The Way of Tea and Justice

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For the time being, I find myself back in that nearly silent room, drenched in sweat and trying to keep up with the rest of the class. It’s hot. 106 degrees hot. Perhaps that’s why it’s called “hot yoga”. I am trying to enjoy the experience, but it’s hard to find a place of renewed energy while trying to stretch my muscles in ways they’ve never been stretched.

That’s where this author takes me in her book “The Way of Tea and Justice”, because she writes in a tone that nearly whispers. The words flow with a sweet, gentle spirit. I can’t imagine the author’s voice sounding like anything other than the voice of the soft spoken yoga instructor whose goal was to lead us to a place of quiet renewal, a place where our minds and bodies are stretched slightly out of their comfort zones into a new realm where we find complete awareness of ourselves as we exist in the context around us.

Maybe that’s why I took so long to get through this book. While I enjoyed it, I fell asleep after 5 pages nearly every time I read it because it was so relaxing. I sometimes read it while walking on the treadmill as a way to avoid this, but it was hard to choose this over my DVR’ed Shark Tank episodes.

I almost didn’t read the book at all. All I knew about tea was that I love a good Chai Tea Latte from Starbucks. And the only teacup I had ever drank out of was a part of this cute little set that my grandmother had at her condo when we were young. My sister and I would eat Krispy Kreme donuts and drink Diet Sprite out of teacups every Saturday. No joke.

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Honestly, I wasn’t very interested in learning about tea. But after I had the opportunity to visit the place about which it is written, I wanted to learn everything I could about the product that lead to the development of such an incredible establishment.

The Thistle Stop Cafe in Nashville is part of Thistle Farms, which is a place where women who have lived through addiction, prostitution, and trafficking learn how to function in a society where it is very hard to recover and move forward. They live in a residential community where they receive healthcare, therapy, and vocational skills. At the farm, they create and sell body products to raise money.

For a minute, my mind leaves the yoga mat and I am sitting in a college class in Nashville. This was 9 years ago. The Thistle Farms group had come to share their story and sell their products. That was my first encounter with these lovely women. I still have the chapstick and candle I bought that day.

Since that day, their program has expanded to become part of a larger community that they call Shared Trade, a global initiative that supports 14 partners in 10 countries who share a similar mission. An example of one of these enterprises is Akola:

“The vision of Akola Project is to create a global fashion brand that is fully made by and fully benefits marginalized women. Akola currently employs 250 women who care for 1,750 children. Akola achieves its mission by training and employing women to make high quality handmade jewelry sold in the global market place through their Ambassador Program and online store.”  (http://sharedtrade.org/pages/partners)

Thistle Farms and these other organizations are helping transform our culture where many women find themselves trapped in cycles of drugs, poverty and even slavery. They are born with very little chance. Oftentimes, we are quick to judge these women. In the past, if I heard of a woman in jail for prostitution or drug-related charges who had left behind her kids, I was quick to make assumptions and point fingers. But I realize now, if I had grown up in a home/community full of these things, I can’t say I would have ended up any better.

Ms. Stevens’ has been making a difference in the world since before she founded Thistle Farms. The cafe was her most recent endeavor, which was meant to create more local jobs and serve the people coming to visit the already established Thistle Farms. It would also provide support to people around the world who are affected by social injustice. She describes one of the missions of the cafe:

“Trafficking is a direct result of silence and ignorance by communities. It is rooted in the desire to keep the sickness of addiction and child abuse secret. The more light we can shed on the issues and the more we can help educate the population, the safer our whole community will be. The cafe would provide pastors and friends a place to bring folks who were abused and scared to speak their truth. We would offer the business community a place for meetings where women are held in high esteem. We would even begin to hold up the women’s stories as more than survivor stories but ones that ground us all in the truth that love can change the way we treat one another in this world.”

In the book, she so elegantly describes her journey as she learned about the history of tea and how it is underlined by years of global injustice. She says that along with cotton and silk, tea became a major currency of trade many years ago, and the struggle for people and countries to gain control over it has led to war, oppression, slavery and many other problems.

As she learns about the negative impact it has had on the world, she is determined to create an environment where it can make a positive difference. She believes that this product can actually become the vehicle by which people all over the world are connected in their mission to find justice, love and peace.

Following a big dream like this is never easy, and Ms. Stevens talks about her personal struggles against doubt and insecurity during the construction of the cafe. She says, “I didn’t know if the cafe would open, honestly. I thought if I told people it just may not happen, it would finally be revealed that I’m not capable enough. It scares me to think about failing…What holds us all back in pursuing dreams and kicks our soul’s ass is fear. My fear is not that I will be poor or fail but that others will see me as poor and a failure.”

Aren’t any new projects highlighted by at least a little fear and insecurity? That’s why we often don’t follow any of our dreams; we choose instead to stay “safe” and not take any chances.

Thankfully, Becca took many chances and continued on her journey, along with many people who supported her mission. She describes the stories of women which kept her focused on her dream. She has been the recipient of several awards, including the 2014 Humanitarian of the Year by the Small Business Council of America. She was also named by the White House as one of fifteen Champions of Change in 2011 for combatting violence against women.

The cafe opened 6 months later than planned, but she says that “the time between inspiration and the reality of the waking dream was exactly what was required to gain the insight and momentum we needed”. Isn’t that how things normally work? God’s timing works different than our plans, but his timing is always best.

I visited the cafe a few months ago. It is a beautiful place. Hanging over each table is a chandelier surrounded by tea cups, each one donated by someone who shared their story. I had my 9 month old son with me, so as you can imagine, it was difficult to see everything I wanted to see while trying to prevent him from grabbing my tea and spilling his cheerios all over the floor. Hopefully, I can visit again soon. Something tells me they wouldn’t have minded our mess.

Taking a group of broken people and giving them the tools they need to recover and give to others in need is not a new concept. That’s how Jesus lived out his ministry. He met people where they were, in their sinful and broken lives, and healed them with his love and power. Those who encountered authentic healing took that forgiveness and love and poured it out to others. Ms. Stevens says, “The sweetest paths are those that are carved for others to walk.”

As she says, if we want to truly change our world for the better, “All we can do is love. There is no true paradise with judgment, ranking, or power. Living in paradise means looking for every opportunity to serve. When we live a life full of service in love, we are there already.”

I am inspired by her story. I pray that every day I can keep a focus of love and service, so that I can make a similar difference. I hope to keep my focus daily, because “It is like tea. Even after a perfect cup, we still are thirsty the next day…If I lost my thirst for justice in the small things that I confront in my life, maybe I would lose the fire to fight against some of the biggest injustices the world faces.”

As I finish the book, I feel a renewed desire to help others at a time when I’m tempted to be so focused on myself. I feel the need to put down the book and the computer and seek out someone who may be hurting. I may not make an obvious difference like Becca Stevens has, but each act of love makes a difference, and that is all that truly matters. In her words, “In the end, if love is not the last word on tea and justice, we missed the point of the tea journey anyway.”

For more information, visit www.thistlefarms.org

Linking up today at Circling the Story.

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