For John, a Prison Fellowship volunteer in WA, witnessing change in prisoners over the course of the Sycamore Tree Project is one of the most remarkable experiences.
“A lot of prisoners don’t believe in themselves. They think of change… ‘It can’t happen to me, it won’t happen to me, I’ll be back in the same scene’. It’s an important lesson for them – I can change.”
Part of this change in a prisoner is a realisation that their crimes affect somebody else. This is especially relevant for drug dealers, who believe their crimes to be victimless. What seems to a dealer to be a simple business transaction looks very different from the perspective of a parent of a drug user.
Face to face with real victims of crime, a drug dealer’s illicit business deals take on a new human face. Mariella*, a volunteer victim with the Sycamore Tree Project, is a mother whose son has been in and out of prison for many years for drug-related offences. Mariella tells her moving story as a mother whose beloved son goes down a dark pathway, trying to rescue him from drug houses and the streets. It reframes what once seemed harmless.
“When they hear stories like that from a mother sitting in the same circle as them, these prisoners… all of a sudden they think of their mothers.”
As Mariella described the pain of listening to her son on the phone while he was dying from a suicide attempt, the air in the room changed. This lost son saw no other way out of the drug scene. Mariella’s tangible pain could be seen on the faces of all the prisoners in the room.
“‘I wonder what my mum’s thinking…’ It’s a very powerful story that affects many, many prisoners.”
By the grace of God, Mariella’s son survived. But the weighty lesson still stands. Prisoners’ eyes are opened to the victims of their ‘business deals’ and hearts are broken, hoping for a chance to change.
“Our session on repentance is always a powerful session. A lot of people don’t believe that they can be forgiven. By this stage in the course, most of [the participants] have cottoned on to the fact that their crimes have a big impact on others, and then they come to the conclusion that they can’t be forgiven, either by victims or by their family or whatever it is. We walk them through that, and many make some conscious effort to seek forgiveness. We know quite a few of them get on the phone that night and talk to somebody, a sister or whoever.”
These practical heart changes echo a Gospel that offers free, undeserved reconciliation. While a majority of prisoners do not expressly accept Jesus as a result of the Sycamore Tree Project, John is convinced that the course is a crucial step in their journey. Whether a change in understanding of Christians, an opening to explore faith further, or even just the first time one hears that they can be forgiven; lives are always impacted by the Gospel.
Studies show that the project has a significant impact on recidivism, too. A study on the program in England showed the regular recidivism rate of 60% drops to a mere 20%. John says, “It’s far more effective in preventing crime than any taxpayer money, so if someone wants to reduce the impact of crime on our community, the Sycamore Tree Project is clearly far superior per dollar than anything done through their taxpayer money. In a Christian sense, I think many Christians miss the fact that restorative justice is actually a Christ-like approach.
“That’s what Jesus modelled – He deliberately sought out those who nobody else cared about. So I think we’re walking in Christ’s footsteps by going to those who nobody else loves.”
*Name has been changed.
– Joanna Mann, National Administration Coordinator