New Definitions for Old Words: An Intern's Reflection on Her Summer at Thistle Farms

August 15, 2016

Carrie Cabush interned at Thistle Farms this summer as part of our Education & Outreach team and specifically worked on developing the framework for the 2017 Thistle National Conference. As a student at Princeton Seminary, she also spent time reflecting theologically on what she learned and we are grateful that she shared her thoughts with us. 

What Have You Learned?

One way to measure if you’ve learned something is if you can give a dictionary definition of it. These definitions are usually objective, unbiased, and brief. As if, in order to learn something we have to distance ourselves from it. It is one thing to use a dictionary to describe trafficking or love; it is another to experience them personally.

My summer at Thistle Farms has taught me the power of narrative. Not every woman’s story is the same, but they all contribute to a framework of violence against women in this country, just as they all witness to the powerful truth that love heals. To hear someone else tell her life’s story is a gift like no other. Stories have power. I think Jesus and the Biblical scholars knew this, I think they knew that human beings need stories to understand the complexities of life. Jesus taught in parables; the formation of Israel is told through the family stories in the Pentateuch. Stories get inside of us, and change us, in ways that little else can.

Sometimes I wonder if we cling to our dictionaries and unbiased journal articles because we don’t really want to understand the complexities of the human condition. We think looking at the whole somehow accounts for the experiences of individual people.

You can cite how many women are prostituted, abused, or addicted around the world, but until you understand the effect those experiences have on an individual woman, that number means very little.

What if we stopped worrying about making definitions objective? What if we allowed ourselves to define things by experiences? As a lawyer in Harlem, William Stringfellow did just that. He sought to understand the people he was representing not just as a whole, but also as individuals. He gave multiple definitions of poverty:

Poverty is…    

an addict who pawns the jacket off his back to get another “fix.”
a young couple who married only to obtain public housing.     
a boy who wants to be adopted because his mother is alcoholic.
the payoff to a building inspector not to report violations of the building code.


At the start of my internship, Becca Stevens suggested I follow William Stringfellow’s lead and learn how to define prostitution and addiction for myself. As my summer comes to a close, I’m realizing that although I have learned a great deal in my time at Thistle Farms, I am still learning from the women around me. They can speak better to their lives and experiences than I ever could. So I invite you to learn from some of my greatest teachers and remember that every person has a story worth telling.

Prostitution is…         

where you may sell your body for money, but you give your soul
away for free.
the only form of love I knew.
selling your body like a commodity to whomever, without considering the outcome of your spiritual, emotional, physical, and mental health.


Addiction is…             

using a substance against your own will.
a response to sexual assault.


Fear is…                     

a petrified piece of wood. Frozen. Stiff.
the inability to rationalize what is safe and unsafe.

Love is…                     

putting someone else’s problems first.
something that can be felt without a physical touch.
an indescribable beauty.

Healing is…                

an action word.
being made whole.

Home is…                  

where the heart, soul, body, and mind can function
peace and love.

Freedom is…              

feeling alive.
waking up in sound mind with the ability to make sound choices.

We are grateful for Carrie and all our summer interns. Their impact on this community has helped us to tell new stories and hear old words with a fresh sense of their meaning.

Thistle photo by Peggy Napier.


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