No Shame for Carlos

Carlos’s guilt weighed on him. The shame he felt over his crime held him back. In prison, he was invited to participate in Prison Fellowship Chile’s Sycamore Tree Program®, which helps offenders understand the harm caused by crime and pave a way to healing and redemption. But Carlos believed he was irreparably broken and was afraid to join the program.

Many prisoners believe they are beyond redemption. And many justice systems perpetuate this belief by punishing prisoners for their wrongdoings, rather than creating rehabilitative environments where prisoners can learn personal responsibility for their behavior. Prison Fellowship International believes no one is beyond redemption and is creating programs that prove it.

Current data reports 10.9 million prisoners worldwide. And our network has access to 1.58 million prisoners. That’s 14.5% of the prison population. This is significant because experts have discovered it only takes 20% of a population to embrace an idea for widespread change to take place. In other words, if 20% of prisoners respond to the gospel, they have the power to change an entire prison system—for better. Which is exactly what was happening inside Carlos’s prison through the Sycamore Tree Project.

“As time passed, I saw how my peers who participated in the course were changing. They began to live more joyfully and that caught my attention,” says Carlos. One day, Carlos asked a fellow inmate what they talked about in class. The answer surprised him.

“What happens in class stays in class,” the inmate said.

“That was exactly what I needed to hear,” says Carlos. “I needed to know that no one else—outside those in the course—would know about my problems. . . . I could trust [them] when talking about my crime.”

Carlos decided to join the eight-week course where he learned about personal responsibility for his crime, how to make amends with those he hurt, and how to forgive himself and heal. Carlos began to transform from the inside out.

“The Sycamore Tree Project changed my life and spirit!” says Carlos. “This course has helped heal my heart by removing a great weight that I carried inside. That’s the most beautiful thing of all.”

Change doesn’t stop in prisons. Prisoners can be a powerful force for good. Today, nearly 19,000 prisoners and victims are repairing the harm caused by crime through the Sycamore Tree Project. As their hearts are transformed through Jesus’s love, they rebuild connections with their families, communities, and God. They spread radical love, acceptance, and transformation throughout some of the darkest, most broken corners of the world, healing some of the most wounded and broken people.

People just like Carlos.

A Christmas Message

From PFI President & CEO, Andrew Corley

Charles Dickens created some of the world’s best-known fictional characters and is one of the Victorian era’s great novelists. His stories still speak to us today. What is less well known is that Dickens was a believer and a follower of Christ and much of his writing is the result of personal experience. What is even more interesting is that he was the child of a prisoner.

Fired by righteous indignation stemming from his situation and the conditions of the poor in his time these became major themes of his work.

In A Christmas Carol, which sums up some of the major themes, we see Ebenezer Scrooge’s heart change. He starts with the immortal line “Bah Humbug!”… cold and hard, unable to think of others…..but Scrooge’s eyes are opened, and eventually he treats others with kindness, generosity, and compassion, embodying the spirit of Christmas

His life was transformed by perspective, understanding, and generosity.

I also want to encourage you with these words from the mouth of the creator of the Universe, whose birth as the fully God and fully human one we celebrate at this time:

“The Son of Man will come again with divine greatness, and all his angels will come with him. He will sit as king on his great and glorious throne. All the people of the world will be gathered before him. Then he will separate everyone into two groups. It will be like a shepherd separating his sheep from his goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the king will say to the godly people on his right, ‘Come, my Father has great blessings for you. The kingdom he promised is now yours. It has been prepared for you since the world was made. It is yours because when I was hungry, you gave me food to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I had no place to stay, you welcomed me into your home. When I was without clothes, you gave me something to wear. When I was sick, you cared for me. When I was in prison, you came to visit me.’ “Then the godly people will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and give you food? When did we see you thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you with no place to stay and welcome you into our home? When did we see you without clothes and give you something to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and care for you?’ “Then the king will answer, ‘The truth is, anything you did for any of my people here, you also did for me.’”
—‭‭Matthew‬ ‭25:31-40‬ ‭ERV‬‬‬‬‬‬

At Prison Fellowship International, this is our goal:

Our wonderful donors, of which you are one, have risen again and again to the opportunity to partner with us. The impact is undeniable.

