Practically Divine

Beth Waltemath reviews Becca Stevens' new book.

Becca Stevens
Harper Horizon, 224 pages

When I was in seminary, my grandmother wrote me letters about her faith journey, documenting everything from her grandmother’s “excommunication” in 1911 for trying to integrate her small-town church to her mother’s declaration of the 11th commandment in 1930: “Thou shalt not wear red fingernail polish.” Woven throughout these letters are endearing phrases and aphorisms that have been passed down from woman-to-woman in my family, conveying something about how divine will and love intervene in the messy reality of being human.

Imagine my delight when I opened Becca Stevens’ latest book, Practically Divine, and discovered she had structured her latest memoir around the wise sayings of her late mother and the ways these words had a habit of bubbling up when she needed to make sense of a world where trauma threatens truth and oppression arrests open-heartedness.

An Episcopal priest and social entrepreneur, Stevens has authored and edited nine books and founded Thistle Farms, a global movement for women’s freedom. What began as a single Nashville-based community for women who survived human trafficking has expanded to include six residences, a cottage industry, cafe, and a growing network of 500 free, long-term beds for survivors, as well as a collective marketplace for 1,800 survivor-artisans from Mexico, Rwanda and Nepal.

The love and wisdom of her mother, Anne, grounds this book. At age 35, Anne was widowed with five young children when her husband, also an Episcopal priest, was killed in a car accident while coming home late from an emergency marital counseling session with parishioners. As the director of a community house that served other low income and single-parent households, Anne raised her kids on hope, prayer and practicality. Practically Divine investigates the many ways that “experience is nine-tenths of love” and the unexpected solutions we find when we are “bound to grace.” Beyond her own roots, Stevens weaves many stories of women surviving abuse, genocide and war with poems of praise and rants of outrage worthy of the psalms.

Her stories embody the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 initiative, demonstrating how responding to injustice with small, loving acts can make an impact. This connection makes her book a welcome addition to church life; I bought signed copies from the Thistle Farms website as gifts to elders rotating off session.

Many memoirs of faith dwell on the existential questions of faith versus doubt. Practically Divine takes a refreshing approach to the genre by shifting the focus from “believing” to “belonging and behaving.” This is a book to be read and shared with anyone in your own motherline, or those spiritual and physical predecessors who have modeled wisdom, love and a resilient spirit. It is more than a testimony; it is an invitation “to come to find out” how “love is the most powerful force for change in this world.”

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