JEFF | New South Wales

The Sunday I’ll Never Forget

My name is Jeff, and I’m a volunteer with The Prisoner’s Journey® evangelism and discipleship program in a prison in New South Wales, Australia.

Each Sunday afternoon, I head to the prison in the hope of doing a church service. On this particular Sunday, we had 25 inmates in attendance. The best part was 15 of them had just spent three weeks attending The Prisoner’s Journey®. Although they all completed the course, none had come to church before. I was excited to see how God was speaking to them on their journey.

I preached a message about Gideon, and how the greatest battle we fight is with ourselves. This seemed to resonate with the inmates; I could see on their faces the message touched them. At the end of the message, I took them through the plan of salvation. I said “If anyone would like to place their faith and trust in Christ, then raise your hand so I can meet with you and pray with you.”

Eleven men from The Prisoner’s Journey® raised their hands.

I’m embarrassed to say I was shocked. Although I had asked God to do a great work, I wasn’t expecting Him to actually answer.

I said “Wait, I want to make sure you all understand.” I took them through it again, and again 11 inmates raised their hands to accept Christ as their Savior.

What started off as a normal Sunday afternoon became one I won’t forget.

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SAM | Australia

“I am a Person Who has Worth”

The Sycamore Tree Project helps victims heal from the harm caused by crime, and helps offenders claim responsibility for their acts, and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Sam was one of the original group of prisoners in Australia to participate in the pilot Sycamore Tree Project in 2008. Three years later, he shared his story:

“When another prisoner suggested I think about being part of the Sycamore Tree Project, I reluctantly came aboard with a bucket load of trepidation.

“I was nervous the first morning, shaking hands with a group of people who were smiling and looking like they were actually pleased to see me.

“I’d always thought that victims of crime should carry a blind hatred—as I did to those who wounded, betrayed, and stole from me. That’s a half century of anger, resentment and loathing built up layer, by layer.

“While I was no longer obsessed with feelings of hatred, I feared that my victims hold, and will continue to hold, similar contempt for me. That is another burden I had laden them with through my selfishness, arrogance, and lovelessness—and they do not deserve to have thoughts of hatred burning inside of them for decades.

“I long for the day when they will encounter the Sycamore Tree Project so that they may begin the immensely difficult task of being healed through love, compassion, and forgiveness, and so they may live useful, happy, and productive lives.

“At the conclusion of one of our sessions, I received a shock—one of the victims hugged me! It was the most amazing spontaneous action and I deeply felt her pain, and even more, I felt her deep compassion and understanding of my profound sorrow. I felt loved.

“This program has been a wonderful opportunity for both the perpetrators of crime and the victims of crime to look into each other’s souls and hearts and discover very little difference between us.

“Forgiveness slowly grows from compassion, nurtured by love. Repentance is firstly fully owning and admitting what happened in the past so we can accept responsibility for our future behaviors. We can only know total freedom when we have known truth.

“I am extremely proud and honored to have been a member of the first group in an Australian prison, ‘The Noble Six.’ Personally, I feel more humble than noble as I’m sure this has planted a seed which will grow into a lush, evergreen tree. I feel bonded in a wonderful spirit of hope for our collected futures.

“I am honored to have met and been accepted by what I might call ‘The Phenomenal Five’ who despite my faults and grievous history, have seen that I am a person who has some worth and who can be found again—even though I was truly lost.

“May the Sycamore Tree Project and all who rest under it, grow and prosper.”

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Story credit: Martin Howard, Sycamore Tree Project, Queensland, Australia

ROSS | Australia

How Far Would You Go to Stop Another Crime?

Ross is a crime survivor who refuses to be sidelined. Due to the brutal murder of his son Michael nine years ago, one of Queensland’s worst crimes ever, his motivation for joining the Sycamore Tree Project is simple:

“If we get through to just one inmate not to re-offend, we’ve done our job. That’s what it’s all about.”

Ross has seen the human damage one crime can do. He heads the Queensland Homicide Victims Support Group, which reaches out to families who have been devastated by serious crimes.

Hardened criminals fight back tears when they hear Ross recount the devastation he experienced for years after his son was killed.

