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Baptist pastor to pray at D.C. tree lighting

WASHINGTON (BP)–When Baptist pastor Roger Freeman visits Washington, D.C., this week, it will be far from a normal trip.

Freeman, pastor of First Baptist Church in Clarksville, Tenn., will deliver the opening prayer Thursday for one of the more popular yearly traditions in the nation’s capital — the lighting ceremony of the National Christmas Tree in front of the White House, held first in 1923. He, his wife Priscilla and their 17-year-old daughter Sarah will be on stage alongside President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush and other participants.

“They contacted me about three months ago [to tell him he had been chosen], and I didn’t believe it was real until they sent the [airline] tickets about three weeks ago,” Freeman told Baptist Press. “So that’s when I told my church. We’re excited.”

Freeman was surprised partially because his prayer — which will last one minute and begin at 5:01 p.m. Eastern time — mentions “Jesus” and had to be pre-approved by the National Park Service.

“I was surprised they even asked me in the first place,” he said. “I think it was just God. The fact that Clarksville is a strong military town [located near Fort Campbell, Ky.] may have been something that was on their mind — to have a pastor from a town with a strong military presence. I made myself a promise years ago that if I couldn’t pray in the name of Jesus, I wasn’t going to pray a prayer in public. The name of Jesus is the only name given among men whereby we must saved.”

Freeman was nominated to deliver the prayer by Amy Spiceland Scofield, who attended his church as a youth and now works for the National Park Service in Washington. Freeman has served as pastor of the church since 1993 and is a former president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

It is one prayer Freeman says he will rehearse and, unlike others, actually read.

“It is an awesome blessing and I pray the Lord will help me honor His name,” he said.

President Coolidge started the national Christmas tree tradition in 1923 with the lighting of a 60-foot-tall “Community Christmas Tree.” In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill lit the tree together, but the next three years the ceremony took a hiatus due to a war-imposed blackout. In 1963 the assassination of President Kennedy launched a 30-day period of national mourning, delaying the lighting of the tree until Dec. 22.

The current tree is a 40-foot-tall Colorado blue spruce that was planted in 1978. It was brought to Washington from York, Pa. The ceremony takes place in an area known as the Ellipse, south of the White House.

“I just always thought it was a terrific ceremony that recognized Christmas as a national holiday as well as a Christian holiday and felt like it was the beginning of the Christmas season in America,” Freeman said.

Performing at this year’s ceremony will be country music artist Sara Evans, classical artist Holly Stell, singer/actor Julian Ivey, the St. Albans and National Cathedral Schools Choir and the United States Air Force Band.
Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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