In 1995 Prison Fellowship International decided to develop a program that would bring small groups of victim volunteers into prisons to meet with small groups of unrelated prisoners to talk about their experiences with crime. The victims are not the particular victims of those offenders. Studies in North America and Europe have suggested that this kind of meeting can be useful for both victims and offenders. PFI convened an international design team to explore how such a program might be constructed and to oversee development of the curriculum. This was a task the team took seriously since the issues and group dynamics generated in these meetings could be quite powerful.
The result is the Sycamore Tree Project. The name comes from the Biblical account of the corrupt tax collector named Zacchaeus who climbed a sycamore tree to get a better view of Jesus as he walked through Jericho. See Luke 19. He had no idea that Jesus would invite himself to Zacchaeus’s home for a meal that night. As a direct result of that meeting Zacchaeus was a changed man. The evidence of the change was obvious to the community as he paid back quadruple the amount he had stolen from the local taxpayers. He also gave away half his wealth to the poor.
The curriculum includes large and small group discussions, victim/offender panels, role plays and readings that create a contemporary retelling of the Biblical account. Obviously participation is strictly voluntary for both inmates and crime victims.
Sycamore Tree runs for varying periods of time depending on how many sessions can take place each week. These sessions examine issues such as:
- Taking responsibility for our actions
- Understanding confession
- Understanding repentance
- Connecting forgiveness with confession and repentance
- Understanding the concepts of reconciliation and restitution
- Considering ways to achieve restitution or at least demonstrate the desire for restitution
- Sharing in a meal to conclude the sessions together