Recently on vacation, the most stressful part of planning for the trip was not packing, arranging the house details, getting work squared away; the most stressful preparation was choosing which books to take when I knew I would have a week of incredible views, delicious food, and nothing to rush for other than finding a place to sit and read.
I had been saving Becca Steven’s new book, Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth Telling, for the trip and it definitely did not let me down.
The book’s author, an Episcopal priest on Vanderbilt’s campus, founded Magdalene, a residential program for women who have survived lives of prostitution, trafficking, addiction and life on the streets, in 1997. From this work and the reality that getting clean and off the streets isn’t enough to support a new and whole life, she and the community around her began Thistle Farms, a social enterprise run from top to bottom by members of the Magdalene community, and involves making oils, candles, paper and more from the highway-found, stubbornly resilient and ultimately delicate thistle. As the women work in vats of oils and in meetings of scent-testing or tubs of paper-making, they are both creating an income, adding quality products to the market and community, and telling a story of healing and hope through the thistle.
Already a fan of Stevens after hearing her speak a few years ago, and following the work and even more so the spirit of the work at Magdalene and Thistle Farms, I’ve learned much about the nitty-gritty of what it means when Stevens says, “It takes a community to put a woman on the street, and it will take a community to bring her home.”
In our work at Area Relief here in Jackson, it’s that push for working to see the delicate beauty in what others have overlooked as weeds that is at the core of who we are. We aren’t great at it, as we often look at ourselves as much as those around us, as wasted and useless. But once we begin to work in the grace and hopefulness that whispers of the kingdom add to any story, we begin to find that we are becoming a part of healing community, seeing others healed as well as ourselves.
What struck me the most when reading Steven’s book was her uncanny ability to be gracefully critical. It is no butterfly and sunshine story of human trafficking, abuse, molestation, drug addiction, fundraising, second-guessing, and ultimately losing many battles to drugs and sex and objectification. It is no easy work no matter how ethereal our ways of speaking. There are power players to be called out, habits to be carefully questioned, ways of operating to completely burned up. And yet Stevens manages to tell the truth about all these issues in ways that lead the reader to want to be more hopeful, more loving, more compassionate, more trusting, more free in the promise of kingdom come.
The hard work of seeking first the kingdom is not child’s play, and yet we’ve been charged to work at it as a child. Truth-telling and healing all at the same. Silence in the face of injustice is not God-honoring, but neither is pessimistic cynicism. Stevens’ work is a strong and beautiful reminder that the kingdom comes through the action following graceful criticism.
And the kingdom does come.