Special Issues » Nashvillian of the Year

2000 Nashvillian of the Year

Becca Stevens, executive director of the Magdalene project



My name is Magdalene

I’m a sweet soft sister of sin

Men pay me silver dollars

To touch my golden skin....

I’ve had them all, I don’t recall a solitary hero.

—from “Solitary Hero,” by Carol Elliot and Alice Randall

There are rarely any heroes in a prostitute’s life. There are pimps and tricks, drug dealers, rapists, robbers, abusers, arresting officers, prosecuting attorneys, judges, and jailers. The law-abiding, upstanding citizens who travel Dickerson Road and Murfreesboro Pike, catching a fleeting glimpse of these women as they step out of the shadows to look for a date, simply shudder with revulsion and disgust, then drive on.

There’s nothing pretty about their lives. These women walk utterly alone and unprotected, up and down the gritty, neon-lit thoroughfares of the city’s underbelly, through the rain and the cold and the darkest, loneliest hours of night. At the muttered request of a stranger, they get into a beat-up car, climb up into the cab of an 18-wheeler, or walk behind a pawn shop, where they get down on their knees on a gravel alley littered with broken glass. Or maybe they lie down on a dirty bed in a dingy, cheap motel room, hoping to complete their transaction without being robbed or beaten or murdered. When they’ve collected enough money, they purchase their drug of choice—though there’s little choice in the matter—and get high. They sleep, when they sleep, two and three to a motel room or on the floor of a crack house. Once the high wears off and their addiction gnaws anew, they drag their weary, worn-out bodies out of bed or off the floor and head back to the streets to begin again.

The Metro Police Department estimates that there are approximately 300 prostitutes working Nashville streets; each averages seven sexual acts a day. A survey conducted by the Mayor’s Task Force on Prostitution five years ago found that all 30 women involved in the study were addicted to drugs. Seventy percent reported having been sexually molested as children, with their first sexual encounter coming between the ages of 7 and 11, and 40 percent tested HIV-positive. The typical prostitute is arrested seven times a year and serves an average of three months in jail. Sometimes, while incarcerated, she obtains her GED or enrolls in a program designed to help her get clean and overcome her addiction.

Yet when these women are released, the great majority have no home, no family, no money, and no job. They go from jail directly back to the streets, the only life they know. Some might go to a halfway house, where they get a bed in a room, which they must pay for, with little help finding work or managing money. The halfway house is often just that—-halfway between jail and a return to the streets, prostitution, and addiction. Many prostitutes believe there are only two ways off the streets: jail or dying.

Rev. Becca Stevens believes differently. As director of the Magdalene project, which works to get these women off the street and back into society, she knows for a fact that there are other options. And she knows that prostitutes should be viewed not with contempt or condemnation, but with compassion. “I don’t believe anymore that prostitution is a sin,” she says. “I believe that what drives women to the streets, to be addicted to drugs, to sell their own bodies for nothing, is hell itself. Magdalene started as a testimony to the truth that love and grace are more powerful and deeper than hell.”

As the senior voted Most Likely to Succeed by her graduating class at Overton High, as a Phi Beta Kappa math major and Homecoming Queen at University of the South, as the wife of songwriter Marcus Hummon and the mother of three young boys, Rev. Becca Stevens would seem to know little about street prostitutes, much less have such deep empathy for them. She thinks not. “There is a fine line between being a priest and being a prostitute,” she says with little irony. “In the church, there is Mary the Virgin and Mary Magdalene the prostitute. What holds us together as women, our humanity, is much stronger than our separateness. One of the lessons of Magdalene is that this is not completely foreign to us as women. We all share this. All women, no matter who we are, have had to use our sexuality, and sold a part of ourselves, to get something we need, or to be where we have to be.”

The chaplain of St. Augustine’s Chapel on the Vanderbilt campus and a devoted community activist, Stevens knows something about Magdalene’s place in biblical history, about hell and redemption, love and grace. She has seen women hit bottom, climb their way out of despair, and tumble back down again. She has seen women who used to sell their bodies for money emerge from the struggle with a drive to give something much, much greater of themselves.

