postcard to [your] future selves,” what would you say? What would you send?
  • At Haywood Street Congregation, why was the choice to create a fresco significant? What does this art form’s permanence mean?
  • How does this story illustrate Leadership Education’s concept of traditioned innovation?
  • How might the arts provide a means for your congregation to honor what you care about?
  • The Rev. Brian Combs recognized that “people are desperate for beauty.” What does that look like in your context?