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Features

A cup of understanding

Becca Stevens

In 2013 Becca Stevens set up the Thistle Stop Café to provide employment for women who had survived difficult lives. What she didn't know then was the power of the word 'tea' - among other things a lens through which to contemplate the heavens.

Often, things feel different than you imagine they will. I had thought about visiting the Charleston Tea Plantation and was prepared to feel a bit of righteous indignation by injustices I assumed I would see. But experience leads to understanding if we keep a student's heart. When my friend Tara and I arrived, the smell of damp, thick air slowed our pace and opened our hearts. We walked beneath old live oaks draped in Spanish moss, which look like shawls for old bark that make aging gracefully appear easy. The first moment of revelation that things were different than I imagined came within minutes as deerflies swarmed and hovered in the swampy land surrounding pristine tea fields. Their bites are hard and give you the feeling you are in a Hitchcock movie as you hear increasing numbers flying like B1 bombers toward your vulnerable skin. Because the farm is organic, the flies thrive as the harvest begins in the middle of May. Before I arrived I might have criticized the farm for using chemicals, but as I walked through the field, I thought that if I had to work there, I might beg for pesticides to engage in chemical warfare against these killer flies. The next revelation came as we stopped to visit with the workers walking between the rows picking weeds. They were naturalists, mostly male, and represented the great diversity and culture of America. One of the guys took a picture as Tara and I posed with tea plants, then another worker stopped what he was doing to patiently explain the varieties of Camellia sinensis growing and the new varieties being developed. The size and scope of the machinery were amazing. The entire place is harvested with a single machine the workers call the Green Giant, which they have used for thirty years. It cuts a few inches off the tea plants every twenty‑ five days for eight months out of the year. Replace‑ ment parts for the Green Giant take months to acquire. In my stereotypical thinking, I had assumed that the fields would be filled with immigrant women holding chemical tanks. Instead, an organic farm with fair hiring practices and care for the workforce greeted and humbled us. The mechanized processing of the leaves was a bit disillusioning, though. The machines pulverized all the leaves and erased my romantic notion of wilting leaves with people separating leaf from stem. Instead, large magnetic belts and rollers and huge drying tumblers with long conveyor belts processed the tea. Traveling there and hearing the story and seeing the workers' attention to taste and varieties were a gift. The biggest shock for me was the desire that rose withinme to pick just a few of the million leaves off the plants. It wasn't really stealing, I reasoned; I just wanted to see if we could grow our own plants from cuttings. The managers of the estate told us the plant varieties were secret, and it would take five years to grow a plant to harvest, but I wanted some tea for myself. Walking through those fields and fantasizing for a moment about sneaking a tea plant out conjured up the image of the great tea spy, Robert Fortune, who stole thousands of plants from the interior of China. He disguised himself with native dress and a long braid and spent years trying to bring samples out of China into England. My desire for this tea cowers in the secret colonial part of my heart, compelling me so that when I see a beautiful crop, I want to own the field. I don't want to just taste tea or learn from tea; somewhere within me I want to own tea. The tea plantation is powerful and raw and lovely. Its surprising reality is a good reminder of how we need to understand before we judge what we don't know. Maybe that is why Jesus says that the most radical way to love is without judgment. We can't judge until we understand, and we still don't understand it all yet. We may never understand it until we are ready to transition to the other side of time. Maybe then we can glimpse how it all makes sense, how we have been traveling with unseen wisdom and been offered mercy by the gallons from people who chose not to judge us. Heading back home from the tea estate and a speaking engagement on All Saints' Day was a bit stressful because I knew construction had to begin immediately if we were to open the café on time. The reality that we may have to move our opening date for the café was sinking in as I sipped ginseng tea on the kind of faith that is not a feeling but a practice I have come to rely on when feelings fail me. I must trust in the forces bigger than me. I don't understand what is happening or what will unfold. I don't have any more faith now than when I was twenty; the only difference is now I act on my faith more than on my doubts. All Saints' Day is the day to celebrate the early martyrs whose names we do not know. It is also the day that we celebrate all the people we have loved who have died, who are so numerous they could fill the sky with huge billows of clouds that can pour down rain like tears for all the love they hold. It is the day we celebrate the newest saints in this cloud. We finally ended the trip and departed Philadelphia about thirty minutes before the airport was shut down as the winds picked up and Superstorm Sandy headed