A residential program that provides recovering prostitutes with long-term, secure housing, equally long-term drug treatment, and life skills and job training, Magdalene had its genesis in 1995 as part of a two-year study by representatives of the Metro Government, the criminal courts, law enforcement officials, and members of the Nashville religious community. Since 1997, three different Magdalene houses have opened, giving more than 20 Nashville women their first real chance to get off the streets and begin a new life.

But the seeds of Stevens’ service and ministry date back much further. The fourth daughter of Rev. Gladston Hudson Stevens Jr. and his wife Anne, she was born on April Fool’s Day, 1963, in Connecticut. The family of seven moved to Nashville four years later, when Rev. Stevens was assigned to begin St. Matthias Episcopal Church on Nolensville Road. On the morning of Nov. 22, 1968, returning from a call he had made to a church-member’s home, he was killed by a drunk driver. It was Becca’s mother’s birthday.

“The whole focus of our lives changed after that,” Stevens remembers. “I grew up with a mother who completely reinvented herself.”

Anne Stevens went from being a clergy wife to a single working mother who devoted her life to the service of others, particularly children. She did this through St. Luke’s Community Center, where she started as a child-care worker, became child-care director, and eventually took over as executive director. During her tenure there, she helped build the center into a model of diverse services for children, families, and seniors in the surrounding low-income community. In the mid-’90s, she raised $1 million to build a gymnasium for the center.

“Becca’s mother was the model for what she is doing,” says Father Charles Strobel, a homeless advocate whom Stevens considers a mentor . “Her mother did not begin St. Luke’s, she inherited it. But for 25 years she kept building it, not through big fundraisers, but by getting into the neighborhood and the homes of the people she served. These people led her to be the woman she was. When you put on a [clerical] collar, it opens doors, but she did it on her own.”

“I didn’t know growing up that my mother was the role model for being the hands of God. A vision is much clearer in hindsight,” Stevens says. “She made a whole life out of taking care of the least of us. The example from her was always open doors and a caring heart. She taught us that it doesn’t matter what kind of car you drive or [what] clothes you wear. At our house, you could never tell if it was the bishop or a homeless person having dinner with us. It did not matter to her.

“She worked as much as 70 hours a week, and I was the product of the idea that it really does take a village. That includes great lessons and bad stuff too. Looking back, I can see that Magdalene had its birth in that story.”

Part of Becca’s own story includes being molested by a warden of the church when she was just 7 years old. “I remember I was at a church dinner, holding a plate of spaghetti, and he did something to me, and what I was most afraid of was dropping my plate and making a mess.” It wasn’t until years later that she fully comprehended what had occurred, and she didn’t confront the man until she was in her 20s. He admitted his guilt, before even his wife.

Stevens doesn’t harbor anger at him. “There is a lot worse that happens to young girls. He was not a member of my family, and he did not rape me,” she explains. “All of the good and all of the bad that happens to us is part of our path. I believe that what happened to me at his hands led my heart to be more open to the women of Magdalene.”

Another part of Stevens’ story was trying to figure out how to make it in a world that was unfair to people with little money. Though each of her older sisters got married at 18 years old, Becca, who was active in the Episcopal Youth of Tennessee, had visited the campus of The University of the South at Sewanee and wanted to go to college there. Her late father was an alumnus, and she got a scholarship. “My four years there were great,” she remembers. “My whole life, I have been trying to be a little bit of an organizer, like my mom, and Sewanee was small enough that you could do some of that stuff.”

She majored in math, but it would not be her life’s work. “I knew I wanted to do something meaningful. I just wasn’t sure what it would be.” She interned at Bread for the World and ran the Youth Program at the Kanuaga Conference Center in North Carolina, before coming back to Nashville in 1987.

