(RNS) The 50th observance of the National Day of Prayer will bemarked on May 3 with celebrations across the country and the recitationof a special prayer written by evangelist Billy Graham (click here to read).

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The annual day of prayer for the nation and its leaders was createdin 1952 by Congress and President Truman but observances have becomemore popular since President Reagan designated the first Thursday of Mayas the official time to mark the occasion. More recently, boosted by thework of an evangelical Christian ministry called the National Day ofPrayer Task Force, observances have continued to expand.

"Over the last four or five years, it's just grown by leaps andbounds," said Mark Fried, media coordinator for the National Day ofPrayer Task Force, based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

He predicts that there will be more than 20,000 events across thecountry to mark the observance, a sizable increase from a decade ago.

"When Shirley Dobson took over as the chairman in 1991, she had onevolunteer and herself," he said. "At that point in time, there wereabout 150 coordinators that planned at the local level. Now we haveabout 40,000 volunteers who help organize more than 20,000 events acrossthe country."

Dobson is the wife of James Dobson, founder of Colorado-based Focuson the Family and host of a popular evangelical Christian radio programof the same name.

The task force's original chairman, Vonette Bright, co-founder withher husband, Bill Bright, of Campus Crusade for Christ, was instrumentalin urging Reagan to designate a particular day for the observance. Hesigned legislation amending the law establishing the National Day ofPrayer in 1988.This year, linking to the theme of "One Nation Under God," honorarychairman Billy Graham has written a prayer that Fried hopes people willrecite at 12:30 p.m. EDT on May 3.

"The idea is that if people unite heart to heart and hand to handfrom all across the country at that one time, repeating that specificprayer, we'll actually be that one nation under God," Fried said.

He attributed the increased interest in the event in part to peoplebelieving that prayer can help solve some of the difficult issues facingthe nation, from broken homes to school violence.

Prison Fellowship Ministries Chairman Chuck Colson, who will speakon Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon on the National Day of Prayer,agrees.

"Never in history has there been a real awakening and change inculture that was not accompanied by the church participating insignificant prayer," he said in a statement. "There is a breath of freshair in Washington with the new administration and a resurgence of faithin God across our nation."

When Dobson began as chairman, the task force's budget was about$6,000. It is now more than $1 million.

The task force is funded through donations from individuals andfoundations and sales of resources, Fried said. Purchases of items suchas bookmarks, bulletin inserts and program covers amount to almost halfof the organization's income.

In recent years, the work of the task force has been criticized bychurch-state separationists who believe the day has become focusedprimarily on Christian expressions of faith and inappropriately mixesreligion and government.

Fried said that while the legislation establishing the day is "forAmericans of all faiths," his evangelical Christian ministry haspromoted events based on its beliefs.

"If someone from a different background...would like to organizeevents more reflective of their...beliefs, they are more thanwelcome," he said.