Originally created 07/08/06

Women find solace in group's joyous message

ATLANTA - The arena crowd was on its feet, arms in the air, dancing to the lively beat. Colored lights flashed on the performers, who belted out some of their most popular songs.

But these fans weren't teenagers and the attraction wasn't a hot pop act. Two of the four performers, in high-wedge platform sandals and trendy but modest outfits, were obviously pregnant. Many fans were middle-age women.

This was the scene at Conta-gious Joy, an event organized by Women of Faith, a national women's group that recently stopped at Atlanta's Philips Arena.

Its purpose: To remind women that God loves them, no matter what.

"We want to encourage women and inspire them," said Mary Graham, the group's president. "I would like every woman to leave the arena knowing for sure that she is loved by a God of grace and that she can have a relationship with him in the hardest moments of her life and in the best days of her life."

During the two-day meeting, speakers and special guests shared motivational stories with attendees and led them in song and prayer. At times, however - such as when the Grammy-nominated Christian group Avalon took the stage - it felt more like a concert than a religious conference.

The 13,000 women in the audience ranged from newborns to retirees in their 90s. Some came alone, others with church groups, many sporting matching T-shirts.

Speakers talked about rough periods that made them realize they didn't have to be perfect for God to love them.

"I discovered that our brokenness is a much better bridge to other people than our trying to be perfect ever is," said Sheila Walsh, one of the speakers.

Decked out in a stylish blazer, artfully torn jeans and funky floral-print boots, Ms. Walsh looked composed and confident. She told the audience that she still has days when "I just want to quit."

After serving as co-host of television's The 700 Club with Pat Robertson for five years, Ms. Walsh stepped down in 1992 and checked herself into a psychiatric hospital because her quest to be "the perfect Christian" led her to a physical and mental breakdown. Nearly 15 years later, her life is back on track, but she still takes medication to keep her depression in check.

That the speakers openly discuss their problems, including depression and drug addiction, is what makes Women of Faith unique, spokeswoman Nichole Masker said.

"It shows you don't have it all together, and churches often hide that aspect of people's lives," Ms. Masker said.

It is that openness that attendees appreciate.

"The speakers are so real," said Sandy Aldridge, 45, a high school English teacher. "They tell it like it is. Knowing that other people share the same kinds of problems and fears is nice. It's refreshing."

Though men are allowed, few attend the conferences. Having a mostly female audience, organizers said, helps women feel comfortable enough to openly identify with the speakers' experiences without worrying what the men in their lives might say.

"It unites women," said Rachael Jacobs, 31. "Men don't go through the same things we do. Women understand each other."

Some might draw parallels between Women of Faith and Promise Keepers, the national faith-based group for men. Ms. Graham said that, aside from the fact that both groups are gender-specific and hold conferences in big arenas, there are few similarities.

Promise Keepers, she said, urges men to improve themselves, telling them they can do better.

"What we want to say to women," Ms. Graham said, "is that you've done a great job and the God of the universe loves you and wants to relate to you in a very personal and profound way."

Women of Faith

What: The ministry held its first conferences in churches in 1996. By the next year, demand for seats was so high, they moved into arenas. Every year in Charlotte, N.C., a 22,000-capacity arena sells out a year ahead. The group holds about 35 conferences a year, has visited 80 cities and has welcomed more than 3 million women.

Learn more: www.womenoffaith.com


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