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Patricia Varner, of Seekonk, with her daughter, Tanisha Perona of Providence, joined an estimated 10,500 others yesterday at the Women of Faith ‘Amazing Freedom’ conference at TD Banknorth Garden.
Patricia Varner, of Seekonk, with her daughter, Tanisha Perona of Providence, joined an estimated 10,500 others yesterday at the Women of Faith ‘Amazing Freedom’ conference at TD Banknorth Garden. (Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)

Women of faith pray, laugh, cry at conference

Patti Chenevert, a 44-year-old single mother, left the children at home this weekend, so she could focus on her faith.

"I want to learn God's will for me, and I want to seek happiness in my life," the visibly moved Haverhill resident said yesterday at the TD Banknorth Garden during a break in a women-only religious conference.

Chenevert was among an estimated 10,500 women who spent two days at the conference held by Women of Faith, a Dallas-based nondenominational group.

The 12-year-old organization's events all emphasize a singular theme: Christian faith can and has changed women's lives.

It is apparently a message that resonates. The organization says that about 400,000 American and Canadian women attend the annual conferences, which include a series of inspirational speakers. To date, an estimated 3.5 million women have participated. This is the first year a gathering is being held in Boston.

"The women who come here all say they are overworked and overextended and they need a break," said Nichole Masker, a Women of Faith spokeswoman when asked why the seminars are so popular.

"These weekends give them time to be with their girlfriends, and laugh and cry and focus on their faith," she said.

Inside the arena, there were tears and laughter aplenty, as speaker Marilyn Meberg, a licensed family therapist and former college professor, talked about some of the darkest moments in her life.

She suffered the death of a 15-day-old child and then her husband, and, she told the crowd remorsefully, she turned her back on her pain and her faith.

"I didn't cry, and I didn't talk to God for a while," she said. "And for a while, I was a mess of unreleased emotion."

Meberg said she wasn't the only person who had gone this route.

Women who are getting divorced follow a similar path, she said.

"We think, 'Oh, I'll get a new husband, I'll get a new house, I'll move to a new city, or I'll eat.'

"We will do anything not to feel the pain," she said as the audience members nodded knowingly.

But, she warned, the only way to deal with the pain was to confront it head on and to ask God for help.

"You have to feel it to heal it," she said.

Lisa Bond, 35, of Taunton called the conference, and its speakers and singers, incredibly inspiring.

"What I got out of this was that even when you are at your worst, you are not alone," said Bond.

"Every woman I know would get something out of this," she said.

Other speakers included Luci Swindoll, the sister of preacher Chuck Swindoll and a former Mobil Oil executive; Patsy Clairmont, a former host for Focus on the Family; Sheila Walsh, former host of "The 700 Club"; Sandi Patty, the winner of five Grammy awards and the author of the book "Broken on the Back Row"; and Anita Renfroe, a comedian and author of "The purse-driven life: It really is all about me."

While some were light-hearted and others serious, all the speakers had a positive pro-woman message, organizers said.

Leah Roberts, of Warwick, R.I., was there with her mother, Pam Christy, of East Greenwich, R.I.

The women, ages 35 and 56, respectively, and both real estate agents, raved about the conference.

"It was fabulous," Roberts said. "There's a lot of hope here."

Chenevert, the Haverhill mother, agreed.

As she prepared to sit through another speech, she mentioned that she has already signed up for next year's event.

"It's lifted me right off my feet," she said.

McConville can be reached at cmcconville@globe.com.

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