It becomes a turning point for many in the room who have never thought about the long-term consequences of their actions. “When I tell my story, I can see it getting through,” Ross says. “Up until that point, they really don’t understand what we have been through. They don’t see the trauma they leave behind and the repercussions.”

These are tough guys, but when we talk to them, you can see the change. You can see it in their eyes.”

Ross continues, “My goal is to save just one person. That will make my life complete. And if I can do that, then I hope Michael would say to me ‘Hey dad, I’m proud of you’.”

Help prisoners and victims find healing and change. Learn more about The Sycamore Tree Project.

Story credit: Martin Howard, Sycamore Tree Project, Queensland, Australia; Photo credit: Emily Martin

KAREN | Australia

Secondary Victims of Crime are Prisoners Too

Karen’s daughter, Jesse, was 15-years-old when she was murdered. On what would have been Jesse’s 18th birthday, Karen shared her story with a group of prisoners during a Sycamore Tree Project. During that course’s graduation, she shared the following:

“In so many ways, secondary victims of crime are prisoners too… prisoners trapped in pain, fear, and sometimes hate. 

“I wanted to be involved in the Sycamore Tree Project, because I wanted to make something positive out of something so destructive. In the past, I have worked with secondary victims of crime and have shared their pain and related to their stories. I felt working with offenders would be a unique experience and chance for me to share my pain and bring home to them the reality of how violent crime impacts families and communities. But it also allowed me to see from another perspective and find common ground.

“After spending the last two weeks with offenders, I can see we all want a life where we are loved for who we are and where there is respect and a feeling of being part of, and not separate from, our community.

“It has shown me that within all of us is the capacity to connect with our fellow human beings and to come to a place of understanding, letting go, and allowing a shared experience (the sharing of our stories) to bring us closer as a community.

“I wish other secondary victims of crime could experience what I have and see we don’t need to be prisoners of pain and hate and fear.

This course helped me to forgive myself for past transgressions, and moved me to a place where I can see that forgiving the person who killed my daughter is possible.

“During the past few months, I have also come a long way in healing my relationship with God. I am now much more at ease with Christianity. I will always treasure my time with those in the course who were brave enough to take part in it and trust us enough to open up and share their pain and their stories. They have given me so much and I will always hold them close to my heart.”

Help victims like Karen find the strength to forgive.

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Story credit: Martin Howard, Sycamore Tree Project, Queensland, Australia 

JEREMY | Australia

It was Life Affirming

Jeremy has spent the last 15 years in prison. When Jeremy started the Sycamore Tree Project, he had no idea what to expect. He was apprehensive and feared the unknown.

During one session, the participants were split into small groups to talk about their life experiences.

“One person,” Jeremy says, “talked about what happened to him, and then to my absolute astonishment, spoke the path of forgiveness of this one’s perpetrator. You have a few profound moments in your life, and this was certainly one for me!”

Jeremy sat in awkward silence, wanting to say something. “My thoughts were scattered,” he says, “but two words kept coming to mind—courage and strength. The courage and strength to endure; the courage and strength to forgive. I told this person, ‘you are far stronger than I could ever be.’”

Jeremy went to bed that night thinking about this person’s journey and how it affected him so deeply.

“It made me want to strive to be a better human being,” he says. “It was life affirming.”

Jeremy fell asleep wanting to change his life’s direction, and woke up the next morning knowing he had started to change.

Jeremy says,

“I have done countless courses—some good, some bad. Without a shadow of a doubt, the Sycamore Tree Projectis the best thing that could ever have happened to me. The sheer rawness of emotions it delivers and the understanding and compassion it releases within people gives you a sense of hope for the future for everyone involved.”

Help prisoners like Jeremy find the courage turn their lives around.

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Story credit: Martin Howard, Sycamore Tree Project, Queensland, Australia 

ELIZABETH | Australia

“I Experienced a Huge Amount of Healing”

Elizabeth suffered profoundly for two years before she was about to share her story. The source of her pain was the brutal attack of her widowed mother. This is what she shared at the end of her Sycamore Tree Project course:

“When I decided to participate in this program, I didn’t really know if I would actually complete it. There were many highs and lows, but I just couldn’t wait to come back each week.

“In my mind, we are all equal. Survivors throwing each other a lifeline. We shared so much during the sessions, some sharing things we have never told a soul before.