“I always had a longing in me...,” Stevens says. “I think that longing made my spiritual life easier. I don’t really have a sense that I was called, so much as that I was the one calling.” She entered Vanderbilt Divinity School and put her name in for ordination—a huge step for the daughter of a man who did not believe women should be ordained. “I think he would have changed [his mind] had he lived,” she says.

As a postulate, she began volunteering at Storefront Ministries and St. Luke’s Housing. Her first date with her future husband, Marcus Hummon, whom she met in the hallway of Vanderbilt’s Divinity School, was cleaning out an apartment that was being refurbished for housing for the homeless.

It was also during this time that she met Father Strobel. “I thought Charlie had one of the best hearts and best minds of anyone I had ever known,” she says.

He thought highly of her as well. “Here was a beautiful young woman with lots of creativity, talent, and energy to do whatever she wanted to do, and I was impressed that she wanted to give her life to this kind of work,” he says. “It is extremely difficult to find people who are advocates for the homeless and addicted. One of the first obstacles to being in their midst is fear; if fear is in the way, nothing good can come of it. She had no fears. She was very brave.”

Stevens and Hummon were married at St. Ann’s in East Nashville in the fall of 1988. In June 1991 she was ordained; one month later, she gave birth to their first son, Levi. “It was such a humbling experience. I was ordained by people who had known my dad; they were putting their hands on me, and I was kneeling, pregnant with my first child.”

She went to the Church of the Resurrection in Franklin and continued her work on behalf of the homeless and downtrodden. Then in 1995, the Chaplain at St. Augustine’s Chapel on the Vanderbilt Campus retired. At the time, the chapel served a very small body of students and non-students with one Sunday service that was typically attended by fewer than two dozen people. She loved the space and the opportunity it would afford her, not only to serve as a priest on a very personal level, but also to pursue her ideas about a program to help women.

She was called to service by Bishop Bertram Herlong, who thought it was a good fit. “She is young and has lots of vitality and energy, and at the same time is steeped in the traditional teachings of the church, and is an articulate voice for Christianity. Her work with Magdalene is an important part of the outreach of the Episcopal church, and a wonderful expression of her faith and service that only strengthens her ministry.”

Stevens’ vision started taking shape through conversations with neighbors and associates like Jeffrey Blum, an ordained minister who worked in the public defender’s office, and attorney Bobby Ballinger. They discussed the tremendous rate of recidivism among women in Metro jails and the lack of programs devoted solely to women, particularly prostitutes. “I was having conversations with Jeff and Bobby and coming to know these women. They are horrible stories; it is so bad out there on the streets. There was no one to help them. [But] I did not want to evangelize. They don’t need to be saved by us; God will do that. I just wanted to make a safe place for them, a sanctuary. I felt that was key to their recovery.”

Strobel also remembers the beginning of the Magdalene project, which started in tandem with another program, The Guest House, a center that serves intoxicated homeless people. “The Guest House was a safe environment for women, but not a nurturing one. Becca was already visiting women in jail, and she knew something of their problems and issues. Many times, when people come to establish programs, they first cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, they get their money and their board [of directors] in place. There are times when you can’t do that, when the need is so great that you jump right in and make it up as you go along, provided you offer food, shelter, and safety. She finally said, ‘Let’s do this, let’s get started.’ ”

During a short pilot period for six women within The Guest House, the Mayor’s Task Force on Prostitution formed and met for six months; out of that came Metro’s Prostitution Solicitation School, also known as the John School. Men arrested for soliciting prostitutes, if they are first offenders, may choose to attend the all-day school, take an HIV test, and pay $250, which can eventually result in the arrest being expunged from their record. The money from the John School was earmarked to fund the Magdalene project.

At about the same time, Stevens went to speak about the program at Christ Church (now Cathedral); as a result, the church earmarked its Easter 1996 offering—about $12,000—to Magdalene. Cary Rayson, a licensed clinical social worker, community volunteer, and member of Christ Church, came on board to apply for grants. “I heard Becca speak at church about Magdalene, and I was attracted to it because she takes people who would otherwise not be helped by anyone, and she stays with them long enough to help them.”