Thank you. You have no idea how appreciated you are.

And by the grace of God and with your support we are resolutely committed to accelerating into the future in 2021. This is the theme of our faith-filled strategic plan for next year.

It will continue because of the passion that God has placed in each of us, through the generosity of good people like yourselves and because it must according to the command of Jesus.

We still have many financial needs for this year and next. Would you help us with a special single gift at this critical time?

We are deeply grateful for your continued support, perspective, understanding, and generosity. And we cannot do this without you.

I sign off all my communication with the following signatory words: “We go because we must, we go well because we can”.

I might add “we also go because our wonderful supporters enable us to.”

Dan’s Story

There are few others whose life and service have had a greater impact on Prison Fellowship International and subsequently, thousands of prisoners, ex-prisoners, victims and their families than Daniel Van Ness. Dan served with Prison Fellowship International for more than 20 years, and before that worked for Prison Fellowship USA for 12 years. As founder of Prison Fellowship International’s Centre for Justice & Reconciliation, Dan led the design of the Sycamore Tree Project®, our victim-offender awareness program. He also led a coalition of NGOs that drafted and successfully lobbied for adoption by the United Nations the Basic Principles on the Use of Restorative Justice Programs in Criminal Matters. His vital contributions in the areas of biblical and restorative justice set the foundation and framework for how many countries around the world approach alternative methods to crime and punishment. Here, Dan offers a reflection on his life’s work.

The Gift of Service

By Daniel W. Van Ness

We stood from our Saturday afternoon meeting with Father Marwan and Joelle. We’d spent the past two hours reviewing their financial and program reports, and discussing our findings. Father Marwan Ghanem is the chairman of the board of Prison Fellowship Lebanon and Joelle is the program coordinator for the pilot test of Sycamore Tree Project NEW LEAF. It was clear the program was doing well.

We were especially encouraged by what we learned in the interviews with program facilitators, prisoners, and correctional authorities. Father Marwan described the prisoner experience as a “small earthquake”—a paradigm shift in their sense of self. The prisoners told us when they started Sycamore Tree Project NEW LEAF they believed they were victims of society, and they served time in prison because of poverty, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. They resented—often with good reason—their treatment in prison. They were angry with their families for rejecting them, wanted revenge on those who testified against them, and fully expected to resume their criminal careers on release, because the community would deny them legitimate alternatives.

Any harm their crimes caused society, they believed, was minor and abstract when compared to the punitive response from the criminal justice system.

Sycamore Tree Project NEW LEAF changed their perspectives. The prisoners told us they now understood that when they committed crimes—whatever their justification—they created real, tangible victims for whom the ripple effects of those crimes produced profound and long-lasting consequences.

Watching videos of victims talking about their experiences, and having the opportunity to listen to a victim who visited them in prison, gave them lots to discuss during the eight two-hour sessions. Learning in Sycamore Tree Project NEW LEAF is by discovery during conversation. The prisoners sit in a circle with two volunteer co-facilitators, one of whom introduces a topic, asks an open-ended question, and hands a small object called a talking piece to the person on their left. The others in the circle listen to the person holding the talking piece, without interrupting. When finished, the speaker hands the talking piece to the person to their left and it is that person’s turn to speak.

As the conversation moves around the circle, the prisoners tell stories, give opinions and counter-opinions, and reflect on what they hear. Through the rhythm of listening, speaking, and listening again, the prisoners gain insight, and over the eight weeks experience a change in perspective.

It was clear the transformation empowered prisoners. Initially, they resisted taking responsibility for what they had done to their victims and the harm that resulted. But as they listened to the victims’ stories, they realized their true offense was not against society, but against their particular victims whose lives were changed in large and small ways by the crime. As the prisoners accepted this, they discovered they had agency—the power to change. They were no longer merely powerless victims of hostile society. Several prisoners spontaneously telephoned their victims to apologize (we do not encourage that, since victims may not be prepared to hear from their offenders).

They also began behaving differently in prison. The colonel, who runs the overcrowded prison we visited, told us it was calmer and easier to run in the four months since Sycamore Tree Project NEW LEAF had started. It had a disproportionate effect because prisoners taking the course shared what they learned with other prisoners. Without advertising, there was now a course waiting list of 100 prisoners.

