Whiskey Ads, Wise Women, and Wonder

Originally published on the website of the Fund (now Forum) for Theological Education.

It was not until this week that I learned how many Jack Daniel’s ads there are in the Nashville airport or how many people wear cowboy boots here. I had never been in Nashville before Tuesday, when I got here for the Fund for Theological Education‘s 2012 Leaders in Ministry conference (I was lucky enough to be nominated and accepted to come here as an Undergraduate Fellow). The conference, convened at the lovely Scarritt-Bennett Center (with a Gothic chapel and a cafeteria that serves up fried green tomatoes and grits), has gathered together a diverse group of young Americans interested in careers in religion.

In the past few days, we have listened to founders of various ministries, from a hip-hop church to a food program. Yesterday, we even completed a six-hour-long workshop called “Contextual Exegesis and Cultural Competency,” which was a challenge both in the sixteen-syllable title and in the heavy subject matter we were dealing with (in our small group that evening, we had to do five minutes of silent meditation before we were ready to hash it over).

As a Unitarian Universalist, the conference has been interesting, illuminating, and inspiring, but not without a bit of tension (which, as one astute fellow pointed out, is necessary to build bridges, both physical and spiritual). My theology may not fit into what some might qualify as Christian (I’m reading a book called Reincarnation in Christianity right now, and we Unitarians are infamous for not affirming the divinity of Jesus). Unlike many of the students here, preaching is neither my forte nor my preference, and I’m iffy on the possibility of going to seminary.

Yet I have had amazing, in-depth conversations with my peers here, from those who are looking at the priesthood to those who, like me, are UUs seeking where they belong in the Christian context. I have had discussions of heaven and hell and how to know when to help. I’ve dorked out about theology and how Millennials encounter religion. As a side note, I’ve also learned that the state of Louisiana has drive-thru daiquiri places and that there is a Youtube video of Polish Dominican monks doing a Lady Gaga cover.

And then there was today. Today, we went to Thistle Farms. To use its own words, Thistle Farms is “a social enterprise run by women who have survived lives of prostitution, trafficking, addiction, and life on the streets.” The women of Thistle Farms live in residential communities (or have graduated from them) and create bath and body products (which, by the way, smell like a day in either Eden or a five-star spa). They learn job skills and, as is written on many of the walls there, that “LOVE HEALS.”

We heard from women who had suffered abuse, trafficking, addiction. They had been broken people, but seeing them today, they were filled with life and joy and laughter. I saw the way that Becca Stevens, the Thistle Farms founder and an amazing human being, interacted with them, loving and snarky and playful all together. This was a community of healing, of love. The theme for the FTE conference is “the Beloved Community,” and we found that in a building on a street in the outskirts of Nashville.

The visit to Thistle Farms today strengthened a conviction I already hold, one cemented when I read Tattoos on the Heart or every time I volunteer: I want to serve people. Not in a savior complex way, not in a pitying way. But I genuinely believe our purpose in this life is, to use a cliche, to make the world a better place. To heal, to love. One of our Unitarian Universalist principles is to have “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” And one of the 14 Precepts of Interbeing developed by Thich Nhat Hanh, a hero of mine, is “Select a vocation that helps realize your ideal of compassion.”

Standing there, in that room at Thistle Farms in a circle, with a lit candle at the center made by the hands of the very women standing with us, I felt that ideal being realized. I don’t know what final form it will take yet, or where it will manifest itself. But I know I will not forget that beloved and loving community in Nashville, even long after the memories of a thousand Jack Daniel’s airport ads are gone.

Note: I cannot recommend Thistle Farm’s products enough, not just for their ethical value, but for the actual products themselves. I was limited by the TSA’s liquids limit for carry-on and could only buy things less than 3 oz., or I would’ve gone ahead and bought myself a vat of their body balm (or the body butter…or the shower gel…or–well, you get the idea). As it was, I had to satisfy myself with some lip balm, a lip smoothie, and some thistle-paper cards. Check out their online store to get some of their amazing products yourself (or as an inspired gift for someone else).

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