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Magdalene House: A Place about Mercy

Magdalene House: A Place about Mercy

by Sarah VanHooser Suiter


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Women come to Magdalene House in Nashville when they are ready to leave the streets. They live together—unsupervised and free of charge—for two years. During that time, the women are given time, space, and the resources they need to heal from what have often been lifelong experiences with suffering. (Of the twenty-two women now in residence, 80 percent have a diagnosed mental illness other than addiction, 40 percent are receiving treatment for hepatitis C, and one-third are HIV positive.)

However, the story of the Magdalene community is not about these statistics, but about the stories the women tell. They say they thrive in the community because it is a place where they are free to be themselves, safe to give and receive love, and free to speak their truth—even to complain sometimes about how their storytelling is exploited "for the good of the community." A Place about Mercy is a participant-observation account of the history of this remarkable community founded in 1997, its structure, its Thistle Farms beauty products operation, and Reverend Becca Stevens's communal and spiritual vision. The book is finally about what it means to walk the path of healing with a group of unlikely women as guide.

Magdalene House was the subject of a multiple-part documentary on National Public Radio.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826518385
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 05/28/2012
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Sarah VanHooser Suiter became Lead Program Evaluator at Centerstone Research Institute in Nashville after completing a postdoctoral fellowship in Religion, Spirituality, and Health at Duke University Medical Center. She is a graduate of Peabody College's Community Research and Action doctoral program.

Read an Excerpt

Magdalene House

A Place About Mercy

By Sarah VanHooser Suiter

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2012 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-1839-2



My first exposure to the Magdalene House program took place during my first year of graduate school. One of my professors assigned a project for which each student had to observe a local service organization and conduct an evaluation using a particular theoretical model. I waded through hundreds of websites for local nonprofit organizations, but none of the groups seemed as compelling as Thistle Farms, a small cooperative bath and body care company run by the women of Magdalene House. I imagined myself pursuing my research while surrounded by strong and purposeful women, immersed in a lovely world of lavender fragrance and handicrafts. I called the number for the Magdalene offices and was greeted by a rough voice that said:

"You mean you wanna be an intern?"

"No, not exactly. I'm doing a project for class, and—"

"We don't really do that." Click.

I ended up focusing on an adult literacy program for that assignment, and soon started working with professors in places far more glamorous than Nashville (at least in my mind). I spent one summer in Ecuador and another in Argentina. I traveled to Kenya and Alaska. I learned about research ethics and socialized medicine from Costa Rican physicians and scientists. Then, four years after my initial phone call, I heard that Magdalene needed an intern coordinator, and I jumped at the chance.

When I arrived at Magdalene's main house, at the corner of Booker and Lena Streets, the three women talking and laughing on the front porch responded nicely to my hello, but without any apparent interest: it was clear that people came and went often, and my arrival was hardly a reason to interrupt a smoke break. Inside, sitting on an overstuffed couch, was the woman I would come to know as Miss Minda, one of Magdalene's most colorful residents. Miss Minda loved wigs; to see her looking like Tina Turner one day and Goldilocks the next was not uncommon. Two women rushed through the front door, introducing themselves as Becca, Magdalene's executive director, and Claire, its director of public relations.

During our meeting, we hammered out my duties as intern coordinator, which I would perform as a volunteer, and devised a plan for me to learn more about Magdalene in time to teach the incoming interns about the organization. Our meeting was a little "loose," for lack of a better term—we spent as much time off topic as on, and there was an underlying expectation that I would figure things out as I went along. The looseness of the meeting is somewhat illustrative of Magdalene in general: there are rules, but they are not always hard-and-fast; there is leadership, but not a lot of hand-holding; there is structure and tradition, but it is perpetually subject to creative reinterpretation. These qualities, while sometimes frustrating, also seem to give Magdalene some of its power and charm.

After the meeting, one of Magdalene's many volunteers stepped out of an office to give me a tour. Cristen led me around the house, pointing out different aspects of its construction ("It was designed by a female architect who was familiar with the program") and offering various personal observations ("These baseboards clearly need dusting"). The house, officially named "The Anne Stevens Community House" in honor of Becca's mother, is more often simply called "Lena." The newest and largest of Magdalene's five residences at the time, it houses eight women, each of whom has her own small bedroom, as well as the organization's main administrative offices and a meeting room. There is also ample common space: a kitchen with two stoves and two refrigerators, a living room with comfortable couches and a large-screen television, and an outdoor prayer garden located just off the living room. In the two years I volunteered and conducted research at Magdalene, I never came to Lena when it wasn't bustling—it was always full of people, activity, and noise.

The Beginning

There are different versions of Magdalene's short history, and I've heard it told several ways. No one seems entirely sure where or how it started, but they all agree that it involved Becca Stevens, an unconventional and charismatic Episcopal priest who grew up in Nashville, married a songwriter, preaches barefoot, and traverses the traditional lines drawn by race, class, and creed with uncanny ease. As far as I've been able to determine, the idea for Magdalene came to Becca and a handful of others while they were visiting women in jails and prisons. During their visits, they noticed that although there were several transition programs for men leaving correctional facilities, there were few for women, and none for women with histories of addiction and involvement in sex work. Becca describes the beginning phase:

When I first started the project, I said that I wanted to do what the women who would eventually be in the program would want to be done. So we started interviewing women in jail, because I couldn't figure out what the issues were or what we were doing. There wasn't a vision or a philosophy or a theology that was really well figured out. There were inklings, and there were dreams, and hopes. And that's when I started going down to jail and met people that I could have easily switched place with. People that I had graduated high school with and all that. So the philosophy, I guess, was that I wanted to set up something that way I would want it done for me.

