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
The suburban streets of Adelaide are deserted and cold, and the shrivelled brown leaves blowing around April’s* feet are not recognisable as those which just a few weeks ago had set the trees on fire with their vibrant oranges and reds. She trudges along, backpack weighing her down as she executes the lockdown routine she has established: walking within the 2.5km allowed for exercise, while buying her ‘essentials’ at the same time. She is aware that not everything she carries in her backpack is ‘essential’, and smiles at what seems like a small victory.
April is employed part-time in administrative work, and also has a role as a volunteer for Prison Fellowship Australia. As she ambles down the street, the ongoing sense of heaviness seems to lurk just below the surface, and now manifests as she reflects on a world not only reeling from a relentless infectious disease, but from floods and fires, hunger and poverty, war and cruelty, greed and an insatiable pursuit of power. A world that is suffering and in pain; a world that in many ways is grappling with the unknown and the unprecedented; a world that is divided and separated, desperately hurting, desperately trying to stay connected.
This hope of staying connected gives a brief glimpse into the lives of those in prison; those separated and set apart from the rest of society because they have broken the law. But they are not really separated, because they are now thrust into ‘communities’ of fellow inmates, where having broken the law may be the only thing that the ‘inside community’ has in common, and they remain on the outside even though they are inside.
April ponders the mutual experience of ‘separation’ for those inside and outside of prison. The common pain and grief of not being allowed at the bedside of a dying loved one; of not being there for the birth of a child; of not seeing an ageing grandparent; of not being present. The overwhelming thought that life, as it was, may never be regained seems very real here on the outside, in this hurting world. April asks, “Lord, what can be done for this common humanity, who is divided and separated? What is there that is not transient and momentary, often motivated by token, superficial gestures? The ‘let me know if I can do anything for you’ which has no real substance, or intention, or investment?”
She reflects on the true motivations of her own heart as a volunteer visiting inmates in prison.
The trudging continues, and with it comes the regret, just a small regret mind you, about the weight of too many ‘non-essentials’ in her backpack. But April is spurred on by the transient gratification they will bring when she gets home. ‘So what do You want right now Lord, in the midst of all this? In the midst of the helplessness, and the uncertainty, and the loss of hope, and the grief. What do You want?’
The words in her head are almost defiant.
And unlike the cold wind blowing around her, the reply that seems to come is like a warm, gentle breeze: ‘What I have always wanted, for each and every one of My Beloved; to come to Me, and walk with Me, and talk with Me.’
She straightens up. Her backpack does not seem so heavy now. She smiles as she basks in the reassurance of knowing that if this is the heart of the Creator God, then He will provide. And it is not over the hurting, burdened world that she must ruminate; she must just be ready for the God-syncronised encounters to authentically share His Heart, one person at a time, inside or out.
Bringing the assurance of community with other believers, and a relationship with God, from which one can never be separated.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Yvonne Smuts – Staff Writer
I woke up one morning to find a policeman at the end of our bed, armed and holding a baton. The next 24 hours was a blur as they questioned our then 22-year-old son, David*, about a girl he was seeing. Turns out she was 14.
We were a typical suburban family raising two kids and the only connection we had with the wrong side of the law were speeding fines. Prison only affected those who were uneducated, came from violent families with a long history of crime and probably deserved to be locked away. That was my thoughtless, ill-informed and dispassionate view. I did not think of them as human beings who made a mistake and who were sons, daughters, mothers, fathers of someone else. I did not spare a thought that whole families were shattered. I did not think of them at all. Until our son confessed and was charged.
My world crumbled, David’s sister could not continue with her studies and his dad kept us together.
We visited our son in prison every week. We talked, we nodded to familiar faces who were also regular visitors. The guards and prisoners who remembered our faces, smiled and said G’Day. I began to see sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, joy and pain, laughter, togetherness, in that visitors room sharing precious time, huddled close or walking laps around the small yard, hand in hand. Lining up to get hot chips and Coke. I wasn’t the only one who suffered, the only one in pain in that room! I was still angry and lost but I began to feel an overwhelming compassion and the desire to serve my fellow travelers in the room.