“The Sycamore Tree Project tests the edge and pushes the boundaries. The way the course chips away at the wall we have built around ourselves is quite amazing. It is truly based on honesty, trust, and respect. And the support we’ve shown each other has been heartwarming.

“For me personally, there has been a huge amount of healing.

“I had created my own personal hell and thought I was happy the way things were. But I needed closure. I can’t change what happened, but I can change what happens next. I know at times I will look back, but I guess if I can look back, it means that I have moved forward. I am on the road to shalom, and I look forward to seeing you all there… but I might be a bit late.

“I have seen huge changes. Many in this course have grown beyond belief. It has been truly an honor to listen to the stories. These have left footprints on my soul.”

Help victims like Elizabeth find healing and closure.

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Story credit: Martin Howard, Sycamore Tree Project, Queensland, Australia 

ELAINE |Australia

“Finally, I Received Peace”

When Elaine was 17-years-old, she tried to write how it felt to be abused as a child by a family acquaintance. Her mother told her she must keep it a secret, or her father would “kill the man.” Twenty-six years of silence later, she participated in her second Sycamore Tree Project and was able to share the following:

“During the first Sycamore Tree Project course I attended, I found a safe place in the middle of a prison with a group of prisoners—ironic. I was able to grieve not only for the act of crime which happened a long time ago, but for its legacy which was with me daily.

“This legacy told me that the people in my world were not trustworthy and I am not safe. No, I could not ‘get over it,’ I could not ‘forgive and forget, and no, I am not a ‘weak person.’

“I found I had to say it out loud: ‘I have been damaged by other men’s actions and I am very angry.’ Only this group was able to acknowledge this because prisoners are the missing link for victims of crimes. These men also wanted to be allowed to make restitution, though they couldn’t undo the past. This was healing for me, too.

“I received justice from these men because they symbolically took responsibility for impacting my life this way, and I did forgive them though I hadn’t meant to.

“Finally—finally I received peace. This peace gives me the freedom to forgive.”

Help victims like Elaine receive peace and extend forgiveness.

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Story credit: Martin Howard, Sycamore Tree Project, Queensland, Australia 

BELINDA | Australia

Learning Respect for a Victim’s Pain


Belinda pictured right

“When I first began the program, I was recovering from an extremely painful broken right wrist. In greeting the residents, I had to offer my right hand and these guys have strong handshakes.

“In order for me to be acquainted with the participants, I had to offer something of myself, which hurt.

“In turn, the guys learnt not to shake my hand hard and developed a respect for my pain. Eight weeks later, I can offer my hand without the fear of pain, as there has been a healing process.

“I believe this resembles what happens within the Sycamore Tree Project®. As victims begin to tell of their pain and the ripple-effects of crime of their lives, the offenders start to understand the impact of their actions. In turn, they learn respect for a victim’s pain, and the healing process can begin.

“I had heard about the Sycamore Tree Project® through members of my family, who had attended several previous programs. To be honest, I was happy to just hear the stories and had no intention of ever becoming part of the program.

“I never visited a correctional center before, and I unwittingly created a dualism in my presuppositions about victims and offenders. My heart was for helping victims, and to me, offenders were people who willingly inflicted pain on others and were undeserving of my attention.

“I am the youngest daughter of a murdered car salesman and that part of my identity comes with great pain. I endured growing up being stigmatized, ostracized, bullied, and belittled.

“The ripple effects of that act of murder 35 years ago are still prevalent today. I grew up knowing only the aftermath of murder, chaos, police investigations, media attention, and then nothing but the reality of living without an integral member of my family.

“The loss of my father had an indelible impact on my sense of safety and security, and consequently, I have suffered great insecurities and loss of self-worth. To sit in a correctional center and offer that part of my story, my identity, was not easy. And yet, it was also extremely cathartic. As I began to hear their stories, and to see their pain, I began to realize that they too are stigmatized, ostracized, bullied, and belittled.

“Crime does unite us. I hope offering my brokenness will help stop the path of violence they have been running on for years. I hope they will live a life free of crime from now on so they can free another child from the pain I had to endure from the act of murder.

“I hope their children can feel the warmth of sitting on their father’s lap and know they are safe.”

