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Bound by Belief and Womanhood

Md. Conference Participants Welcome Inspirational Stories, Advice on Everyday Life

By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2004; Page B04

Paula White told her intimate story of growing up in a Maryland trailer park, and the trauma of her father's suicide, to 6,000 women at the Jericho City of Praise in Landover this weekend.

"I was just a messed-up Mississippi girl living in a trailer," said White, 38, a graduate of Seneca Valley High School who went from poverty in Mount Airy to the pulpit of an 18,000-member Florida church and television ministry seen in millions of homes.

Audience members react to motivational speakers at the "God's Leading Ladies" conference this past weekend at the Jericho City of Praise in Landover. (Photos Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)

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"God is getting ready to bring me forth as your midwife," boomed White, whose Saturday afternoon message, "Giving Birth to Your Dream," closed the "God's Leading Ladies" conference, part of a national tour organized by Bishop T.D. Jakes.

Through the conference, books, plays and a movie titled "Woman Thou Art Loosed," Jakes has worked to build a national stage for a generation of women whose needs were not always met by traditional church teachings.

"T.D. Jakes is talking about issues that once were taboo to discuss in the church," said Paula Matabane, an ordained minister and associate professor of communication at Howard University. "These events give women permission to talk about their pain in a spiritual setting."

Jakes opened the two-day conference, but most of the speakers were women. They offered messages dealing with marriage and relationships, health and fitness, personal finances and self-esteem.

"Many of you have something on your credit report that is not accurate," financial expert Anna McCoy told the audience. "Be strategic about your actions. Dispute errors with all three credit bureaus."

The Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, a former White House fellow who now is a New York pastor, told the audience: "Condoleezza Rice prepared herself to be secretary of state; she took Russian 25 years ago. She didn't know what she was going to be, but God did."

Alicia Matthews, a 31-year-old mother and day-care center owner from White Plains, N.Y., came to the conference with a group of women from the New York area. "The financial information was very important to me. I have started getting all of my credit reports because I want to get my house in order."

Susan Bonnett, 54, an insurance company analyst from Elkton, Md., said the conference was different from a traditional church gathering because it was relevant to her daily life. "It is fine to get a message from the Bible, but I need to deal with everyday issues that affect women."

Pamela Peebles, widow of Jericho's former assistant pastor, James R. Peebles Jr., who died of a heart attack in 1997, said there is a big need for conferences tailored to women because too many women in the church are hurting and their needs are not addressed.

"After my husband died, I felt abandoned and lonely. I learned who my real friends were," said Peebles, who also has a ministry. "Women need women to help heal each other's hurt. There are a lot of women out here who are broken. In my own life, I went from pitiful to powerful."

Listening to success stories about women of faith, Sylvia Gartrell, 40, of Upper Marlboro sat in one of the upper rows of the 14,000-seat sanctuary and flipped through White's book, "Birthing Your Dreams."

White lived in Maryland after her mother married a man who worked at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. She said she gave her life to God at age 18.

She married the Rev. Randy White, and for several years they were on the staff of the National Church of God in Fort Washington.

"There are certain things that I went through I will never repeat in my life, but in some ways I am grateful because it has made me who I am," Paula White said in an interview. "I understand what it is to have pain, but I understand out of that pain can come much power."

Gartrell, who, like White, is a native of Mississippi, said she could relate to White's message, and seeing so many women with success stories caused her to dream about the future.

"Women often have to delay their dreams," Gartrell said. "My husband is retired, my children are older. It is my time now."

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