A woman with multiple felonies sat to my left. Across from me, seated next to one another, were two women who’d prostituted themselves in the past to pay for their drug habits. To my right was a woman who’d lost count of the number of times she’d been arrested and put in jail.
I was attending “the circle,” a weekly open meeting at Thistle Farms, and this was my first visit. I’d come to see what it was all about. What it is about is this: women who have struggled with drug addiction and prostitution find a place to live and recover at Magdalene House, a two year residential program in Nashville. Thistle Farms, a social enterprise, is where they work.
At the circle meeting, a devotional is read and then, going around the room, women introduce themselves and say whatever they need to say. Sometimes it’s “Hi. My name is Mary and I’m a grateful recovering addict.” And other times someone shares a story of their week – how they’re doing or what they’re struggling with while others submit requests for prayer.
As the sharing that morning proceeded from woman to woman, my thought was this, “I think I might be able to help these women. They’ve had a hard life and I’ve been blessed. I believe I have something to give them.”
If I’m truthful, embedded in my thought was a condescending stance and a self-assurance that I was in a better place than they. They had significant problems and though I was admittedly a “sinner,” well, I’d never been jailed or arrested or hooked on illegal substances.
The sharing continued, “Sometimes I feel like I just can’t walk anymore. I’m tired. So tired. But I don’t have to fall down and I don’t have to use again. So I guess I’ll just stand. I can’t walk, but I can stand.” The next woman spoke. “We are like palm trees. The wind bends us so far that it feels like we’re going to break. But God won’t let us break. I will bend, but I won’t break.” And as each woman spoke, truth and hope poured out of them like some sort of grace-filled, overflowing spring.
By the time it was my turn to speak, I had been nudged several times. I don’t think it was the woman beside me. I think it was probably Jesus. Ever so gently, He had been whispering to me the words he said to the Pharisees, the guys who felt that they were better because they were able to avoid the bad stuff.
And then Jesus raised the “good guy” bar by saying “If you’ve hated, you’ve murdered. If you’ve coveted, you’re a thief, and if you’ve lusted, you’re an adulterer.” It was as if he said to me, “Welcome to the circle. This is where you belong. These are your people, your sisters, your community. This is where YOU will be healed.” And then it was my turn to speak.
“Hi. I’m Al,” I said. “I think I’m recovering from myself.”
“Hi Al. Welcome,” said the group of women I came to assist.
Since that day many months ago, I have been a part of the circle almost every week. I go because I too am a former prostitute, who gave people what they wanted from me rather than what they needed. I go because I am a recovering addict, having tried to comfort my pain with things that bring no relief. I go because I need the healing brought by a community of real people who don’t judge because they are better than me, but rather invite me into the circle as one of their own. I go because love heals and I need to be healed. I go because I need my sisters and my sisters need a brother.
I go because it is not just a circle. It is home.