There are few others whose life and service have had a greater impact on Prison Fellowship International and subsequently, thousands of prisoners, ex-prisoners, victims and their families than Daniel Van Ness. Dan served with Prison Fellowship International for more than 20 years, and before that worked for Prison Fellowship USA for 12 years. As founder of Prison Fellowship International’s Centre for Justice & Reconciliation, Dan led the design of the Sycamore Tree Project®, our victim-offender awareness program. He also led a coalition of NGOs that drafted and successfully lobbied for adoption by the United Nations the Basic Principles on the Use of Restorative Justice Programs in Criminal Matters. His vital contributions in the areas of biblical and restorative justice set the foundation and framework for how many countries around the world approach alternative methods to crime and punishment. Here, Dan offers a reflection on his life’s work.
The Gift of Service
By Daniel W. Van Ness
We stood from our Saturday afternoon meeting with Father Marwan and Joelle. We’d spent the past two hours reviewing their financial and program reports, and discussing our findings. Father Marwan Ghanem is the chairman of the board of Prison Fellowship Lebanon and Joelle is the program coordinator for the pilot test of Sycamore Tree Project NEW LEAF. It was clear the program was doing well.
We were especially encouraged by what we learned in the interviews with program facilitators, prisoners, and correctional authorities. Father Marwan described the prisoner experience as a “small earthquake”—a paradigm shift in their sense of self. The prisoners told us when they started Sycamore Tree Project NEW LEAF they believed they were victims of society, and they served time in prison because of poverty, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. They resented—often with good reason—their treatment in prison. They were angry with their families for rejecting them, wanted revenge on those who testified against them, and fully expected to resume their criminal careers on release, because the community would deny them legitimate alternatives.
Any harm their crimes caused society, they believed, was minor and abstract when compared to the punitive response from the criminal justice system.
Sycamore Tree Project NEW LEAF changed their perspectives. The prisoners told us they now understood that when they committed crimes—whatever their justification—they created real, tangible victims for whom the ripple effects of those crimes produced profound and long-lasting consequences.
Watching videos of victims talking about their experiences, and having the opportunity to listen to a victim who visited them in prison, gave them lots to discuss during the eight two-hour sessions. Learning in Sycamore Tree Project NEW LEAF is by discovery during conversation. The prisoners sit in a circle with two volunteer co-facilitators, one of whom introduces a topic, asks an open-ended question, and hands a small object called a talking piece to the person on their left. The others in the circle listen to the person holding the talking piece, without interrupting. When finished, the speaker hands the talking piece to the person to their left and it is that person’s turn to speak.
As the conversation moves around the circle, the prisoners tell stories, give opinions and counter-opinions, and reflect on what they hear. Through the rhythm of listening, speaking, and listening again, the prisoners gain insight, and over the eight weeks experience a change in perspective.
It was clear the transformation empowered prisoners. Initially, they resisted taking responsibility for what they had done to their victims and the harm that resulted. But as they listened to the victims’ stories, they realized their true offense was not against society, but against their particular victims whose lives were changed in large and small ways by the crime. As the prisoners accepted this, they discovered they had agency—the power to change. They were no longer merely powerless victims of hostile society. Several prisoners spontaneously telephoned their victims to apologize (we do not encourage that, since victims may not be prepared to hear from their offenders).
They also began behaving differently in prison. The colonel, who runs the overcrowded prison we visited, told us it was calmer and easier to run in the four months since Sycamore Tree Project NEW LEAF had started. It had a disproportionate effect because prisoners taking the course shared what they learned with other prisoners. Without advertising, there was now a course waiting list of 100 prisoners.
Course graduates told us they now dealt with conflict in the prison differently. When an issue arose between Shiite and Sunni militants that was clearly leading to violence, prisoners in the Sycamore Tree Project NEW LEAF program intervened and helped them resolve the issue peacefully. They were becoming peacemakers rather than troublemakers.
So, I felt good that Saturday night as our meeting ended. It had been a long week. Before coming to Lebanon, we visited our other Sycamore Tree Project NEW LEAF pilot project in Nigeria, which demonstrated similar results. Now, after long days of meetings, overnight flights, and hard work, it was just hours before my pre-dawn departure to catch my flight home.
It would be my last flight as an employee of Prison Fellowship. After 20 years with Prison Fellowship International, and another 12 before that with Prison Fellowship USA, my wife Brenda and I decided it was time to begin the next phase of our lives. Two days after I returned home, we would close on the purchase of a retirement home, built on a single level with wide doors and hallways. Two years ago I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. We wanted to be prepared for whatever the future will bring.
As we stood to go, Father Marwan turned to me and asked, “Would you like to come to Mass at my parish church? I leave in 20 minutes. It will last an hour, so you will be back here in time for dinner.”
I hesitated. I expected to feel too tired to do anything but rest. To my surprise, I felt invigorated and curious; this would be an opportunity to see my friend in his vocation as parish priest.
“Yes, I’d like to go,” I said.
A few minutes later we were driving to the outskirts of Zahle, a Christian city in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon. Just over the mountains—a one-hour drive away—was Damascus.