Course graduates told us they now dealt with conflict in the prison differently. When an issue arose between Shiite and Sunni militants that was clearly leading to violence, prisoners in the Sycamore Tree Project NEW LEAF program intervened and helped them resolve the issue peacefully. They were becoming peacemakers rather than troublemakers.

So, I felt good that Saturday night as our meeting ended. It had been a long week. Before coming to Lebanon, we visited our other Sycamore Tree Project NEW LEAF pilot project in Nigeria, which demonstrated similar results. Now, after long days of meetings, overnight flights, and hard work, it was just hours before my pre-dawn departure to catch my flight home.

It would be my last flight as an employee of Prison Fellowship. After 20 years with Prison Fellowship International, and another 12 before that with Prison Fellowship USA, my wife Brenda and I decided it was time to begin the next phase of our lives. Two days after I returned home, we would close on the purchase of a retirement home, built on a single level with wide doors and hallways. Two years ago I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. We wanted to be prepared for whatever the future will bring.

As we stood to go, Father Marwan turned to me and asked, “Would you like to come to Mass at my parish church? I leave in 20 minutes. It will last an hour, so you will be back here in time for dinner.”

I hesitated. I expected to feel too tired to do anything but rest. To my surprise, I felt invigorated and curious; this would be an opportunity to see my friend in his vocation as parish priest.

“Yes, I’d like to go,” I said.

A few minutes later we were driving to the outskirts of Zahle, a Christian city in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon. Just over the mountains—a one-hour drive away—was Damascus.

Father Marwan is a Maronite Catholic priest. The roots of the Maronite Mass trace to Antioch, where disciples were first called Christians1. According to tradition, the church in Antioch was founded by the Apostle Peter when he fled Jerusalem during the persecution that arose from the martyrdom of James. He served as its first bishop before going to Rome. The Maronites have the same creeds and sacraments as Roman Catholics, and recognize the Pope as the human leader of the church. Nevertheless, they have their own liturgy, theology, spirituality and canon law.
Most of the Mass is sung or said in formal Arabic, although portions are in Aramaic—the language Jesus spoke. It is strongly Trinitarian with an emphasis on Jesus as true God and true man. It also retains aspects of Old Testament liturgy.

We entered Saint Elias Church-Wadi Al Arayesh by a side door and could hear the service had started. The congregation, led by several strong female voices, sang hymns in anticipation of the start of the Mass. As Father Marwan prepared the Host and began vesting in a room near the altar, he asked someone to escort me down a few steps into the church’s front rows.

 

 

There were perhaps 150 people in a building that could hold 500 or so. They were seated when I entered, and we stood and sat at the prescribed times throughout the service. The liturgy was sung—no words were spoken during the entire service—without instrumental accompaniment.

The roughhewn stone building was well lit, and the vaulted ceiling stretched high. In the front, above the altar, hung a large painting of the prophet Elijah (Saint Elias), standing on Mount Carmel next to the divinely blazing sacrifice.

Father Marwan emerged from the anteroom and walked to the altar, wearing a long brocade robe. He was just as much a priest this morning in his black shirt and white collar when we visited the prisoners, but now it was evening and he was dressed to lead us in the sacrament of the Mass. Two kinds of dress; two forms of worship; one God.
The service, so far, consisted entirely of congregational singing. With Father Marwan present, it transitioned to a dialogue between the priest and the people—a kind of call-and-response as he sang and the congregation answered. But it was bigger than that. There were times when he turned and we all faced the Holy Table and the Mass became another form of dialogue, for more than priest and congregation were present.

The Arabic and Aramaic words were unintelligible to me. I kept waiting for something familiar to my North American Anglican ears, but it never came. And because I didn’t know the order of service, I rarely knew where we were in the Mass. Even the visual clues were unfamiliar prompts. At one point Father Marwan held up an icon of Mary for the congregation to venerate. Later, he raised the cup and carefully tilted it in four directions. Yet in the unfamiliarity, one thing was apparent: God was present. I felt his presence from the moment I entered the church. He filled the place—worshipped by the congregation and received by the people during communion.

My senses were fully engaged. I saw the church’s beauty, heard the unison singing, and smelled the incense offered repeatedly during the service. And over the next hour, my mind was free to reflect.