As Becca and others began stumbling through implementing such a program, they had a few false starts. One was providing a handful of women coming out of prison with bunks and rooms at an already established residential transition community for men. It quickly became clear that this was, in Becca's words, "a really bad idea," and that the women needed a place of their own. In 1996, Magdalene became incorporated as its own organization and started renting a house on the ironically named Park Avenue in a rundown area of Nashville. Until August 1997, Becca raised money, continued to meet with women in jails and prisons, pastored her own church, and gathered people willing to help her further the Magdalene vision. In the second week of August in 1997, the newly renovated Park Avenue house opened its doors to five women whom the Tennessee women's prison had agreed to release on the condition that they participate in the Magdalene program. The women attended therapy groups and job-training classes at the YWCA, participated in twelve-step meetings, fought often enough to merit outside intervention, and went on retreats in the Smoky Mountains. All five of the women stuck with the program for two years, stayed sober, and laid the groundwork for what it means to live in healing community. The pilot project proved successful enough to garner additional interest and financial support from others in Nashville, which allowed the program to grow. Describing how she became one of Magdalene's longest-serving and most active volunteers, Corina said:

Well, I went to the very first fundraiser—it was at Becca's house, I think—and I thought the program was an amazing program. And at that point, I don't think any of us really understood how incredible it was. I don't think Becca, even with her vision, realized how it would grow and what it would become. And over the years, we've just learned as we've gone along. When I quit working, I made an appointment with Becca, and just went in and said, "Here I am. This is where the Lord wants me to be." And she said, "Well, what does the Lord want you to do?" And I said, "I haven't got a clue. Just use me wherever you can." So we would just find a thing here and a thing there.

The things here and things there that Corina has done at Magdalene include everything from sewing eye pillows to chairing the fundraiser, from wiping down candles to serving as president of the board of directors. In the way that Becca's original plan for Magdalene started as "inklings," the program in 1997 was a small but convincing glimpse of what it would eventually become. In 1998, it opened another house on Hillside Drive, and in 1999 it opened a third building on Arthur Avenue. In 2000, someone gave the program the plot of land at the corner of Lena and Booker Streets, and the community conducted a capital campaign to build what is now its main house. In 2001, it started Thistle Farms. By the time Magdalene celebrated its tenth anniversary, in 2007, it owned five residences and a small but growing cooperative business. It employed nine staff members, including Sonya, the program director, whom the residents frequently described as "a woman of purpose." Most importantly, over a hundred women had completed the Magdalene program, and the majority of them remain sober, employed, housed, and out of prison. What makes Magdalene successful is something of a mystery, although its staff, volunteers, residents, and graduates agree that some of the most important ingredients are a community marked by love and acceptance, full and free provision of multiple services, and the time and space to grow and heal.

The Program

The underlying principle of "Do unto others ..." runs consistently throughout Magdalene programming, as do themes of love and acceptance. "Love," however, is more than emotion, and the Golden Rule is more than principle. They are conveyed through the provision of resources deemed basic and necessary for all human beings, including (and especially) women living in prison or on the streets. For example, during the time that women live at Magdalene, they receive medical and dental treatment, psychological counseling, education, and job skills training, all at no cost to them. Additionally, each woman receives a stipend during her first three months at Magdalene; she is free to use the money as she determines, except to buy alcohol or illicit drugs. The narrative that surrounds Magdalene names it as a recovery community unlike any other (or at least unlike any other that the women have ever experienced). When asked, "What sets Magdalene apart?," its staff and residents are quick to agree: the length of time (two years) it allows for recovery, its comprehensive and holistic approach to healing, and the expectation that its residents will live in community and be treated with dignity.


When a woman enters the Magdalene program, she is immediately given a key to the house in which she will live, assigned to a bedroom in that house, and informed that she will have unlimited access to all the other amenities in the house. while there are staff members who check on the houses to ensure that repairs are performed, there are no staff members who serve as authorities in the houses themselves. The philosophy of Magdalene trusts the community created by the women living together to serve as the authority. Explaining the reasoning behind this, Becca said:

I think it's really different to have no staff living in the houses at all. So everybody that lives in the houses that are opened at Magdalene are part of the community, and they have ownership of it. I have never had a key to any of Magdalene's homes. Never. I've always had to ask to come in. When someone comes to my house, they're my guest. And I wanted to set it up so that I could be—had to be—a guest in the house of the women.

