At last count, we had been relocated twenty-one times. It’s my contention, that should Wayne lose his job in the power industry, our experience in moving would put us in good stead for a career with Two Men and A Truck. (I’d be the unidentified female in the background, adept at packing boxes!!)
One of Wayne’s work assignments took us to Perth, Australia. It was while we were there, that God sent me to prison. (Yes, I’m blaming God! I can’t account for this any other way.) It wasn’t because I’d committed a crime that I found myself in jail, but because of a story that I had told – a story in which I was a victim.
A guest post from Rena Christensen of North Pointe. Rena is passionate about helping women through friendship, faith and knowing the Word of God.
The Sycamore Tree Project
My story earned me a place on the team of “The Sycamore Tree Project.” The STP is a program that is run under the direction of Prison Fellowship. It involves victims of crime interacting with perpetrators of crime in order to bring about restorative justice.
Adrenaline was running high the first morning our team walked into the office next to the guard’s gate. We were excited, but also quite tentative about what lay ahead. We’d been well prepared with instruction about how we were to dress, what our conduct should be, what we should and should not say, also about double-locking the doors and always using the buddy system when we used the facilities. (This last point came as second nature to us women on the team!) We were also reminded not to bring anything along with us to the prison that could be construed as a weapon. For our protection, we were issued personal alarms.
Those alarms made me a little nervous. I wondered what might happen if I accidentally pushed my button.
A few weeks into our program we were given an opportunity to find out. We were sitting quietly in the chapel involved in our small group discussions. Without a hint of warning, three burly wardens thrust themselves through the door huffing and puffing. Their eyes were afire as they darted across the room to discover who was in distress.
It turned out that one of our team had inadvertently pressed her alarm. Though we were shaken by the sudden and unexpected intrusion by the wardens, it affirmed to us that help would come quickly if we were ever to need it.
Hugs Not Shrugs
Going into the prison, I expected to find hardened, unfeeling men; and indeed some, in the beginning, came across this way. As we moved through the course, though, these guys transformed into kind, caring gentlemen who captured our hearts. Most of us on the team grew to love these guys.
We relished the last few weeks of our course when we were finally allowed to give hugs to our new-found ‘friends’. Those on the team, who gave illicit hugs before permission was granted, were dubbed serial huggers.
The most powerful part of our program lay in the telling of our stories. Each one of us has a story to tell, and most of us want to be heard – we want to be understood, and we want to feel like we’re known. Everyone in our program—victims and inmates alike—were given an opportunity to share a narrative of their life.
I was profoundly touched by what the fellows related to us. They were completely honest and forthright in laying out the drama of their lives and the circumstances that led to their incarceration. In hearing their stories, the inmates endeared themselves to our team. It made some of us realize, too, that if the circumstances of our own lives had been slightly different, we might have found ourselves behind bars. It seemed that in most cases, the crimes that were committed came from a deep place of lack or need—mostly, a need to be loved. A number of these fellows were following in the steps of their fathers. Sadly, others had never known a father.
We heard stories of horrific murders, horrible accidents caused by drunk-driving, sad and hopeless-sounding tales from repeat offenders, heart-wrenching stories of abuse, and families torn apart by drugs and alcohol.
Our stories were shared in small group settings. However, the program facilitator had heard my story of having been sexual abused during the interview process, and he thought that there would be value in me sharing this with everyone in our course. I was asked specifically to stress what the consequences of the abuse had been for me—both at the time that it was occurring, and then how it affected my life overall.
I laid out, quite graphically, the devastating impact of having my stepfather trade in his expected role of caregiver, encourager and protector, to take on instead the role of being my molester. I made a point as I spoke, to tell the guys how I had, decades later, offered forgiveness to my dad for what he’d done to me.
My story inspired some strong emotions in the men, and a vibrant and animated discussion ensued. A couple of the men, angry and impassioned by what they’d heard, rose to their feet arguing that I should never have forgiven my dad. Recounting my pain garnered sympathy from many of the guys, and I realized that these were getting it—they understood that this crime (and maybe even their own) had grave and enduring consequences. Most of the guys were, in one way or another, touched by my story. Three weeks later I was to learn just how much impact our stories can have.
At the conclusion of each of our courses we held a graduation for the inmates. Both the men and the visiting team members invited friends and family. Men from the general prison population, wardens, the prison superintendent, as well as elected officials also attended. It was made out to be a big deal!
During the three hour ceremony, the inmates, and those of us on the team, were asked to stand before the assembled crowd and to share our impressions of the eight-week course we’d been through. One charismatic and appealing inmate stood up at his chair stating that he didn’t feel comfortable talking in front of the group, but proceeded to give his impressions of the course from where he stood. He had been in my small group and I had taken a liking to this guy. He had told us of the complicated and contemptuous relationship that he had with his girlfriend–a woman whom he found to be suffocating, needy, and “high maintenance”.
This fellow would occasionally be given passes from the prison to visit his girlfriend, and he’d return feeling greater and greater disdain for her.
From the subtle comfort that this guy gained from retaining his place in the audience, he began to share how he and his girlfriend had been radically impacted by my story. He testified before all of us gathered, how his girlfriend had also been a victim of sexual abuse, and how he’d never really understood how this had affected her, until he heard me tell my account. He told us how his new-found empathy for her had suddenly turned their relationship around. Then he dared to divulge to us a plan that he had contrived prior to hearing me speak. Sparing nothing, he laid out before us his plan to kill his vexatious girlfriend. As he shared about this, his cousin (who was his bunkmate in the prison, and another participant in our course) nodded, verifying the truth of his words. Before a room full of guests, this gentleman credited my story with saving his girlfriend’s life. Most of us listening to him were stunned.
God Can Use All Things For Good
One of the members of parliament was so touched by what he had heard, that he rose to his feet and walked to the front of the room. He stood before us and made a promise to go before parliament to seek further funding for the continuation of the Sycamore Tree Project in Western Australia.
Our team retreated that day to our debriefing. We were humbled in recognizing the power that our stories can have in the lives of others.
Hours later, with this man’s testimony still ringing in my ears, Joseph’s words from scripture came back to me, bringing the reminder that “God can use evil for good.” Sexual abuse had stolen much of my innocence and left physical and emotional scars on my life, but I was able to thank God for turning this evil into an opportunity to help and to preserve the life of another.
God can use our painful stories to inspire,
and to save others;
but in sharing them there’s a benefit for us too.
With each telling of our most distressing life experiences, a little more of our pain is drained away. There’s healing in welcoming God, and others, into our yoke of pain.
Tell your stories!!
APPLICATION: Share Rena’s story with someone you know. What’s your story? Leave a comment below.
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