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Women Of Faith To Descend On Hartford Friday, Saturday


June 10, 2009

New England's approach to Christianity may be a lot of things, but it's not necessarily stodgy.

Women of Faith, a rolling road show of Christian speakers and musicians, arrives in Hartford Friday and Saturday, and organizers expect to draw at least 10,000 to downtown's XL Center.

Marilyn Meberg, a former therapist, has been with the group for all of its 14 years. Because of scheduling difficulties, they've skipped Hartford recently, and she's glad they're coming back.

"There is something about Hartford," said Meberg. "The women are so enthusiastic and without pretense. If they like you, they yell it. If they don't like you, they cross their arms and say, 'O.K. Show me.' It's real."

The Texas-based organization is among a small group of Christian events that can draw a crowd to what has, in recent history at least, been a fallow field for evangelical gatherings. Evangelist Luis Palau (rhymes with "allow") pulls in big numbers with his music-heavy festivals. When he was still preaching publicly, Billy Graham filled the Hartford Civic Center. But these days, it's the rare Christian event that equals Women of Faith in numbers.

"Big religious events happen once in a while," said Andrew Walsh, of Trinity College's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. "Some of them are more like conventions, say, when Obama came to the UCC's national meeting two summers ago."

But the larger Christian denominations in Connecticut Catholics and mainline Protestants don't traditionally respond to big meetings, Walsh said. According to Trinity's American Religions Identification Survey released in March, roughly 34 percent of Americans identify themselves as born-again or evangelical Christian, a group that historically has embraced larger, more expressive religious gatherings. But in New England, the number of people who profess no membership in a faith group who would be unlikely to attend a Christian gathering, large or small continues to grow.

Walsh called such gatherings "re-tooled revivals," which tend to attract more conservative Protestants, who still constitute a minority in New England.

For larger group gatherings, one must travel to the South or Midwest, said John Farina, religious studies associate professor at George Mason University. And that's ironic, considering that New England was once a hotbed of precisely the big group gatherings like Women of Faith's, said Farina, who grew up in New Britain.

"The odd thing is that Puritanism was an ongoing revival," he said. East Windsor's own Jonathan Edwards shaped the nation's theology during the First Great Awakening of the mid-1700s. "They were always looking for the next revival."

In whatever town Women of Faith hosts an event, Meberg says, she and other entertainers do not alter their message for what might seem like a more reserved crowd. "We don't get stodgy people when we get to Hartford," she said. "Some of our more responsive people are on the East Coast."

Speakers and singers scheduled include "American Idol" contestant Mandisa, multiple Dove award winner Steven Curtis Chapman, and Gospel Music Hall of Famer Sandi Patty, among others. Though the performers don't belong to the same church, theological differences are put aside in favor of the main message, said Meberg.

"Our bottom message is that God is crazy about you," she said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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