ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Baker's face was serene. He strummed the first few notes of Amazing Grace on his guitar and took a breath.
Thursday morning marked his final Mayor's Prayer Breakfast, an annual event he founded with the YMCA. More than 500 people — from politicos to pageant queens — filled the coliseum, listening to music and clergymen.
Baker's red tie was covered in tiny ichthys, the criss-crossed fish symbol adopted by Christians.
"I believe in the power of prayer," said Baker, whose last day in office is Jan. 1. "I believe in individual prayer, I believe in corporate prayer. I think it works."
The event, not funded by taxpayers, has been an annual trademark of Baker's eight years in St. Petersburg's highest office. It's one of his favorite events. He moved through the room Thursday shaking hands and hugging most everyone.
This year, it came in the midst of an election in which religion, dinosaurs and evolution have become political throwing stars. It came at a time when billboards around town promote merging God and politics.
Mayoral candidates Bill Foster and Kathleen Ford both attended. The mayor publicly welcomed them both, but Foster, a conservative Christian, sat at a table with Baker's family. Both candidates said they would continue the breakfast if elected.
While some politicians stumble over faith, Baker, a Baptist, has forged a relatively savvy marriage of politics and religion.
"Your value system and faith is part of everything, and I don't think you can separate that out," he said. "The key is not to force it on other people."
At the breakfast, Baker was surprised with a citizen award named after late community activist Chester James. Speakers showered him with praise and prayed for children, families, personal responsibility and communities. They prayed for the candidates.
"Thank you for giving us a mayor, Lord, that is not ashamed of you," said the Rev. Louis Murphy of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. "Thank you for both candidates and their willingness to serve. … I pray that after it is all said and done, we will come together and unite as one."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.