Prison Fellowship gave me a safe place to pray with volunteers, pastors and other compassionate people and bit by bit, I am able to tell my story with less shame and guilt.
I have been able to share my story with other mothers, with sons or daughters in prison through Prison Fellowship’s Family Support. Every time I comfort and encourage a mother, I feel a layer of shame and pain peel away from me so when they thank me, I say, “No, thank-you!”.
I prayed and berated God at the same time, but somehow, He found ways to speak to my heart; He had plans for us. I knew the skills I had were His gifts to me and I knew that I was to use it to serve. He led me back to studies and I now work with prisoners and their families whenever I have the opportunity. I pray that He will also grace our son with the gifts he has, to serve Him.
*Names have been changed
Romans 12: 6-8
We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
As we sit sipping our drinks in the noisy coffee shop, I am intrigued by Julie’s eyes. Intelligent and enquiring, there is an elusive look that speaks of life and all the associated experiences – expected as well as unanticipated – that come our way on this journey. The threads of joy and of pain; of hope and loss; threads that make up the fabric of life. Julie is a new donor to Prison Fellowship, and was glad to meet with me and chat over a coffee and get to know the ministry.
Straining above the loud chatter around us, it becomes apparent as Julie talks, that she has been impacted by the prevalence in the news lately of the tragedy of many people worldwide who have died while in custody. Julie had been left with a profound sense of disillusionment coupled with powerlessness to make any meaningful impact. She has always been acutely aware of the devastating impact of the effects of ‘the cards that some people have been dealt’ in life.
“The deck is not always fairly stacked,” Julie says softly, and her heart of compassion is evident as she goes on to speak of a man from her church who displays the impact of clearly having ‘done it rough’ in his past.
It was while attending her church one Sunday that Julie had noticed a Prison Fellowship brochure pinned to the notice board and had felt compelled to remove it and take it home to find out more. As she read through the edition of Set Free, she had been moved by the stories of the lives of people incarcerated and paying the consequences of their decisions. But with this came a new awareness; the realization that although they were confined to prison now, the stories of these inmates spoke of the paradox of a sense of freedom while being confined to prison.
A freedom which they had never experienced before.
As we sip our coffees, Julie reflects on her own life; on her own spiritual journey, one which for a long time was nothing more than religious formality. In many ways, its own kind of prison.
She shares her own life-changing experience of an unmistakeable encounter that came with comprehending the truth that she was truly loved by Jesus; valued by Him; treasured by Him. “I discovered that Jesus loves me and everything else is peripheral. He is the ‘core business’”, she says. She speaks of the painful ways in her life that she had been made to feel ‘less than’, living with coercive controlling lies that implied ‘you will never be good enough’. Lies that were exposed on the day she encountered for the first time the compassion, patience and love of Christ that said, “You are loved enough that I would die for you.”
The circuit breaker.
Julie explains that on reading that Prison Fellowship magazine, she no longer felt powerless to address the inequity of the lives of those who perhaps have been victims themselves through life circumstances. A reality which very few who having grown up in a privileged environment, can authentically identify with.
She knows from her experience that the Christ of Isaiah 53, Who although perfect, said not a word when unjustly accused and condemned, is the voice for each of us. “If He can change me and give me a voice, He can change the lives of those who have ended up in prison. But they need to hear about Him. We need to be empowering those in prison to hear this message. It is the only lasting and effective way of breaking the destructive, imprisoning, repetitive circuit that just keeps going round and round.”
She had pinned the notice back on the church notice board the following week … and knew her way forward to make a difference.
Julie is now an ongoing ChainBreaker donor and also gives support for various other programs, as she is led. She knows the meaning of ‘my chains are gone I’ve been set free’ in her own life. She is determined to be a part of making this a possibility for those on the inside and breaking the circuit of reoffending.
A possibility for all who hear the message of the boundless redeeming love of Christ.
As we prepare to leave the coffee shop, I am again struck by Julie’s eyes. And I now realize that reflected there, is in fact the irrepressible essence, of hope.
Yvonne Smuts – Staff Writer