Praise God! A long-held prayer has been answered! After years of prayer and petition, we have run our very first Sycamore Tree Project in a New South Wales prison! As is often the case, we initially encountered some logistical challenges; but these paled in comparison to the impact we witnessed during this incredible course.
With eight inmates, we began a journey of learning, focusing on some very counter-cultural concepts such as accountability, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restored relationships. In times of open discussion, it became clear that the inmates were being confronted and challenged as they encountered these concepts through a different lens; specifically, through the eyes of victims of crime.
Andy* had a confronting experience on the course that caused him to think differently about his life and upbringing. While listening to Unga’s testimony, Andy became visibly agitated, staring at the ground and not making eye contact. Like Unga, Andy is a Pacific Islander, and he instinctively understood her experience of enduring beatings from her father with no support from her mother. In Andy’s experience, it was accepted that this was how the younger generation was taught. As the group began to discuss the testimony and the impact that this sort of behaviour had on Unga’s life, Andy used humour to deflect questions from other participants. But later on, Andy opened up to one of the course leaders and shared how he had never thought much about the broader impacts of abuse and violence. He expressed his own discomfort with the norms he had grown up with, and said he felt great empathy for Unga.
Graeme*, a white South African man, took a real interest in the story of Nelson Mandela. He was living in South Africa when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and was able to share his personal insight on Mandela’s freedom through forgiveness. Ironically, Graeme had never considered applying this philosophy of freedom through forgiveness to his own life, and now seemed determined to explore the idea of forgiving those who had hurt him. He acknowledged that in order to do this, he would first need to take responsibility for his actions, which he had not yet been able to do.
As a child, Rory*, had been beaten regularly, and as a result he had become a violent person. In the first session, he shared that he did not adhere to a religion, but he had an amazingly thorough knowledge of several different religions, and he was able to quote from Biblical Scripture, the Qur’an, and the Torah! He later revealed that he had studied different religions very thoroughly. Rory commented that despite his extensive study, he had never had the Bible explained and unpacked for him before. Through the sessions, he began to understand that the ethics of Jesus did not end with Jesus himself, but were an example for us all to apply to our lives.
Our hope is that through the Sycamore Tree Project, inmates are able to see the power of restored relationships both with victims and as victims. Please join us in praying that more opportunities arise to run this program in NSW and the ACT.
– Tom Carr, NSW Volunteer Coordinator
*Names have been changed