Joanne Ellison of Mount Pleasant founded a new ministry almost two decades ago to draw together women of all Christian denominations.
Her work since has grown into a nonprofit, the Drawing Near to God Ministry Inc., that will hold its third annual conference April 13-14 in Charleston at Ashley River Baptist Church.
"Originally, I started with a handful of people in 2000, and it was just a Bible study," she said. "I just have a heart for different churches coming together, the body of Christ coming together. I was raised Greek Orthodox. My husband was raised Episcopalian. I have a real ecumenical heart."
The two-day event is expected to draw more than 200 women together for prayer and worship as well as to hear inspirational speakers, particularly Myesha Chaney, executive director of the Antioch Church of Long Beach, Calif., and wife of its senior pastor, Wayne Chaney. She is featured on Oxygen’s "Preachers of L.A." as well as a talk radio show she and her husband co-host.
Chaney recently finished a novel, "Hiding Behind the Lipstick," that was inspired by a workshop that helps women reveal their true selves.
"She (Chaney) will speak on 'What lipstick are you hiding behind?'” Ellison said. "She will encourage women to be real, to take off their mask, to get vulnerable, because that’s where unity starts — when people get real."
Sandy Tecklenburg, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg's wife, also will lead a session on unity in the community.
Ellison says her Drawing Near to God ministry is not designed to replace a church home for its members, but to supplement it. Those attending the upcoming conference will come from more than 30 different churches, she said, adding she is an active member of St. Andrews Church in Mount Pleasant.
"Working with people who aren’t necessarily in your church, you find each one has a piece of the puzzle, if you will," she said. "You put it together and it’s a beautiful whole."
The two-day conference costs $50, and tickets are available at joanneellison.com.
While the conference is open to men, its messaging is oriented toward women. "Sometimes women bring their husbands, usually not until the last session," Ellison said.
Tori Hennis, director of communications and operations for Drawing Near to God, said the conference gives existing Christians an opportunity to deepen their faith by worshiping in a new sort of context, as well as by hearing inspirational speakers.
Julianna Fletcher of Mount Pleasant began attending Ellison's Bible studies more than a decade ago and agreed to help lead the worships when the first conference was held in 2015.
Fletcher said her personal experience participating in several different Lowcountry church services, from traditional to contemporary, helps her blend the different talents who will lead the worship next week.
"My husband calls me 1-800-Worship Leader," she joked. "We do traditional hymns to contemporary music and blend it all to work. We have all different ages and all different generations and all different styles."
Fletcher said the diversity adds to the power of the service.
"The goal in all of worship is what the gospel says: That he inhabits the praises of the people. He lives in those moments," she said. "It's something different corporately that happens than when we're by ourselves."
Drawing Near to God also has mentoring opportunities in which younger women get guidance and wisdom from older women, and it does mission work that helps the needy and tackles other service, such as helping churches build playgrounds. The conference is its third arm, Ellison said.