With the John School funding, the Christ Church offering, some private donations, and the contribution of a home from Charles Strobel’s Campus for Human Development (which provides a base for several homeless programs), the first Magdalene House opened in August 1997, remodeled and furnished at no cost by volunteers. The model program for the five women who entered that first house has remained consistent with the opening of two subsequent homes.

Most of the women come to Magdalene House directly from jail after undergoing a screening process. By the time they come to Magdalene, they have been through the court system countless times, have failed to complete one or more traditional treatment programs, have become estranged from their families, and have lost their children. Magdalene, which is a two-year program, makes a long-term commitment to these women—even through relapses, which are often a part of the recovery process.

The first 90 days are devoted to an intensive outpatient treatment (IOT) program administered by Dr. Linda Hazel at The Women’s Center at Cumberland Heights. The participants attend sessions four hours a day, four days a week, and are given bus passes to get there. They also commit to six Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week. During the initial 90 days, the women don’t work, concentrating solely on recovery and rest. They also have their medical needs taken care of and begin to reestablish their identities by getting replacement social security cards and IDs. At the same time, they also start to address outstanding legal issues. The arduous path to reestablishing contact, visitation, and eventually custody of their children may begin here. For many, this is the primary motivation to succeed with the program.

In the next phase, the women work full-time, or go to school and work part- time, while continuing in recovery and therapy programs. There are drug screenings and once-weekly community meetings. The women do not pay rent, but are required to pay personal bills and open a savings account so that when they are ready to leave Magdalene, they have the money they will need to establish independent living.

“The first year of Magdalene should really be about them,” says Karen Roberts, Magdalene’s program director. “If you are abused at an early age, as most of these women were, so much developmental growth never occurs. As they progress through, they work on more practical life skills. Leaving Magdalene can be very scary. I am afraid for them. We track them for a year, but if we are fortunate, they will stay with the program in some way forever. So far, most of the graduates have come back; they remain linked to one another much as they were on the streets.

“It’s a remarkable program and [they’re] remarkable women. I’ve seen them fall and get back up. I’ve seen so much resilience, so much trying in spite of everything against them. Eventually, you see them open up and reach out to others.”

Regina Mullins, one of the first five residents of the first Magdalene House, has become one of the program’s most visible and inspiring success stories. The oldest of four children, she was raised in a strict environment by her mother and father in East Nashville. When she was 16, she got pregnant and dropped out of school; she married, but her husband was abusive, and not long after her son Corey was born, they divorced.

Regina was living in Cayce Homes and began hanging out with friends who were more experienced in the world. Her story is typical of many prostitutes: She met a man who dealt drugs, and, attracted by the money, got in on it herself. Though she was not using at that time, she soon started smoking marijuana. Her next boyfriend, the father of her second and third sons, was also a drug dealer and was shot to death. “I couldn’t get it together after that,” she remembers. That was when she moved onto cocaine, before finally turning to crack. To support her growing habit, she began turning tricks. She left her children alone for long periods of time while she got high and walked Dickerson Road, and her mother took her kids away from her.

Mullins began the cycle that traps all prostitutes, shuttling between jail and the streets. “I missed my mother and my children,” she remembers. “I would call her on the phone just to hear her voice and then hang up. I would drive by her house to see my sons, but that got to be too painful, so I stopped.” During her eight years on the streets, Mullins was robbed, raped, beaten, and thrown from a moving car. She received her GED in jail but failed at several treatment programs. She had lost her children, her home, and finally herself. “I looked in the mirror one day and didn’t recognize myself. I looked in my purse and there was no ID, no pictures. All I had was a couple of crack pipes, condoms, and razor blades. I thought, ‘Well, this is who I am, a junkie prostitute whore.’ ”

In prison, through another prostitute, she heard about Magdalene. “I was ready. The drugs weren’t getting me high, and I hated the men so much I couldn’t trick them anymore. I asked God to help me. I thought, ‘If there’s an empty bed there, I want it.’ ”

She got it. When she arrived at Magdalene House, the women, every one of whom she knew from the streets, came out to greet her. “I cried and cried. The house was so nice, my room was beautiful! I couldn’t believe it was true.”

