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.

Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost by the Reverend Sarah Miller

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

These are words from the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent to Judah’s exiles taken into captivity in Babylon. For a few months now, Jeremiah has been hovering like a little storm cloud in our readings, often provoking our confusion and alarm, or ruining what would otherwise be a perfectly lovely Sunday morning with his dire warnings of death and destruction. Which is, if you know your Old Testament history, basically what being around Jeremiah was like when he was alive. Jeremiah was appointed by God to foretell and then bear witness to a disaster: the utter destruction, by the Babylonian Empire, of the kingdom of Judah, of its holy city Jerusalem, and of the temple, the dwelling of the God of Israel. Today’s words are written to people who, just before that all took place, had been taken from Jerusalem into exile in Babylon; not only did they endure the shame of defeat, but they suddenly found themselves having to live among their enemies. The good news is that after today, the prophets’ warnings turn into promises: the destruction is not permanent, the exile to Babylon will not be forever; return and restoration are coming. But for now, despite the exiles’ grief and culture shock and homesickness, the God of Israel sends word through Jeremiah that in the meantime, they are to get on with the business of living: build houses, plant gardens, get married and have kids. And the kicker? They are to seek the welfare of Babylon, to pray for it, because their wellbeing is dependent on its wellbeing.

The story of the Babylonian conquest and exile is historical fact, but this chapter in the people of Israel’s story, this period of waiting to return home to Jerusalem, is, for Christians, also charged with symbolism. Jerusalem exists today as an actual city that you can go and visit, but throughout scripture, the image of New Jerusalem, a city filled with peace and justice, keeps getting held out as a promise of the perfectly restored human community that God will one day establish. In the same way, Babylon pops up all over the place as shorthand for the violent, oppressive empires that human sin creates and props up over and over again throughout history. When, hundreds of years after Jeremiah, the writer of Revelation wanted to to describe God’s future triumph over evil to early Christians, he symbolized it as the fall of Babylon, and as New Jerusalem, a beautiful city, descending down out of heaven to finally be established on earth.

It shouldn’t be hard for us to imagine why Christians for centuries have identified with those exiles stuck in Babylon; making the best of things in an imperfect world; trying to hold onto an identity that is often at odds with the surrounding culture; holding on to the promise of return to a home that we’ve never actually seen and can only dimly imagine, but that we long for God to establish for good. We are exiles, in a Babylon world, waiting for the New Jerusalem, the beloved community, the kingdom of God, to be established on earth as it is in heaven. This way of imagining our place in the world has often resonated with Christians, and it seems to me to have been thrown into greater relief during this season in our country’s life, this election cycle. I have heard so many of you grappling, in one way or another, with how faith and politics inform each other; with how we reconcile our identities as both Christians and citizens. Doesn’t the church have to stay out of politics? Shouldn’t we be worried if our faith starts getting too political? How do we accept an imperfect political process with imperfect candidates, and where do we draw the line between imperfect and unacceptable?

There’s a clue for us hidden in the very word “political.” Its roots have nothing to do with Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal or libertarian. Politics is about the polis, which is just the Greek for city. It’s about how humans organize and order a common life with each other. And Christians absolutely have something to say about how we live with each other—we even have a political ideal: we call it the kingdom of God. To pray, “thy kingdom come on earth,” to call Jesus our Lord and the King of Creation—those are political statements. We are citizens of that kingdom, currently in an exile that we are promised is temporary. And to those in exile, the Lord has said, not to condemn the polis, the city, not to escape or withdraw from it, but to seek its welfare, and to pray on its behalf, as if our lives depended on it, because, the prophet tells us, they do.

This way of approaching politics hopefully saves us from some of the more troubling trends we’ve seen lately: we shouldn’t expect perfection or salvation from public servants, but we shouldn’t use imperfection as an excuse to withdraw from the process, or to make a pointless protest out of our vote, or, most troubling, to court violence and chaos out of a jaded, nihilistic despair. We use our vote to ensure the welfare of those around us, and we work to proclaim and prepare for the coming of the kingdom. When we gather on Tuesdays to pray for peace and justice during this election, we are following God’s command to the exiles. When we feed the hungry and show hospitality to refugees, we are offering a world so often ordered like Babylon a hopeful glimpse of what it will look like when God’s in charge.

If our primary identity is as followers of Jesus, citizens of his coming kingdom, then our politics, fundamentally, is about making ourselves and all that we have available for God to use in preparing the way for that kingdom. It’s why we’re all praying right now about what we will give financially to this cathedral in the coming year. It’s why we offer our whole selves to God in the Eucharist each week. It’s why in our work and families and our community, we are called to promote each other’s welfare. Our vote, and our politics, belong to God, as much as anything else we have. For us as exiles, awaiting the kingdom of God, we must each prayerfully decide how we can best seek the welfare of our city, our country, and our world.