in. The rain was pelting and the wind was pushing the plane around while we picked up speed on the runway. As we started ascending into the thick mass of clouds, I was reminded that clouds hold heft and power. They carry the wind and rain and are a force unto themselves. During the bumpiest ride I have experienced, I felt peace. I started thinking about the cloud of witnesses being like those clouds. The spiritual clouds hold history, power, and a store of knowledge that moves us toward love. I love this day and thinking about all those who walked before us and are part of the saints, tea drinkers, and dreamers who move us to keep walking with courage and humility. As I flew through the sky, I thought about sweet Jeanne Bodfish, who had helped us form Magdalene and Thistle Farms in the first few years of our existence and had died recently at the age of eighty‑ three. She was a great teacher and friend, fearless in the political arena and on her spiritual path. Jeanne was a powerful force. I can almost hear her lilting voice, see her legacy, and feel her in the stormy wind and rain. We are surrounded by saints pulling us onto holy ground, casting off all the baggage we carry and don't need and drawing us close to the truth of eternity. We are here in the midst of a mighty force of saints, here with God. We are surrounded by saints, not as spectators but as forces of faith in our lives. We feel them as surely as the thick clouds surrounding a powerful storm. In the gale‑ force winds above a hurricane, it's possible to feel encompassed by the cloud of witnesses. The saints remind us that we are working toward ideals that have been pursued by millions before. When I am afraid or think that no one ever had such trials, I can count on the saints who had their own fears and anxieties to set me free from the snare of fear. When we draw on the wisdom, courage, and energy of the cloud of witnesses, it is possible for us to be carried with that cloud to a higher ground where we are capable of loving one another, God, and ourselves like the saints before us. It is possible that we can keep going with our visions, even with no map on a starless night. We can hold fast to our dreams, big and small, and feel love pulling us toward this eternal present. I wish I could have stayed above the storm and held fast to that powerful feeling of faith. But as we landed, I knew I was ready, come hell or high water, to keep trying to see the café and the way of tea come to life. Understanding comes from learning about what is around us, like the tea estate, and from weathering storms. When you study the saints and soar through the clouds, the greatest glimpse of truth to glean is that we are truly free. In the midst of the storm and on the ground, it feels like we are trapped and unable to see the big picture. But instead, we are free to live our lives and live our dreams. Freedom then becomes a means of finding understanding. In Paul's letter to the Galatians, written around AD 58, he questions those who are trying to judge if he was a true disciple because he is not abiding by the common practices of his day. This letter is a defense in which Paul helps the Galatians see the freedom in faith that unbinds us from the burden of judgment. This letter says specifically that your faith can set you free. In Galatians 4:7, Paul writes, "So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God." Galatians 5:1 reminds us, "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." We catch glimpses of this truth every now and again. We give away our freedom faster than just about anything else in our lives. People do sacrifice in political and judicial terms, but mostly we let it slip away. Paul speaks of freedom as an inheritance that is one of our most valuable gifts, if we are willing to surren- der. We need to quit thinking of surrender as waving a white flag and giving up all hope. It's the opposite. When we don't surrender to love, we lose our freedom as we fight with our fears, anxieties, judgments, and death itself. Surrendering to love is saying "I will let the internal fight cease and not let those things undo me. I will let everything go so I can be free." To be sure, grief and death are formidable opponents that give us reasons to not be free and to fear. You and I are free. We are free from all the bounds that keep us in prison for no reason. We are free to be as bold as we want. Paul and many other saints claim that surrendering to love binds us to each other. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave up everything and was imprisoned for his faith, says that freedom is not a quality of man. "Anyone investigating man to discover freedom finds nothing of it." Why? Why can we not find that quality in a human being? Bonhoeffer says because "freedom is a relationship between two persons. Being free means 'being free for the other,' because the other has bound me to him. Only in relationship with the other am I free." Over the years, Magdalene women have recounted the unbelievable insights they had after they had been arrested. Several women have said that you would think their freedom was being taken away. Instead, it was actually the day they were finally set free. They were set free from the prisons of addiction and horrible violence that would have held them until their deaths unless a radical and nonjudgmental love helped change their course. They were set free from the fear of being robbed or raped by people who used them as a commodity. Many people, not just the Magdalene women, are