I quickly learned that the simple beauty of the houses and the opportunity for "ownership" were as important to the women who live at Magdalene as they were for Becca. Kathleen told me about seeing the house on Lena Street for the first time:

I can remember when Marion and them took me to the house on Lena, and here was this beautiful house, and I was like, "This is the house I prayed for when I was in my addiction," and to know what I came from, and where I'd been and to see that blessing, just that house—I kissed the floor. Because dreams just don't—prayers don't come true like that. Not from where I come from—you can pray for another hit, but you can't pray for a way out. And to get it? Oh my God! And, a key? My own key? To a house that was like a mansion?

Many other women described similar feelings of astonishment when they left the streets or prison and came to Lena. They talked about the thrill of being in a place that was beautiful, safe, and clean, and described the house as "a light," "a sanctuary," and "a blessing." The other Magdalene houses are somewhat less spectacular, but nonetheless places of safety and comfort. Becca talked at length about the importance of the houses:

Where other people may have put some really good program pieces in place, I made welcome baskets and put nice sheets on the Sealy Posturepedic beds. We actually had a specific donor for good beds, because I kept thinking I really wanted it to be so comfortable. If you've been on those jail cots when you go in the prisons—they're just so hard. And you go on the streets and women are literally sleeping under bridges and stuff, and I just thought, "You know, if that were me, I'd want a really sweet little lamp, and a good bed, and I'd want everybody to leave me the hell alone, and I wouldn't want anybody bossing me around."

Each year, groups from outside Nashville visit Magdalene in hopes of learning enough to replicate at least some aspects of the program in their own communities. During these visits, Magdalene invites the guests to tour the residences and Thistle Farms, sit in on meetings, view the annual budgets, and ask any question they can come up with. The idea that all the women live in the houses without supervision inevitably provokes the strongest reactions. Some visitors are inspired by the idea and others are repelled, but they all ask the same questions: Does it work? Can you really bring women in off the streets and trust them to live unsupervised?

Julie, a woman who runs a program called "Bloom!" in collaboration with a drug and prostitution court in Columbus, Ohio, talked with me briefly about bringing members of her program and the drug court with her to visit Magdalene. A member of her group repeatedly asked Magdalene staff and residents about the keys the residents receive when they first arrive. She was in such disbelief that the women could be their own authority to come and go responsibly that she could not seem to get her mind around the idea. As the day went on, however, one by one, the members of Julie's group went from being skeptics to believing in the way Magdalene conducts business. "We finally got it," Julie said. "If you treat women like prisoners, they'll act like prisoners. If you treat women like women, they'll act like women."

The commitment to dignity and equality is evident throughout Magdalene community practices, as is a profound commitment to mercy. Mercy is demonstrated in countless ways, but perhaps it begins with offering women the opportunity to come off the streets to comfortable houses in which to rest and heal.


During the first week or two that a woman lives at Magdalene, she does little more than rest. Particularly for women who come directly from the streets, this time is essential for reestablishing habits as basic as eating and sleeping. Describing her process at Magdalene, Kayla said, "It took me two months to relearn how to go to bed at night and get up in the morning. I was so used to being up for days at a time—never sleeping, never eating, never bathing." In addition to resting, women typically undergo mental and physical health assessments, and many of them see a dentist for the first time in years.

During the second or third week, the woman begins a ninety-day intensive outpatient (IOP) treatment. Magdalene contracts with Centerstone, a large mental health provider in the state of Tennessee, to provide the IOP services, and the women travel to Centerstone daily to attend twelve-step meetings, counseling sessions, and other treatment activities. During the first ninety days, Magdalene also provides each woman with a small weekly stipend so that she can buy food or cigarettes without having to worry about where the money is going to come from. According to Becca, this is one of the most generous things that Magdalene does for the women:

It's always hard when you're struggling with no money, and I know the women coming out of jail don't have any money, and so I just wanted to erase that. I didn't want women to have to go back to the men they were tricking on the streets just to buy a pack of cigarettes or groceries or nail polish. So that's where we came up with the idea of "We're going to pay you to stay for the first ninety days. You're not going to pay us; we're going to pay you."

Becca contrasted Magdalene with other programs and halfway houses where residents have to pay for housing, food, and other necessities. While this model is relatively common, staff and residents at Magdalene say that requiring someone to pay $125 a week to live in recovery housing ignores the realities of coming out of jail or off the streets. For women who have little or no work history, this type of requirement only leads them back to the streets, since the quickest and most accessible way to make money is through prostitution or selling drugs. Furthermore, the idea of running a recovery program for financial profit seems unthinkable to many members of the community. Marion, a Magdalene graduate and staff member, related this practice to another that she clearly sees as exploitative when she said, "I mean, are [the for-profit centers] promoting recovery or pimping people? Seriously."


Excerpted from Magdalene House by Sarah VanHooser Suiter. Copyright © 2012 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Magdalene 9

Chapter 2 The Path of Illness: How Women Get to Magdalene 32

Chapter 3 The Story of One 54

Chapter 4 Health and Healing: Seeking Definition 74

Chapter 5 St. Benedict's Ghost: Hospitality as Community Practice 95

Chapter 6 Come as You Are: Love, Forgiveness, and Belonging 114

Chapter 7 Speaking Our Truth in Love 136

Chapter 8 Healing Still 154

Conclusion 169

Notes 173

References 175

Index 185

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