I visited over 50 countries during my three decades with Prison Fellowship, exploring the promise of restorative justice in response to crime. My trips were rarely as glamorous as they sounded to my friends back home. In many instances, the drives from and to the foreign airports were the most I saw of the country. My memories are of meeting rooms, prisons or hotels, and long hours spent getting the most out of my brief visit. Jet lag, uncomfortable airline seats, flight cancellations, unfamiliar food, and mounting fatigue are the price we pay for the amazing ability to travel by air to distant parts of the world.

In most countries, I was unable to communicate without an interpreter. Sometimes this created confusion, and I would discover important matters on the agenda I was unprepared for. But this also had its advantages: traveling in a car full of people chatting happily in a language I didn’t understand was a perfect context for prayer and meditation.

In every place, I met people who had heard Jesus’s call to visit him in prison. Some were clearly saints, holy conduits of God’s love to prisoners. All of us were sinners, dependent on grace.

As I reflected, my heart softened. What a gift it had all been. My work allowed me to explore the very character of God as we sought to find new solutions to the problem of crime, every society’s chronic challenge. Repeatedly I witnessed God’s redemptive justice—the foundation of his throne (Ps 89:14)—bring hope and wholeness to individuals, communities, and nations. My companions were men and women from all Christian denominations and traditions, united in offering their lives in service to Jesus the prisoner and King. Work is worship; justice restores; we are one Body. Many times—as recently as that morning—I saw this produce small earthquakes in the lives of the prisoners and victims to whom it is offered.

An overwhelming sense of gratitude washed over me. The Mass had become a benediction to a lifetime of work. Sung in an unfamiliar tongue, in an unfamiliar place, by people I did not know, it was a personal message from the One I had sought to serve. He takes delight in all the forms of his people’s worship, including my own, all-too-often faltering, attempts to do my work over three decades.

As the service concluded and the people left for their homes, I knelt to pray.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Was it possible to feel more grateful? I couldn’t imagine how. The tedium and travails of my working life—and the challenges I would face in the future—were nothing compared to this gift. Any foolish expectations that I should be repaid or rewarded were fully satisfied.

“You don’t owe me a thing,” I concluded, as I rose. “I am in your debt.”

I walked with Father Marwan to his car, and we rode back to my guesthouse. I packed and prepared to rise at 4:00 the next morning to catch my flight home.

Thank you. It was all pure gift. Thank you.

 

Learn more about restorative justice and Sycamore Tree Project®

[1] The following is drawn from “The Story of the Maronite Catholics” found at http://maronitemonks.org/wp/story-maronite-catholics/

STEPHEN | Wales

To Prison and Back: A Prisoner’s Journey

When a group of ex-prisoners walked into Stephen James’s prison and began sharing their stories of change, healing, and forgiveness, Stephen didn’t think he’d ever be one of them.

“I went up to the guy who was running the ministry and said, ‘You don’t know how bad I’ve been.’ I started to list every bad thing I’d done in my life when he stopped me. He told me, ‘I don’t want to know about what you’ve done. We love you, and Christ loves you.’”

That day was a turning point for Stephen, who at 25 years old, was serving a four-year sentence in HMP Prison in Shrewsbury, England, for drug possession.

THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL

Stephen grew up in Leek, England, the youngest of five children. His father was an alcoholic, and his mother withered under his father’s physical and psychological abuse.

“There wasn’t any love,” says Stephen. “No encouragement, no investment in the children. We grew up in fear.”

Stephen often questioned the bad things that happened in his life. His school performance suffered, and at 15 years old he began to follow in his father’s footsteps, working construction by day and drinking his nights away.

“I lived my life in the bars, pubs, and clubs,” says Stephen. “And that progressed to drugs.”

It started with cannabis, and quickly spiraled into speed, ecstasy, and LSD.

“Then I was introduced to methadone, which is a substitute for heroin addicts. But to get it, you have to show up to the doctor with heroin in your system, so you can claim you were an addict.”

But it wasn’t just a claim.

“I started dealing. The low point of my life was using intravenously—injecting five to six times a day. I was suicidal and remember thinking I couldn’t carry on like this.”

