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Devout ready to bow their heads for National Day of Prayer

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 04:57 AM

Moms and dads get their own day. So do veterans, lovers and presidents. Even groundhogs revel in the spotlight once a year.

Thursday belongs to the prayer warriors. From a nonstop Bible recitation on the steps of Tampa City Hall to a gathering of thousands at a Tampa baseball field, they'll be out in full force for the 61st National Day of Prayer.

A declaration signed into law by President Harry S. Truman in 1952 paved the way for the annual observance. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan set aside the first Thursday in May for presidents to issue proclamations that Americans "may turn to God" to pray and meditate.

Although the observance is not specifically meant for Christians, over the years it has evolved into that. The National Day of Prayer Task Force — an independent entity that helps organize and coordinate events around the country — is led by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family's founder, evangelical conservative Christian James Dobson. And the 2012 theme is "One Nation Under God," based on Psalm 33:12, which proclaims, "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord."

Prayer is healing and it works, says Joy Green, chairman of the National Day of Prayer Tampa Task Force. "It's the first thing we go to when we need help.

"And given the state of the church, of our city, of our nation, we need prayer more than ever right now."

In a country that promotes religious freedom but is often divided by it, not everyone shares that opinion.

"There are a lot of people who really hate this day, and hate its blatant violation of church-state separation," says Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Her group sued the government for endorsing the National Day of Prayer, claiming victory in April 2010, when U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled the day was "unconstitutional" and said the government couldn't enact a law supporting a day of prayer any more than it can encourage citizens to fast during Ramadan, attend a synagogue or practice witchcraft. However, that ruling was overturned a year later in a federal appeals court.

"It's frustrating all the way around. With the makeup of our current Supreme Court, we don't expect things to change in the near future," Gaylor says.

This year, the advocacy group is focusing on other actions. It's sending out hundreds of "cautionary" letters to public officials who are participating in prayer events — Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn was on that list — and it developed graphics that can be used as banner-length headings on Facebook pages. Two of the slogans that can be posted on users' timelines include "God Fixation Won't Fix This Nation" and "Pious Politicians — Get off your knees and get to work."

Meanwhile, local prayer event organizers from several groups have been working steadily to provide a diverse offering of Christian events to promote prayer.

Among them is a 90-hour Bible Read-A-Thon on the steps of Tampa City Hall that began Sunday at 6 p.m. Volunteers from about 25 churches are taking shifts, reading the entire Old and New Testaments straight through noon Thursday.

Because they're on public property, Green says the group only needed an advocacy permit to conduct their biblical business. It's the same for the "Word, Worship and Prayer" event taking place at Lykes Gaslight Square from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, where seven ministry teams will lead one-hour public services.

"We are renowned for things in this city that we should be ashamed of, things like strip clubs," Green says. "This is giving Tampa something to be proud of. It's the family of God coming together in unity."

Another high-profile event is the sold-out brunch sponsored by the Tampa Bay National Day of Prayer Council and Pray Tampa Bay. Now in its 20th year, it will feature evangelist-author Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of the Rev. Billy Graham, and include remarks by community, church, military, business and political representatives.

Camille McWhirter, a co-chairman of the brunch, also will use this opportunity to promote www.conventionsprayercoverage.com, which calls for people to sign up for a 15-minute block of "nonpartisan, nonpolitical" prayer for attendees of the Republican and Democrat national conventions in Tampa and Charlotte, respectively. She says organizers in both cities are working together and hope to draw at least 1 million online participants by this summer.

"Right now, there's a great and bitter divide in Washington. Because of the crucial time we're going through in our nation, we can't expect one man or one party to heal this country. So we're asking people to join together in simple prayer that our leaders can see God's wisdom and do the right thing."

Thursday will be capped by the first-ever prayer extravaganza at Steinbrenner Field. Organizers hope to draw 15,000 to the Tampa stadium, getting the word out via cable television and radio spots, billboards, social media and ticket giveaways in churches and at Busch Gardens. The two-hour service will include music by Christian recording artists Ricardo Sanchez and Julianna Zobrist, and a color guard from MacDill Air Force Base.

Cost to attend: Free. Cost for the sponsors: Upward of $45,000. Doors open an hour before the 7 p.m. event.

"We felt the time was right to take this step," says Jennifer Mallan, a task force member and co-pastor of Christian Family Church. "Coming together like this is a visible demonstration that God's love exists and is for real. As Christians, we may have differences in our creed and doctrine, but we have prayer and God in common. So that's what we want to celebrate."

Buckhorn will have a busy day Thursday, opening up the prayer brunch with a greeting and welcoming people to the stadium event in the evening. He says he hadn't yet seen the letter from the Freedom From Religion group advising him of the "unconstitutionality" of his involvement in public prayer gatherings.

Even if he did, he wouldn't pay it any attention.

"I think that's just silly," says Buckhorn, a member of Christ the King Catholic Church. "My faith is an important part of who I am. It gives me strength."

The Tampa mayor notes that he doesn't limit his participation to just Christian activities. He's helped light the Jewish menorah in downtown Tampa at the start of Hanukkah, traveled to Israel, feasted with Muslim friends at the end of Ramadan and prayed in mosques.

He says he also respects those who choose not to follow any religion, and asks for that same respect in return for allowing him to practice his beliefs.

As for all the emphasis on prayers for political leaders on Thursday, Buckhorn says he welcomes it.

"Keep the prayers coming," he says. "None of us is an island. I feel very comforted knowing there are people out there praying for me. We as mortals need all the divine intervention we can get."

TAMPA NATIONAL PRAYER DAY

When: 7 p.m. Thursday; doors open at 6 p.m.

Where: Steinbrenner Field, North Dale Mabry Highway at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard

Cost: Free admission and parking.

Includes: Music by Christian recording artists Ricardo Sanchez and Julianna Zobrist; prayers from community, church, military and political representatives; youth performers; a MacDill Air Force Base color guard formation; and national anthem by gospel singer DeLeon Richards-Sheffield.

Information: (813) 642-3488; www.ndptampa.org


mbearden@tampatrib.com


(813) 259-7613

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