Seeing Through God’s Affection: Starting Magdalene Omaha

“Where there is great love there are always miracles,’ he said at length. ‘One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”

–Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

This exchange from one of my favorite novels takes place between the wise and reserved Bishop Latour and his young and passionate vicar, Vaillant, during their extensive and trying travels together through the southwestern United States of the nineteenth century. “Where there is great love, there are always miracles.” I have always thought that sounds great, but like Bishop Latour, it has mostly been an intellectual truth for me, something that I know must be true, whether or not I actually believe or experience it to be so. This past weekend, I was reminded again of these words, and I encountered their truth in the most concrete and undeniable way.

For the past seven months, I have served as president of the board for Magdalene Omaha, an affiliate of Magdalene/Thistle Farms in Nashville, which is a program for survivors of sex trafficking, abuse, and addiction. Magdalene communities offer two years of free sanctuary for survivors, covering all of their living and medical expenses, connecting residents with appropriate mental health social service providers, and giving them a small stipend. There is no authority in the house, and no residential staff. The residents are free to come and go as they wish. The program is non-sectarian, and does not require or ask for any religious commitment. The residents’ life together is guided by the twenty-four principles outlined in Magdalene founder Becca Stevens’s book Finding Our Way Home.

We are in the very early stages of starting our program in Omaha, and this past weekend Becca, as well as two graduates and one current resident of Magdalene, were with us for our big kickoff event to raise both money and awareness. I spent three days with them at different events—a dinner for major donors on Friday, a round table with community leaders and lawmakers on Saturday, our big event Saturday night, and again at Trinity Cathedral on Sunday morning. Over and over again, I saw signs of both great love, and of the miracles that such love can manifest.

I saw the miraculous growth of a community that began with just five women in 1999 and today has become a global movement with more than thirty affiliate programs. I saw the miraculously transformed lives of three women who experienced unimaginable abuse and trauma as they showed us again and again what it means to love truly and to be truly loved. I saw the miracle of a city coming together to talk about its hard truths and imagine a better, safer way forward. I saw the miracle of an army of volunteers getting the word out in force, and providing rich hospitality to everyone who came to hear the stories of the women of Magdalene and to support the planting of a house in Omaha. I saw a miraculous spiritual energy I don’t often seen in churches, moving a diverse group of people to attempt what might have otherwise seemed impossible.

And all of these miracles are happening because of great love. There is the great love Becca has for God’s creation and God’s people, and which moved her to start Magdalene almost twenty years ago. There is the great love the survivors have for themselves, for one another, and for the woman still on the street, who they remember each time they meet together in community. There is the great love developing between and around the leaders of Magdalene Omaha.

Magdalene Omaha isn’t about providing a service for victims. It’s about creating a beloved community of women who are survivors, so that their community might help all of us challenge a culture that fosters addiction in its many, many forms and tolerates violence against women, including the sale of women’s bodies. The potential and the power of this movement, which is fueled by great love and produces honest-to-God miracles, runs far beyond combating the evil of sex trafficking. This movement has the power to transform everyone who encounters it. As we in Omaha have come together to do the long work it will take to form and support a Magdalene community, we have been and will continue to form more and more people who are committed to making miracles born of great love happen wherever they are. “I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you,” Cather wrote. The Magdalene communities help us all to see the world through the eyes of God’s affection for every single one of us. That affection, and that love, have the power to heal us from all of the ways that we are broken and that we break one another.

During a conversation on Sunday morning at the cathedral, I was explaining to a group of people that we hope we will be able to begin offering sanctuary to our first group of residents sometime in 2018, which is a perfectly realistic and responsible timeline. One of the Magdalene graduates, Lori, jumped in and said, “it’s going to happen a lot faster than that!” Before I experienced the miracles that Magdalene manifests, I wouldn’t have believed it. Having witnessed great love and seen miracles this weekend, I think she might just be right.

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