Though all of the five women made it through the 90-day IOT program that first year, there were some relapses later. “When someone relapses, you become afraid, afraid that it could happen to you too,” Mullins says.

Some came back, but one didn’t. Julia Baskett left the house to take care of her sick mother. While living at home, she became enveloped by the same issues that had led to her drug addition in the first place. She relapsed and ended up going back to the street to support her habit. Not long after, she was shot in the head and killed by the man she was servicing in the cab of his 18-wheeler. The man claimed self-defense.

Mullins’ determination to stay in Magdalene was fueled by her unshakable determination to get her three boys back. After completing her 90-day IOT program, she enrolled at Trevecca to study religion and got a job. “I was so excited to be going to work! I loved it, I felt important.”

While she was at the first Magdalene House, her partner from the streets, Lisa Duke, was trying to stay clean as well and living in a halfway house. Kicked out because she was unable to pay the rent, Duke was headed back to the streets. Terrified of what would happen to her friend, Mullins called Becca Stevens and begged her to help.

Duke spent a few nights on the sofa in Stevens’ office at St. Augustine’s as the second Magdalene House was being readied; she became its first resident. She was determined to make a better life for herself. “I wanted to get off the streets, and I wanted to be with my mate,” she says. “The only way to do that was to get clean and stay clean. I always used to say that I could do it if I just had a place of my own, if I had my own key. I don’t know what we would have done without Magdalene.”

Both women got jobs at Middle Tennessee Supportive Living. Mullins also began caring for Stevens’ children four days a week, and Duke started her own cleaning service. As their time to leave Magdalene was approaching, they began to look for a house. “I wanted my boys back, so I wanted three bedrooms, and a yard, and a porch,” Mullins says.

About a year ago, the two women and Mullins’ two younger sons (Thomas, 16, and Javon, 15) moved into a brand-new home in Madison—one with three bedrooms, a porch, and a yard. Son Corey, now 21, is a frequent overnight visitor. Together, these women and children have built a life there, one that revolves around school, the boys, their jobs, their faith, and their continued involvement with Magdalene.

“We are a typical family,” Mullins says. “I am doing the right thing for my boys, my partner, myself, God, and others. I don’t dwell on the past. I have a new past, one that started with Magdalene. I believe that God gave this vision of Magdalene to Becca, and she made it a reality for us.”

In the five years since the Magdalene idea took seed, much has changed in Becca Stevens’ life. She and husband Marcus have had two more boys, and Hummon’s songwriting career has taken off, with No. 1 songs recorded by Wynonna and the Dixie Chicks, among others. “Marcus is a ‘hit’ songwriter now,” Stevens says with a laugh. “He makes about 10 times more money than I do, which is what allows me to do what I do.” (Her position as Chaplain of St. Augustine’s would not be described as lucrative, and she receives no pay for her work as executive director of Magdalene.)

The responsibilities of balancing work, volunteer service, and three children make for a hectic and harried lifestyle in Stevens and Hummon’s large and comfortable older home, usually in some stage of renovation. Remarkably focused in her visions and goals, Stevens is notoriously scattered and absentminded in her daily life. Father Strobel says of his good friend: “There are three things Becca really needs to work on: finding her keys, her cell phone, and her billfold.” She never carries a purse, rarely wears makeup, and is usually dressed in jeans and sweaters, even under her clerical robes.

St. Augustine’s Sunday services now claim more than 200 people, drawn in part by the sense of community and acceptance that Stevens has fostered there. One member describes the congregation as “from Yale to jail.” Many of the Magdalene women attend one of the Sunday or Wednesday-evening services. Stevens’ spiritual leadership is gentle, nurturing, and marked by profound and genuine humility. Standing before the congregation, whether in prayer, reading the Gospel, preaching, or offering Communion, she is the beckoning embodiment of a beatific path between man and God.

