(RNS) The 50th observance of the National Day of Prayer will be marked on May 3 with celebrations across the country and the recitation of 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 created in 1952 by Congress and President Truman but observances have become more popular since President Reagan designated the first Thursday of May as the official time to mark the occasion. More recently, boosted by the work of an evangelical Christian ministry called the National Day of Prayer Task Force, observances have continued to expand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Never in history has there been a real awakening and change in culture that was not accompanied by the church participating in significant prayer," he said in a statement. "There is a breath of fresh air in Washington with the new administration and a resurgence of faith in 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 and foundations and sales of resources, Fried said. Purchases of items such as bookmarks, bulletin inserts and program covers amount to almost half of the organization's income.

In recent years, the work of the task force has been criticized by church-state separationists who believe the day has become focused primarily on Christian expressions of faith and inappropriately mixes religion and government.

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

"If someone from a different background...would like to organize events more reflective of their...beliefs, they are more than welcome," he said.

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