In 1995, Stephen was caught and convicted for possession of heroin, and sentenced to four years in prison. He served two. At that point, he was convinced he would go back to drugs when he was released. But transformation was already taking shape, as Stephen began asking the God question.

“If you’d have asked me if there is a God, I would have said yes. But I didn’t know him personally.”

JESUS CAN CHANGE YOU

Near the end of Stephen’s sentence, men from Victory Outreach visited his prison. They brought ex-offenders with them, who shared their stories of brokenness, drug addiction, and alcohol abuse. This got Stephen’s attention.

“I identified with them,” he says. “I’ll never forget when I was in prison: I was abandoned. My family didn’t want to know me. Nobody visited me. I didn’t think my life could change. But they all said that Jesus changed their life. And that was the moment for me.”

Stephen cracked open a Bible and began his exploration of who Jesus is, why He came, and what He called Stephen to do. And he found the answers to his questions about life, and purpose, and identity. Stephen committed his life to Christ.

NOT GOING BACK

When Stephen was released from prison in August of 1997 he was determined not to go back. He moved to South Wales, where Victory Outreach supported his reintegration for two years, as he rebuilt his life. He worked construction while he went back to school, eventually earning a college degree in sociology and social studies. He met his wife, got married, started a family.

Then in 2008, prison loomed on the horizon, once again, when a group from Christianity Explored Ministries approached Stephen to develop a course, based on the Gospel of Mark, to be taught in prisons.

“I didn’t want to go back to prison,” says Stephen. “But I felt a calling to go back. It was clear that God wanted me to be involved in prison ministry.”

ON THE OTHER SIDE

Stephen spent the next eight years developing and teaching what would become the basis for Prison Fellowship International’s groundbreaking in-prison evangelism and discipleship program, The Prisoner’s Journey®.

“The challenge was to write the course to fit the needs of the prison context, to make it adaptive.”

Stephen sat in on many courses, and eventually drew up a model that merged the course materials with several other proven in-prison courses, including Prison Fellowship International’s Sycamore Tree Project® victim-offender reconciliation program.

“We trialed the program for about a year, always asking for feedback from the prisoners.”

To keep the prisoners’ interests and accommodate varying academic levels, the course is mostly oral and the exercises are kept short and visual with questions and drawings on flip charts, and lots of repetition.

“We talk about where we’ve been in the course, and where we’re going. We work step-by-step through a theme each week, and look at a couple of verses. We keep the guys moving around a lot.”

In 2014, Stephen helped adapt the course for Prison Fellowship International’s The Prisoner’s Journey® program. It has since reached more than half a million prisoners with an invitation to learn about Jesus the Prisoner.

Stephen regularly watches men and women come into the course saying the same things he used to say—“I can’t change, you don’t know where I’ve been”—and seeing them, step-by-step, begin to understand and live the message and hope of Christ.

“One of the most rewarding things I’ve heard a prisoner says is, ‘I’m more free in prison than I would be outside, now that I have Christ in my life.’”

SHAPED BY THE GOSPEL

As Stephen travels the globe to train Prison Fellowship affiliate leaders to teach the course, he’s confronted by many challenges as an ex-convict. Yet, he says his life is constantly shaped and authenticated by the Gospel, and he wouldn’t trade prison ministry for anything else.

“Obviously, I’ve got criminal convictions. . . . It’s like I’m constantly vetted as a person each time I enter a new country. But I wouldn’t be doing this work if it wasn’t for the Gospel.”

“It is about loving the prisoner. It doesn’t matter what they’ve done. And sometimes that’s tough. Because we’re good at loving people who are good towards us, who are nice people, but it really is about loving the prisoner.”

“And I haven’t been refused in any country yet. That’s an amazing testimony, isn’t it?”

Help other prisoners around the world hear the invitation to know Christ as their savior through The Prisoner’s Journey® evangelism and discipleship program. 

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Learn more about The Prisoner’s Journey®

DEO | Rwanda

“I Was Totally Healed”

Prison was the last place Pastor Déo Gashagaza wanted to visit. Behind its walls roamed those responsible for the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, those responsible for killing his 45 Tutsi family members, those who still wanted to kill him.

“I heard God’s voice say, Go into prison,” Pastor Déo said.

“I told God, ‘I can’t go into the prisons unless you give me a love for the genocide prisoners.’”

