This year's choice of speaker for the Woodbury Prayer Breakfast is stirring a buzz, much like that first cup of morning coffee.
In the past, good-guy athletes such as former North Stars player Bill Butters and former Vikings tight end Joe Senser, and widely respected business leaders such as Paul Ridgeway and Jay Coughlan, have drawn hundreds of people to hear inspirational stories about the role their faith has played in their lives.
Like the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on which it is patterned, politics at the Woodbury event has been checked at the door as values held common are celebrated.
So this year's speaker, an ex-Nazi-turned-born-again-Christian, who has drawn fire for comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler and linking him to the antichrist, has raised some eyebrows.
But those involved with the event say that Maria Anne (Hansi) Hirschmann will keep with tradition by focusing on her own life story and keep out any potentially strident political messages.
"This is a faith-based community event, pure and simple," said Alisa Rabin Bell, spokeswoman for the event's organizing committee. "It always has been and it always will be."
It's Hirschmann's amazing life story that made her a strong choice as speaker, Bell added.
According to her autobiography, "Hansi, The Girl Who Left the Swastika," Hirschmann grew up orphaned and impoverished in then-Czechoslavakia. When Hitler's army took over that country in 1938, she was indoctrinated as a youth leader.
After World War II, she was taken to a Communist labor camp in Bohemia, but escaped, became a Christian and gradually made her way to the United States. She learned English and taught school, rejecting her Nazi past. She founded Hansi Ministries in 1974.
A year ago, a speech by Hirschmann at the Air Force Academy was canceled after some groups protested some of her conservative political views expressed in her books. She told Colorado Springs Gazette religion columnist Mark Barna that Obama "could pave the way for a future antichrist. Obama scares me because he has no record and people flock to him."
On her website, part of Hirschmann's February newsletter aims to clarify her views on Obama. Of Obama's election and the adulation he received, she wrote: "It reminded me of former times in Germany when Adolf Hitler was selected in a jubilant election to become the new leader of Germany, and within short years also the 'Fuehrer' for Austria and Czechoslovakia, etc.
"I was accused that I called Obama another Hitler, but I never did that. I am still not saying such a thing, but I do pray for President Obama very often; he needs it."
Woodbury Mayor Bill Hargis, who helped get the event going 10 years ago, said past speakers have done well to stay with positive messages. He expects no different from Hirschmann, despite her strong political leanings that have supporters and detractors.
"That's not what she's been asked to talk about," he said. Hargis sought, and was given, assurance by the event's organizers that Hirschmann will keep her remarks focused on her transformative religious experience.
To be clear, the Woodbury Prayer Breakfast is a private, nonprofit organization not affiliated with the city. Originally called the Woodbury Mayor's Prayer Breakfast, the name was changed several years ago to put even more distance from the city, a change Hargis welcomed.
"It's intended to be uplifting and unifying," Hargis said. "It's not a political event, but sometimes that gets confused, because you invite political people -- they are part of the community."
Rabin Bell agreed. "We're not political in any way, shape or form," she said. "We don't have a bent one way or the other -- this is simply about faith, and it's about freedom."
Jim Anderson • 612-673-7199