confined to internal and external prisons that keep them suffering without any lock or key. The prisons begin to surround them in their childhoods like chain links built by the terror of child rape and trauma. Shana, one of the graduates and a great ambassador of the program, recently said, "Now I live because I want other women to know freedom." She has bound herself to others still on the streets, preaching so that others may know love. When we cast off the shackles of judgment, when we feel the power of the saints, and when we break the chains of oppression for one another, we are on our way to freedom. Freedom is the way we are bound to one another without anxiety, without fear of death, without worrying about judgment. Galatians 5:13-14 tells us, "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self‑ indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' " You are free to move into the deepest axioms of creation, beyond all borders that would enslave you, whatever those might be. You are not male or female in that freedom. You are not black or white in that freedom. You are not old or young in that freedom. You are the embodiment of love, and no one can take that away: not prison, not sickness, not failure, and not death. As we learn from the past and each other that we are free to live, the next step in gaining insight is to let go of all the things that would hold us down. Tea can be a very simple reminder that we need to let go all the time. I was moving furniture back after a gathering at my house and noticed a glass of old iced tea sitting on the back of the couch where I must have missed it during the cleanup. It wasn't pretty. It was dark and moldy, and without sipping it I felt sure it would taste rotten. That cup is the taste of things we hold on to but have no use for. It is the taste of not drinking the gift we were given but setting it aside and thinking we will get back to it. A cup of tea does not last forever. It is offered to us and we have the freedom to drink it, but we can't hide it away. In the practice of tea ceremonies, there is a saying that "this meeting is but once in a lifetime." When we look into the half‑ drunk, luke‑ warm brown liquid in the bottom of the cup, it reminds us of all that we didn't partake of in our lives: friendships, gifts, untouched insight, undiscovered freedom. I worry that all the planning of a café will turn as stale as the cup of tea and the vision of freedom will be like a cloud that passes us by. As we continue to cut costs and cut corners, the initial dream is becoming a dismal reality. Staring into the unrenovated space at Thistle Farms is like looking into a cup of old, nasty tea, and it's easy to remember how sometimes it feels like things all go to pot. It is not possible to go back and drink the teas that have gone bad. There is a time to drink the tea and cup we have been given. When its time of sweetness is over, hanging on to it does no good. This tea reminds me that no feeling of elation or discouragement is final; they both pass, and so we move on in faith. Faith is not a feeling; it is the way that surrounds us. It is a good and right thing to be a bit sad and then wash it down the sink. We will brew new golden teas and keep working to raise the money. It's time to brew a new cup of tea and see who is willing to drink from it. Ecclesiastes reminds all those searching for freedom that there is a time and purpose for everything under heaven. There is a time to build this movement and to work to make this dream come true. We have the freedom and insight to make it happen, and we do not need to let it pass us by and then feel bitter. A group from Thistle Farms has met with a sister group in Atlanta several times about beginning their own community for women coming off the streets. They are a dedicated group, but they haven't yet found a singular vision or the insight to carry it through. This will be the fifth city to launch a sister community for Magdalene and Thistle Farms. We want to enable them to create this new venture and to join in the work of other groups that want to help women coming out of trafficking so they don't have to go to Nashville or New Orleans to find a sanctuary. According to the 2005 FBI status report, Atlanta is one of the top cities in the United States for trafficking women between the ages of eleven and fourteen. On one particular trip we were invited into the beautiful home of a woman hosting a party to raise money for a house for women who have been trafficked in Atlanta. The interior design contained art and relics from her journeys to Africa, Asia, and Europe. After about an hour of the party, I grew restless and started looking around at her beautiful collec‑ tions. On a top shelf were two big, square Chinese ceramics. They were very old blue and white porcelain tea boxes, like the ones used to transport tea across the tea routes. Looking at the chests and remembering their history felt like seeing a statue at the Vatican or admiring a painting at the Guggenheim. To see them is to glimpse into understanding and wisdom. You could imagine the routes tea traders had taken and how the teas were stored. I asked her if I could take them down and look at them. I wanted to touch the tea boxes and get a feel for what it was like on that road from China to Mongolia. Just as it was when I went to an actual tea garden, it felt important to touch with my own hands and see with my own eyes to gain a better understanding of tea's journey. As I felt inside the smooth, cool interior of one box I