One year after the massacre of nearly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days, Pastor Déo was the first to enter the prisons and minister to his offenders.

Inside, he was greeted with skepticism and hostility. “[A] minister looked me in the eye and asked me if I was crazy,” Pastor Déo said. “The prisoners said, Oh! How is a guy like this still alive? Why did he not die? Kill him now! One said, ‘Please, let him finish his preaching. Kill him after.’ Inside my heart I remember a quiet prayer: God, you sent me here. Please protect me.”

Pastor Déo preached from Isaiah 61:1 (NIV):

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.”

As he spoke, many prisoners wept and rose to protect him. “We can’t kill him,” they said, initiating reconciliation and something even more surprising: friendship.

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By 2001, Rwanda’s 14 jails still overflowed with 125,000 genocide prisoners awaiting trial. Even with a fully functioning legal system, which had largely been wiped out during the genocide, the backlog of cases was estimated to take hundreds of years. The government turned to gacaca, an ancient form of justice where trusted community elders conduct open-air hearings and, with the offenders and the community, decide on a punishment. Unlike the Western justice system, gacaca encourages confession to determine sentencing, which could include additional prison time or community service and reconciliation programs in the communities where they committed crimes.

In 2002, in preparation for the gacaca courts, Pastor Déo led an 80-person team to launch the Umuvumu Tree Project, a modified version of Prison Fellowship International’s Sycamore Tree Project®, an intensive in-prison program that brings together crime victims and unrelated offenders to explore ways to make restitution and begin the healing process. After a successful launch he trained facilitators to implement the program in all of Rwanda’s prisons.

Between 2002 and 2011, 42,000 prisoners and 10,000 community members participated in the program. At first, only 5,000 prisoners admitted their crimes, despite knowing a confession could lead to a lighter sentence—freedom, even. But as the prisoners digested the program’s®, concepts of responsibility, forgiveness, and reconciliation, they began explaining these ideas to their cellmates. After less than six months, the number of prisoner confessions rose to 32,000. Not only did the project teach healthy, biblical living and bridge victim-offender relationships, it also aided government investigations, as repentant prisoners began revealing where they abandoned their victims. Then the survivors took notice. “You are doing so much for the prisoners,” they said, “but nothing for us.”

As Pastor Déo and Prison Fellowship Rwanda expanded their work outside the prisons in response to the victims’ requests, the country’s healing spread rapidly. In less than a year of working with survivors, many were willing to forgive and began asking for the complete pardon of some of their offenders.

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Prison Fellowship Rwanda has expanded its restoration efforts by partnering with Prison Fellowship International’s child sponsorship program and The Prisoner’s Journey® and discipleship program.

Now 20 years after the genocide, Rwanda continues to heal. Thanks to God and willing servants like Pastor Déo, Rwandans have true hope.

“Prison Fellowship was, for me, my journey of healing,” said Pastor Déo. “During all this time in prison, I was totally healed.”

Help bring hope, healing, and restoration to prisoners and victims. 

EDISON | Colombia

“God Changed My Life” 

Edison served a year in prison, and suffered extreme cruelty from fellow inmates. But the worst for him was not seeing his three-year-old daughter and having to tell her during every phone call that he wasn’t coming home yet. Edison participated in both The Prisoner’s Journey evangelism and discipleship program, which invited him to accept Jesus as his Savior. He also enrolled in the follow up restorative justice program, Sycamore Tree Project, where he learned to know God better and to forgive.

“I identified with Jesus as I was sentenced to prison being innocent. God used these to programs to change my life.”

Edison is grateful the Lord saved and forgave him. He has also learned to forgive as he learns more about God.

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“As God forgave me, that is the least I can do, forgive and ask for forgiveness.”

Edison has been found innocent and released. He has a job and lives for the Lord, and shares his love for God with his daughter.

Help other prisoners hear of Christ’s forgiveness for the first time.

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Learn more about The Prisoner’s Journey® program 

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.”

Help prisoners like Sam make things right.

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Visit our Centre for Justice & Reconciliation

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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Learn more about our Restorative Justice programs:

Visit our Centre for Justice & Reconciliation

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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Learn more about our Restorative Justice programs:

Visit our Centre for Justice & Reconciliation

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