I am blown away by the profound effect of the Sycamore Tree Project on all who take part. It transforms both minds and hearts and in eight short weeks we see transformation take place in the prisoners, and healing and compassion flourish in the lives of both the offenders and victims.
Even the staff see these changes. Chatting with the prison manager, he asked me if we could run a third course for the year, as he had witnessed the effectiveness of the course in the changed lives of Sycamore Tree participants. Many of the staff at the prison come to the graduations, along with family, friends, and other guests, to see what the course is about and to hear the testimonies of how the Sycamore Tree Project has inspired and transformed the offenders.
Over the last few years, the Sycamore Tree Project has been recommended to all the participants by their peers, and I think this speaks volumes for the effectiveness of the course.
One of the things that speak most loudly to the offenders is the acceptance by the Prison Fellowship volunteers. They are touched that we don’t judge them; we accept them as they are and we treat them as equals.
Not many offenders ever think about how victims of crime are affected; hearing the stories of victims is startling and a real lightbulb moment for the offenders. The course starts by talking about the ripple effect of crime, which means that when the victims share their stories, the inmates’ eyes are opened and they are really shocked by the effects of what they have done and the impact on society.
Hearing about forgiveness has a profound influence on prisoners. Many have taken and applied this with their own families, as they become aware of how much impact their crime has had there. This leads to the hardest part of the course – writing a letter to their victims! (This is not sent to victims – only shared amongst the participants).
Don*, a “lifer” in his 70s who commenced his prison life at age 16, came to the Sycamore Tree Project, and although illiterate, he completed the course by sitting with the chaplain in between sessions to do his homework. Many prisoners (and I’m sure guards as well) remarked on the change in this man. Where previously he had shuffled around with his head down, he now walks around with face shining and making eye contact with all those he encounters. During the Project he made the decision to give his life to the Lord, is going really well and has been inspired to keep his eye out for a course in adult literacy.
James* attended week by week saying he had no victims, then on the sixth week he came in, tears streaming down his face, saying he had more victims than all the other guys put together. He too was the talk of the prison with how much he’d changed. He has now been released and is impacting the community around him. He attends church regularly, serves with 4 different charities and talks to different groups around his city, witnessing even to those he had previously sold drugs to!
It is amazing to see God so radically changing lives in such a short period of time through the Sycamore Tree Project.
– Rhonda Healy, Sycamore Tree Project Facilitator, QLD
*Names have been changed