Father Marwan is a Maronite Catholic priest. The roots of the Maronite Mass trace to Antioch, where disciples were first called Christians1. According to tradition, the church in Antioch was founded by the Apostle Peter when he fled Jerusalem during the persecution that arose from the martyrdom of James. He served as its first bishop before going to Rome. The Maronites have the same creeds and sacraments as Roman Catholics, and recognize the Pope as the human leader of the church. Nevertheless, they have their own liturgy, theology, spirituality and canon law.
Most of the Mass is sung or said in formal Arabic, although portions are in Aramaic—the language Jesus spoke. It is strongly Trinitarian with an emphasis on Jesus as true God and true man. It also retains aspects of Old Testament liturgy.
We entered Saint Elias Church-Wadi Al Arayesh by a side door and could hear the service had started. The congregation, led by several strong female voices, sang hymns in anticipation of the start of the Mass. As Father Marwan prepared the Host and began vesting in a room near the altar, he asked someone to escort me down a few steps into the church’s front rows.
There were perhaps 150 people in a building that could hold 500 or so. They were seated when I entered, and we stood and sat at the prescribed times throughout the service. The liturgy was sung—no words were spoken during the entire service—without instrumental accompaniment.
The roughhewn stone building was well lit, and the vaulted ceiling stretched high. In the front, above the altar, hung a large painting of the prophet Elijah (Saint Elias), standing on Mount Carmel next to the divinely blazing sacrifice.
Father Marwan emerged from the anteroom and walked to the altar, wearing a long brocade robe. He was just as much a priest this morning in his black shirt and white collar when we visited the prisoners, but now it was evening and he was dressed to lead us in the sacrament of the Mass. Two kinds of dress; two forms of worship; one God.
The service, so far, consisted entirely of congregational singing. With Father Marwan present, it transitioned to a dialogue between the priest and the people—a kind of call-and-response as he sang and the congregation answered. But it was bigger than that. There were times when he turned and we all faced the Holy Table and the Mass became another form of dialogue, for more than priest and congregation were present.
The Arabic and Aramaic words were unintelligible to me. I kept waiting for something familiar to my North American Anglican ears, but it never came. And because I didn’t know the order of service, I rarely knew where we were in the Mass. Even the visual clues were unfamiliar prompts. At one point Father Marwan held up an icon of Mary for the congregation to venerate. Later, he raised the cup and carefully tilted it in four directions. Yet in the unfamiliarity, one thing was apparent: God was present. I felt his presence from the moment I entered the church. He filled the place—worshipped by the congregation and received by the people during communion.
My senses were fully engaged. I saw the church’s beauty, heard the unison singing, and smelled the incense offered repeatedly during the service. And over the next hour, my mind was free to reflect.
I visited over 50 countries during my three decades with Prison Fellowship, exploring the promise of restorative justice in response to crime. My trips were rarely as glamorous as they sounded to my friends back home. In many instances, the drives from and to the foreign airports were the most I saw of the country. My memories are of meeting rooms, prisons or hotels, and long hours spent getting the most out of my brief visit. Jet lag, uncomfortable airline seats, flight cancellations, unfamiliar food, and mounting fatigue are the price we pay for the amazing ability to travel by air to distant parts of the world.
In most countries, I was unable to communicate without an interpreter. Sometimes this created confusion, and I would discover important matters on the agenda I was unprepared for. But this also had its advantages: traveling in a car full of people chatting happily in a language I didn’t understand was a perfect context for prayer and meditation.
In every place, I met people who had heard Jesus’s call to visit him in prison. Some were clearly saints, holy conduits of God’s love to prisoners. All of us were sinners, dependent on grace.
As I reflected, my heart softened. What a gift it had all been. My work allowed me to explore the very character of God as we sought to find new solutions to the problem of crime, every society’s chronic challenge. Repeatedly I witnessed God’s redemptive justice—the foundation of his throne (Ps 89:14)—bring hope and wholeness to individuals, communities, and nations. My companions were men and women from all Christian denominations and traditions, united in offering their lives in service to Jesus the prisoner and King. Work is worship; justice restores; we are one Body. Many times—as recently as that morning—I saw this produce small earthquakes in the lives of the prisoners and victims to whom it is offered.
An overwhelming sense of gratitude washed over me. The Mass had become a benediction to a lifetime of work. Sung in an unfamiliar tongue, in an unfamiliar place, by people I did not know, it was a personal message from the One I had sought to serve. He takes delight in all the forms of his people’s worship, including my own, all-too-often faltering, attempts to do my work over three decades.
As the service concluded and the people left for their homes, I knelt to pray.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Was it possible to feel more grateful? I couldn’t imagine how. The tedium and travails of my working life—and the challenges I would face in the future—were nothing compared to this gift. Any foolish expectations that I should be repaid or rewarded were fully satisfied.
“You don’t owe me a thing,” I concluded, as I rose. “I am in your debt.”
I walked with Father Marwan to his car, and we rode back to my guesthouse. I packed and prepared to rise at 4:00 the next morning to catch my flight home.
Thank you. It was all pure gift. Thank you.
Learn more about restorative justice and Sycamore Tree Project®
 The following is drawn from “The Story of the Maronite Catholics” found at http://maronitemonks.org/wp/story-maronite-catholics/