Eyleen Farmer isn't the kind of person you'd expect to meet in the back of a police car. With her stylish glasses and sunny demeanor, she seems less like a felon, more like a schoolteacher or life coach. And yet, on August 19th, there she was, riding through South Memphis with Lt. Chris Moffat.
"It was so interesting," remembers Farmer. "I heard language that I've never heard before."
In case you're wondering, Farmer — the associate rector at Calvary Episcopal Church — didn't commit a crime. Rather, she was doing research for her new project, a nonprofit that will provide jobs and workforce training to former prostitutes. On her ride-along with Lt. Moffat, she ultimately met six women who were charged with selling their bodies.
"What I learned," Farmer says, "is that nobody is doing this by choice. Nobody, when they are a little girl, says this is what I want. Down to a woman, they were victims of rape and abuse. I remember one girl actually said she was doing it to pay her MLGW bill."
In Farmer's nonprofit — called, for now, Friends of Thistle Farms — former prostitutes will be paid to grow herbs and keep bees. They will then process, package, and market what they harvest, in the form of consumer goods like herbal tea, honey, and lip balm.
Meanwhile, the women will live at the Community of St. Therese of Lisieux, a two-year residential program where they will receive healthcare, drug treatment, and counseling. It's a model that Farmer is borrowing from Nashville's Thistle Farms, which has helped hundreds of women and raised $13 million dollars since its founding in 2001. Chris Girata is the rector at Calvary, the church that is incubating the new nonprofit.
"We can wax poetic about changing lives all we want," says Girata. "But the reality is that these women have bills to pay. They need a job. With this program, we can say to them, stop selling yourselves, and start doing some honest work — today."
Last week, I donned a pair of white polyester coveralls and went with Farmer to feed the bees. We were accompanied by John Burruss, the vicar at Annunciation Episcopal Church in Cordova. Annunciation, which has partnered with Calvary on the project, will host both the beehives and the herb garden.
"For a long time," says Burruss, zipping up the hood on his beekeeping suit, "we had been wrestling with how to be better stewards of our 11 acres. Like, how can we deepen the community's connection to the land? How can we be more sustainable with our resources? As soon as Eyleen told me about this, I knew it would be a good fit."
At first, Friends of Thistle Farms had just two beehives, which they purchased. But they got some pennies from heaven last month when two additional hives were discovered in the belltower of Calvary's Memphis cathedral. Professionally relocating the bees was an expensive, daylong process that involved vacuuming up nearly 100,000 individual insects. But Eyleen Farmer took it as a sign that she was doing something right.
"It was impossible not to think of it as a God thing," remembers Farmer. "I don't wanna get too woo-woo about it, but it was thrilling, frankly."
For now, Friends of Thistle Farms is still in development. Both the garden and the beehives are tended by volunteers, and Farmer says the first women participants won't join until 2015. But this week, the nonprofit is holding its first fundraiser: a tea party called Scarborough Fair.
At Scarborough Fair, attendees will be able to purchase half-pint jars of the nonprofit's first honey harvest. There will also be a tea brew-off, in which participants compete to see who can prepare the tastiest herbal blend. The event (details below) is free and open to the public, although there is a suggested $20 donation.
Going forward, Friends of Thistle Farms hopes to work with the district attorney's office to help former prostitutes expunge their criminal records. Because, they say, housing and workforce training won't count for much if these women can't get a job in the real world. It's an ambitious plan, but I still had one question: Why does Farmer feel compelled to do this work?
Before becoming a minister in 1994, she explains, she also served as a hospice chaplain and an administrator at an incest survivors group.
"I met these women," remembers Farmer, "whose sense of self-worth had been shattered, but who, despite their brokenness, had a longing and a determination to be whole human beings. And I found that so inspiring.
"What I learned," she adds, "is that we're never too broken to become whole again. There's nothing anyone can do to put us beyond redemption. And I want to be a part of that healing in these women's lives."
Scarborough Fair at 3342 Waynoka. Sunday, October 19th, 4-6 p.m.