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10,000 WOMEN CELEBRATE FAITH IN THEIR LIVES

Joanne Salvi, 35, of Cleveland traveled to Buffalo Friday, expecting to be "rejuvenated."

"I thought it would be meaningful," she said as she waited in line to join up with an expected 10,000 other women, some coming from as far away as California, to participate in "Bring Back the Joy," the third annual conference of the Women of Faith organization.

The event filled Marine Midland Arena, a forum usually reserved for the shouts and cheers of professional hockey.

Instead there was music, laughter and tears.

Music by Point of Grace, a Christian group, had the crowd on its feet as it sang of Noah's Ark in a musical medley ranging from the Andrews Sisters to disco.

There were tears as the featured speaker told of the disappointments she has faced and how she found her way back through her faith.

"Imagine your life is a movie, with nothing left out," Sheila Walsh, former co-host of the "700 Club," told the crowd. "The incredible truth is, God has seen your movie, and He loves you.

"We all have broken places in our lives," she said. "Embrace one another. Hold one another."

"There's no formula," Christie Barnes, executive director of Women of Faith, said of the organization's success over the past three years. "We just encourage women to invite God into their reality . . . to enjoy the life God has given them."

Women of Faith began its ministry in 1996, Ms. Barnes said, holding the first of its many conferences in churches.

"We had seven events. Thousands of people had to be turned away," she said. "We felt there was a need out there, so we went to arenas."

In 1997, 160,000 women attended the conferences. This year, they doubled the number of conferences.

"In 1998, so far this year, over 300,000 women have either attended or are registered to attend the conference," she said. The conferences draw crowds ranging from 7,000 to 19,000.

"Our main focus is to help women grow emotionally, spiritually and relationally," she said. "We get so many letters from women saying 'Our lives will never be the same. It's changed my life.' " she said.

Alice Wellenstein, 49, of Utica, said she came to the conference "to bring back something practical for our lives.

"We're not just all talk, but we put our faith into practice at home with our husbands and families," she said. "It's one thing to have faith, but another to put it into practice."

"You can have true joy through your relationship with God," Ms. Barnes said. "Women are so stretched. They will give and give to others, but not themselves. This conference is a way for them to do something for themselves."

In addition to the featured speaker, the two-day event will also feature sessions by Patsy Clairmont, Barbara Johnson, Marilyn Meberg, Luci Swindoll, Thelma Wells, Connie Neal and Chonda Pierce.

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