was reminded about how the image of a journey is always easier than the journey itself. New understanding can come in the slow study and deliberate work of making dreams come into reality. But sometimes it comes in sweet epiphanies where a window into a new idea or a clearer image of a feeling that has been stirring rises in us. There we were, at a simple party, and as I reached into that old tea box, I could feel that those of us who were gathered at her house were participating in an ancient call for justice. I could imagine that even as the tea was being traded, people were concerned about the well‑being of the pickers and were trying to make sure the tea and the people were safe. Just as there is nothing older than trafficking humans, so too are people protesting against trafficking and working toward justice. Touching the tea box offered me an insight into the reality of ancestors who walked with real bodies and real problems just like ours, the pathways where tea and women were traded, and have spoken out for justice and freedom. We can imagine the rugged ancient roads where the tea boxes were strapped to horses and made their way through thick jungles and mountain passes. The dangers on the road to these beautiful porcelains and the tea they contained would be real and fill the traders with an alert sense of robbers lurking in shadowed trees and thick brush. The people carrying the tea in this stunning old box would be exposed on those roads to the harsh realities that can be poured out in this world. The women we serve are as beautiful and precious as fine porcelain tea boxes. They have been as vulnerable as the tea traders crossing old paths on dangerous roads. What we are doing in helping Atlanta is as old as the boxes before me. This is an old path; we are walking it for the first time, so it feels new to us. My understanding of tea's history, healing, and gifts has slowly been unfolding. I am grateful for that new understanding and the freedom that comes with it. But I would not be honest if I did not also admit that there are mornings when the tea ritual and the lessons it presents feel boring. They feel like school in midsemester, or a sermon where you know there is so much more to go and you don't want to sit through it. Understanding brings gratitude, humility, and wisdom, but it is hard to stay present always to receive those gifts. My journey into tea had reached the yearlong mark, and no conclusion was in sight. Any of us can grow weary of having to keep learning about a topic that has become too familiar. It is why people put hobbies on back burners, or take a break from church, or quit volunteering. Sometimes the shine just wears off. The tea that once looked like a golden halo can look bland. But when we feel bored pursuing the dream, that is when it is time to keep going. That is the time to not give up. That is when the cloud of witnesses speaks again and tells us to keep going and praying for understanding. I am the youngest of eleven children. My mother passed away when I was thirteen. I remember being unable to process this tragedy with my siblings, who were busy with their own lives, or my father, who lived across the street with his new family. Her death was a catalyst to the men who introduced drugs to my life. At sixteen, I was pregnant. By nineteen, I had three children and was selling marijuana for money; and by twenty-six, I had smoked crack for the first time and was hooked. During my addiction, my kids moved in with various family members. I lost my apartment and ended up on the streets. At various times I would try recovery, but nothing worked. My niece, who had gone through the program, put my name on the waiting list for a bed. After years and more stints in jail, a spot finally opened up for me. I began working on my recovery in 2008. I thank God for Becca and for this program. I never thought I would be at this point. I wanted my life back. I promised God by the time I turned forty, I'd be off drugs and have a good husband. I don't have the husband yet, but that's okay because I'll be six years clean in July! To the new women in the program, I can open up and tell them, once you give this place a chance, you realize you are in the right place. I know I couldn't handle this life without putting my spiritual life first. -Tasha Even when we are not inspired we are called by the saints to drink the cup and don't let it go to waste. Even in boredom, understanding is coming and reminding me the money will be there to finish the café. The boredom of the campaign is a side effect of the waiting. As I sip the last drops of this tea, I understand the boredom just means I am gearing up to make the final tasks necessary to finish the campaign for the café. If we get bored, it probably means we are ready for change. I need to get past my bored self and do some work to finish the café. Elations in the clouds, letting go of old stale ideas, touching the past and feeling bored by the sameness of the work can offer all of us rich ground for new understanding. A library is laid out before us all daily to give us new understanding if we can stay open long enough to learn the lessons. Recognizing the events, ruts, and epiphanies present all around us is a matter of focus that tea can help make clear. The way of tea is to see it all as a gift and then let the experiences go. What we are left with is fortitude and clarity on how we can be headed in the right direction.

This article is an extract from The Way of Tea and Justice, available now from Canterbury Press..