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
Family life for Gordon was scarred by his father’s alcoholism and the domestic abuse of his mum. Though quite capable of good results at school, Gordon became distracted by the dysfunction at home and he lost interest in his studies. Worry morphed into anger and resentment which, in turn, morphed into experimenting with illicit substances. Disappointing HSC results were the product of a heavy pot habit and his dreams of a high-paying professional career slipped out of view.
A job in administration lead to some success and disposable income gave rise to experimentation with heroin and eventually addiction. Before long, Gordon’s income was insufficient to fund his habit and he began breaking, entering and stealing to fund the addiction.
Eventually, the law caught up with him and Gordon entered prison for the first of 6 sentences. Now in his late 40s, Gordon is confronted by a habit that is an ever-present burden that dominates his thinking. Though he hates what it has done to him, addiction is an oppressive master from which escape often seems impossible.
But Gordon has another dominant subject that occupies his mind – his teenage son, Jake. Gordon loves his son with all his heart. The memories of Jake’s childhood flood his waking hours and he is often overcome with feelings of guilt and regret. The thought of Jake growing into adulthood without a dad present to guide and encourage him adds a sense of failure to his emotional baggage.
Initially, Gordon wrote to Jake but received no reply. He respected Jake’s choice and decided to write for Christmas and Birthdays only rather than place pressure on him to write. Jake’s mum was hurt by the past and had emphatically refused to allow Jake to visit Gordon in a prison setting. In fact, Jake and his mum had made the choice to live silently with the shame of dad being in prison.
Eventually, the pressure on Gordon got to fever pitch and he exploded with a barrage of love-letters to his ‘beautiful son’ – six or seven letters in 10 days and many pages. He simply had to let Jake know that he loved him and thought of him constantly. Initially, Jake responded with frustration, anger and language that his father had never heard from him before. Gordon accepted this judgement, but continued to write. Out of the blue, Jake’s mum wrote a letter of encouragement to Gordon to keep writing, and just recently, Jake has finally been able to visit his dad in prison – twice.
The emotion is overwhelming for Gordon. Jake has a girlfriend and has moved on from the sporting interests that his dad introduced him to as a small boy. But Jake also has a deep wish to see his dad free from his addictions when he is released next year. The spark of love between them has been rekindled and is a powerful motivator for Gordon to reduce his dependence on methadone in preparation for life beyond addiction.
Gordon has a very real faith and a deep desire to honour God through his journey out of addiction. Join him in praying that the sins of his father will not be passed down again.
Bob Johnston, Prison Fellowship volunteer
The year 2000 was a year of great change across the world, and marked a new era in the life of Prison Fellowship. In April 2000, the first Camp for Kids in NSW began. A chance for children with a parent in prison to have a break from ‘normal’ life in the company of caring Christian leaders and other children who understand their situation. Archery, swimming, basketball, BMX bike riding, abseiling and bushwalks were a welcome adventure.
“All the children had experienced rejection. They coped in different ways… Yet… over the four days of camp, we noticed them blossom and change,” said one leader at the historic camp.
After the first camp, a grandmother of one of the children sent the following in a letter:
“Many thanks for all the work that went into giving our grandchildren such a wonderful time at camp. They had a great time and got a lot out of the fellowship with Christian leaders and have asked to go again. My husband and I truly appreciated the break with only one child to care for at home. Thank you to everyone involved. PS Thanks for the bibles you gave to the children. They find them easy to understand. Thank you again.”
Twenty years later, Camp for Kids has become a hallmark of the Prison Fellowship year in NSW. This year’s camp had the theme of forgiveness. Camp leader Claire said:
“Our theme, Forgiveness, was a toughie, particularly for young children who have been hurt, bullied, abused, rejected, moved from home to home and sometimes carer to carer. As leaders we had a lot to learn from the yielding hearts of the campers who wrote the names of those they wanted to forgive on paper which was later burnt in a campfire to symbolise letting go and forgiveness.”
As a result, Mia visited her father in prison to tell him she forgives him. A daughter’s forgiveness brought Mia’s father to tears. Mia says she “felt really happy and free”.
Camper Mia* grew up in a family who “didn’t believe in Jesus or God because they were all aboriginals and believed in the Dreamtime.” When Mia’s dad went back to prison, she felt hurt and betrayed. He broke his promise to not reoffend, so Mia decided not to speak to him. After coming on camp and learning about Jesus and his forgiveness, Mia decided “you can’t hold hate; you’ve got to just forgive people no matter what they do.”
This year alone, more than twenty campers wanted to get to know more about Jesus, and as a result have connected with ongoing local kids clubs and youth groups.
– Joanna Mann, Staff Writer