TAMPA — Visitors to Tampa City Hall will hear something different — something hallowed — in the air next week.
Amid the typical government banter, volunteers will stand on the building's front steps and read aloud the words of Abraham and Moses, of John the Baptist and Jesus.
They will read.
And read some more.
Around the clock, for 90 hours, until every single word has been uttered from Genesis to Revelation.
At least 50 individuals and church groups have signed up to take on two-hour legs of the spiritual relay, the feat beginning at 6 p.m. Sunday and lasting till noon Thursday. Organizers hope more will join in the coming days.
It should not be mistaken for a statement on the separation of church and state, said Joy Green, chairwoman of Tampa's National Day of Prayer task force, which is behind the "Bible Read-A-Thon."
"We really don't have an argument about that," she said. "Our job as Christians is to pray for the government."
Reading the Bible, she said, is prayer in its simplest form. "When the Bible is read, you don't have to preach. You don't have to talk. You don't have to give your opinion."
The city granted Green's group a routine "advocacy" permit that would be needed to put up a menorah or hold an Easter parade in the same part of downtown, said Greg Bayor, director of parks and recreation.
The American Civil Liberties Union saw no problem with City Hall as a biblical stage.
"As long as that area is open and accessible to the public, they have every right to be there and do exactly that," said Derek Newton, communications director for ACLU of Florida.
The read-a-thon is one of several events connected with this year's National Day of Prayer, which takes place Thursday. Groups across the United States will gather to pray for the country, for families, for the downtrodden.
Locally, there will also be a daytime worship service and a finale prayer event that night at George M. Steinbrenner Field, featuring prayers by area pastors and proclamations by local dignitaries, including Mayor Bob Buckhorn and state Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico. A brunch featuring Billy Graham's daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, and sponsored by a different group has sold out, according to its website.
The marathon reading is not unique. Green, who has organized local prayer day events for 12 years, remembers having done the same thing a decade ago. She got the idea to revive it after a trip to Washington, D.C., last year where a similar event takes place. There, she said, members of Congress even took part.
The 23rd annual U.S. Capitol Bible Reading Marathon is already under way. Volunteers began reading Friday from the Capitol's West Front. They'll finish Tuesday.
Tampa task force members hope the read-a-thon and other changes to this year's National Day of Prayer activities will boost participation in all denominations. Last year, several hundred attended a daytime prayer service at Lykes Gaslight Square Park.
That's much too small for an area this size, said Jennifer Mallan, a task force member and co-pastor of Christian Family Church. This year, organizers moved the event to an evening slot and the bigger Steinbrenner Field, hoping 15,000 will show up for the day's finale, she said.
An anonymous donor jump-started promotional efforts with a generous donation. The task force had 250,000 "tickets" printed to advertise the free events. Members secured space on six billboards, ads in Christian magazines and local TV and radio spots touting the prayer finale. Area pastors received promotional kits. Expenses have exceeded $30,000, Mallan said.
The National Day of Prayer is worth all the effort, she said.
"This is a pivotal year spiritually. It's an election year and you've got a lot going on in the Middle East with Israel, and people are still feeling the effects of our economy."
Sharon Tubbs can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394.