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Story and photo credit: Martin Howard, Sycamore Tree Project®, Queensland, Australia

ANONYMOUS | Australia

I Will Never Offend Again

The Sycamore Tree Project helps victims heal from the harm caused by crime, and helps offenders claim responsibility for their acts, and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Understanding that crime has a ripple effect and hurts more than just the victim is the beginning of change from the inside out. A Western Australian inmate shares his Sycamore Tree Project experience:

“I was apprehensive at first about joining the Sycamore Tree Project when I heard it might be religious based, but that quickly dissipated after meeting all of you.

“Meeting you has put humanity back in my dictionary.

“And the method of teaching has given me the opportunity to actually take on the subject we were learning that day in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. No pressure was put upon me—not like most of the other courses I’ve done where the pressure of failing and not receiving parole was far more important than actually learning the material.

“This course has given my moral compass a solid, stable, and fixed position to aim for with my Father and family being my goal. By putting the victims and their stories right in my face, it has also made me confront my fears of confession, forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation.

“These people leading the course have shown me through their belief in God what actually can be achieved with an honest and forgiving heart, and not letting hate rule our lives.

“I want to say one more thing: saying ‘thank you’ isn’t good enough for me—the way I am going to show you my gratitude is to never offend again.”

Help prisoners and victims find healing and restoration.

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Story credit: Martin Howard, Sycamore Tree Project, Queensland, Australia

MELISSA | Australia

From Victim to Victor: A Story of Healing

It was more than a decade ago, but Melissa Hutton still vividly remembers the day she was held at gunpoint.

“It was a Tuesday, which is generally a quiet day,” she says. Melissa was behind her desk, head down, working at a bank on the northside of Brisbane, Australia, when she heard someone in front of her. She looked up and came face-to-face with the barrel of gun. The man holding it demanded money and threatened Melissa’s life.

 “The first thing that went through my mind . . . was ‘Will I see my kids again?’”

Melissa walked away unharmed, and took some time off from her job to collect herself. When she returned on her first day four weeks later, she found herself the victim of yet another armed robbery. This time, the offender was armed with a knife.

Melissa fell apart.

She quit her job and spent years in deep depression, afraid she would find herself in a similar situation, but would not survive a third time.

For two years she laid on her couch with her windows and doors locked, never leaving her home, except to drive her children to and from school.

It wasn’t until Melissa began sharing her story that she was able to put her life back together.

“You changed my whole view of the world forever,” wrote Melissa in a letter to her offender. “I lost years of my life. I prayed for the world to stop. The world kept spinning and while others lives thrived, mine stood still.”

Her letter is part of a healing and rehabilitative exercise through the Sycamore Tree Project, an eight-week restorative justice program of Prison Fellowship Australia-Queensland. Melissa first shared her story with prisoners—some who had committed the very same crime in which she was a victim.

“That was the first time anyone had ever listened to my story . . . and validated it.”

It was a breakthrough moment for Melissa.

“There’s actually a healing that comes from the sharing,” says Executive Director David Way, “because there’s a change within the prisoner.” Part of the Sycamore Tree Project experience is seeing the effect the victim’s words have on offenders. When offenders go through the program, they have the opportunity to step into their victim’s shoes and understand the personal impact on those they’ve hurt.

Melissa witnessed this moment.

“They all said they never understood, or couldn’t comprehend that a victim of a robbery would be impacted . . . they were quite shocked to hear that changed my life.”

Melissa says this was difficult for her to hear, but she is humbled by their commitment to the program, and for their humility, respect, and remorse.

“They are good people, they just made some bad choices.”

Melissa tells her story again and again through the course, and now works in restorative justice for youth to help give young victims like her a voice. She, and other Sycamore Tree Project participants, told their stories to ABC News in Queensland, which aired on August 28, 2015. “Each time I do it, I feel better—it’s a healing process.”

The program currently only runs in Southern Queensland’s Gatton Correctional Centre, but Prison Fellowship Australia-Queensland recently said they are in talks with the Queensland government to roll the program out to prisons across the state. Melissa says it is her dream and hope that one day all victims of crime will be granted the opportunity to sit across from the person who hurt them. “The power of this experience is far tougher on crime than any sentence ever passed down.”

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Photo credit: Nick Paton