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Restoration and Hope behind Bars: Faith & Finances

Twenty-two women sat around tables, casually eating a classic southern lunch of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans, and peanut butter pie. They laughed together, swapped stories about their families, and shared about their upcoming plans. It could have been a women’s ministry potluck. But they were not in a church fellowship hall. A county jail officer watched via the security cameras lining the ceiling, and fourteen of the women were wearing stripes.

Just a few minutes later, these women received Faith & Finances graduation certificates. Faith & Finances is a biblically integrated financial education program designed for low- to moderate-income people in the United States. The Chalmers Center trains church and ministry leaders to use the Faith & Finances curriculum, guiding them as they create a concrete financial education ministry plan tailored to their unique context. Facilitators are launching classes in settings ranging from Sunday school classes to transitional women’s housing centers. But all of these groups are exploring the same foundational truths: God has created everyone with dignity, gifts, and resources, and He wants to use them to accomplish His work in the world.

Pamela and Rachel, two recently trained facilitators, secured permission to begin a Faith & Finances class in an Alabama jail as part of an ongoing ministry to the female residents. Pamela and Rachel adapted some of the projects in Faith & Finances, such as expense tracking and budgeting, to fit the prison context. The fourteen participants tracked and budgeted how they were spending their “book money” (money placed on their account by outside friends and family members) instead of traditional wages. Together with supportive volunteers from local churches, the women grappled with their spending decisions and priorities. Four women stopped smoking after realizing how much they were spending on cigarettes.

But the participants also grew in their understanding of other healthy financial practices. In the words of one woman, “I have learned ways to tackle my debt little by little without getting so overwhelmed by the big picture that I just give up and don’t pay the debt, thinking it will go away.” Another shared, “I was afraid of banks. I have always been taught that banks are bad. But now I have a better understanding of how I can make a bank work for my money, protecting it, helping establish credit, and earning money on my money.”

Ultimately, the course empowered the participants to support themselves and glorify God by stewarding their resources. One nineteen-year-old single mother explained, “I have been on my own most of my life, and I have never seen people handling money well.  Since I have become a Christ-follower while in jail, I have such a desire to be obedient to Jesus. This is one of those areas that He calls me to be obedient to Him.  I am excited about handling my finances well for me and my daughter’s future.” Another woman discovered similar truths about the relationship between her faith and money: “Just understanding that our money is God’s money, and that He wants us to use it, is powerful. Having the mindset of building up His Kingdom, whether I am providing for my family, meeting financial obligations, or helping others, is simply a new concept for me. Now that I am a Christ-follower, I want to do this well.”

The fried chicken and peanut butter pie that Pamela, Rachel, and their fellow volunteers cooked marked more than a mere graduation. As these women leave prison over the coming months and years, they will leave on more stable spiritual and financial footing. The meal was a celebration of the work God had done in them during the course, and the work He will do through them in the future.  At the end of the evening, the twenty-two women held hands and sang “How Great Is Our God,” a fitting end to one season of growth – and the beginning of another.

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