“I feel much more faithful now than when I started here,” she remarks of her church. “It’s a worship space that is sanctuary. It’s about service to the community and a community that is very forgiving of one another and of me. They allow me to do the work I do for Magdalene and never question my time. But doing that has made me able to stand up here and preach. If I didn’t do this, how could I preach? It makes me a better minister.”

Not long after the dedication of the Learning and Sports Center at St. Luke’s, the gymnasium she helped establish, Anne Stevens fell sick with a mysterious illness that was eventually diagnosed as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease. In 1994, she had emptied her retirement account to take her five children on a trip to England, and it is believed she contracted the illness then. At the hospital, Becca was approached by the attending nurse, who asked if her father had been Rev. Stevens at St. Matthias. The nurse was the daughter of the troubled couple that Becca’s father had been counseling on Nov. 22, 1968; just after he left their house, he was killed. “Isn’t that amazing?” Stevens asks. “I asked her if her parents had stayed together, and she said they did. That made me feel better.”

Anne Stevens died on Aug. 12, 1997, within weeks of the opening of the first Magdalene House. Services were held at Christ Cathedral, and the large church was barely big enough to hold everyone who came to pay tribute to her. In 1998, through the efforts of the congregants at St. Augustine’s, the Anne Stevens School was opened for kindergartners in an impoverished jungle village in Ecuador. Now this woman’s legacy lives on in a way that would have meant the most to her. The school has since expanded to include two more grades.

Meanwhile, Magdalene now boasts three houses, a full-time program director, and a part-time community coordinator. Thanks to the John School, more grants, and private donations, funding has increased and the program has solidified. Magdalene’s volunteers, culled from every walk of life, are fiercely committed. Last spring, they held a mother-daughter shower for the third house. Volunteers Carole Sergent and Honey Alexander went to Target to register. Filling out the form on the computer, they put Mary Magdalene in the space for the bride’s name, Joseph Nazarene as the groom.

While holding showers for ex-prostitutes may seem a long stretch from chairing the Swan Ball or Symphony Ball, as many of these volunteers have done, they are attracted to the women of Magdalene for much the same reason as Stevens and Rayson. “This is a hands-on service,” Sergent says. “You don’t finish the job and walk away. You come to know these women as women first, and realize that we are more alike than we are different. Something bad has happened in everyone’s life, small or big, and we are all just one or two wrong choices away from walking down that road.”

Through Magdalene and through her faith, Becca Stevens is committed to offering women a different route, a forgiving and loving path to recovery and redemption. “The model Jesus gave us, again and again, is to forgive everyone and start fresh. Not to throw stones at others, but to lay those stones down and make a path to walk upon.”

Since 1997, 70 percent of the women admitted to Magdalene have stayed in the program, and 75 percent have met their individual goals and program obligations—a remarkable statistic. The roster of Magdalene graduates grows larger every year. Many of them were at the second annual Holiday Salon, a fundraiser that benefits the program, chaired by Mary Jane Smith and Sigourney Cheek and held on the Vanderbilt campus Dec. 3. Other than the fact that they weren’t drinking champagne, the graduates were nearly impossible to discern from the women who had bought a ticket to the reception.

The Julia Baskett Memorial Award was presented to Toni Rogers for her volunteer efforts on behalf of Magdalene. As she often does, Regina Mullins served as spokesperson for her sisters in the program, thanking the guests, the volunteers, and Becca Stevens. In a strong voice, she offered a prayer and then sang a song called “Look a Little Closer” by gospel singer Helen Baylor. “I gave my heart to Jesus,” one line goes, “and He gave a brand-new life to me.”

Of her new life and her newly discovered gift for inspirational speaking, Mullins says, “Recovery, and the story of my recovery, is all I have to give. If I try to keep it for myself, I’ll lose it. The only way to have it is to give it away.”

For more information on Magdalene, write to P.O. Box 6330B, Nashville, TN 37235, or call 322-4783.

Add a comment