Senate Chaplain: Religious Leader For Secular Flock

Chaplain Barry Black prays with his staff before delivering the prayer to the Senate i i

Senate Chaplain Barry Black (second from right) prays with his staff before delivering the prayer to open the legislative day of the U.S. Senate. Walter Ray Watson/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Walter Ray Watson/NPR
Chaplain Barry Black prays with his staff before delivering the prayer to the Senate

Senate Chaplain Barry Black (second from right) prays with his staff before delivering the prayer to open the legislative day of the U.S. Senate.

Walter Ray Watson/NPR

Most mornings, after the gavel is struck in the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill, a prayer is offered in that most secular body — a practice that goes back to the founding fathers at the Continental Congress in 1774.

Chaplain Barry C. Black delivers the prayer, offering up some of the first words heard each day in the chamber.

Black works from an office in the Capitol building, a well-appointed room with high, arched ceilings and wall-to-wall mahogany bookcases. Compared with the number of people working for senators, the chaplain's staff is downright humble. He has an executive assistant, a director of communications and a chief of staff.

But from this third-floor perch in the Capitol building, Black enjoys one of the best views of the National Mall's mosaic of cherry trees, museums and monuments.

Biblical Analysis For Earthly Decisions

The role the chaplain performs for the Senate stands almost at the meeting point between church and state. He's a religious leader and shepherd to what is essentially a secular flock. This includes the Senate lawmakers, their families and their staffs, as well as all the other people who work on the Senate side of the Capitol — nearly 6,000 people in all.

His job entails coordinating events with other spiritual leaders throughout the year, from rabbis to Muslim imams. He officiates at weddings, funerals and christenings for lawmakers, their families and their staffs, and offers one-on-one counseling on matters both spiritual and private.

He also leads five Bible study groups each week, including one that is made up of just senators. Black says he thinks that for almost any issue the Senate is debating, there are biblical aspects that can be discussed in the study groups he holds.

"For instance, when the health care bill was being debated in the chamber, the people at my Bible study were from both sides of the aisle," Black says. "And though we did not talk directly about the health care bill, I did a study on euthanasia and what the Bible says about 'end of life.' "

That particular Bible study he led for senators occurred around the time last year that the term "death panels" was bandied about by opponents of the health care legislation. Black addressed the death panels discussion, he says, because the Bible addresses it.

"My Bible themes come from what is actually going on, on Capitol Hill," Black says.

A Job Backed By The Founding Fathers

Though pending legislation sometimes informs the topics of his teachings, the chaplain says his position is nonpartisan and nonsectarian. While offering prayers on the floor of the Senate and in leading Bible study groups, he says he doesn't give his personal opinion on public policy or legislation. But if a senator asks him, Black will speak his mind, behind closed doors.

This raises a question: How appropriate is this practice of chaplains giving senators their opinions? Is it inappropriate to have this extraordinary access? Access that citizens — voters who elected senators — don't enjoy?

Black says the framers of the Constitution intended that guidance be available to the nation's lawmakers.

Chaplain Barry Black  reads from a prayer in his office i i

Black reads over a prayer in his office. He is the 62nd Chaplain of the U.S. Senate. Walter Ray Watson/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Walter Ray Watson/NPR
Chaplain Barry Black  reads from a prayer in his office

Black reads over a prayer in his office. He is the 62nd Chaplain of the U.S. Senate.

Walter Ray Watson/NPR

"And remember, the establishment clause says: 'Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' " Black says. "So to have the opportunity of being advised from an ethical perspective, the framers basically said we think we should be there."

The Path To Senate Chaplain

The chaplain is full of nuggets, quotes from speeches, verses from the Gospels, passages from Longfellow and even the wisdom of Barney Fife.

"Your children are not your children," he recites from The Prophet without notes. "They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself. They come through you, but not from you, and though they are with you, they do not belong to you."

Black learned the practice of memorizing from his mother, Pearline Buck Black, a devout Christian and Seventh-day Adventist. She raised her eight children in Baltimore's public housing with her husband, Lester Black, who was a truck driver.

In Pearline's home, any of her children could earn a nickel for memorizing a Bible verse. But it was young Barry who began memorizing the sermons of famous preachers, including Peter Marshall, a Scottish-born Presbyterian minister who also served as Senate chaplain.

But Black says he didn't even know Congress had chaplains until he was in his 20s in college.

Black picked up several college degrees before he became a preacher. He was told he was too young to be assigned his own congregation within the Seventh-day Adventist church, so he became a traveling minister.

In the 1970s, he was preaching in North Carolina when he encountered two young black servicemen who visited from the Norfolk, Va., area, regularly driving three to four hours to hear him. When he asked why they'd come so far, they mentioned that in the Navy, they'd never seen an African-American chaplain.

This planted a seed — and inspired Black to join the Navy shortly after.

Two decades later, he was Rear Adm. Barry Black, and a chief of chaplains — the first African American to hold the position.

In 2003, he was appointed to the Senate, where he says his job has given him "a pleasant surprise."

"The level of spirituality of many of the senators was greater than I expected [it] to be," Black says.

Excerpt: 'From The Hood To The Hill'

Barry C. Black book cover

Chapter 21

Going to the Senate

They were thick old LPs, and I had played them so many times that they were turning scratchy. My mother had been given this record album set when I was a small boy—two sermons by Peter Marshall, the Senate chaplain from 1947 to 1949. At that time, not only did I not know who Peter Marshall was but also I didn't know the Senate even had a chaplain. One thing I did know: Marshall's lyrical language mesmerized me. Having memorized those sermons, I would recite whole paragraphs when I was with my inner-city friends, even imitating his Scottish accent. I never dreamed I would one day stand where Peter Marshall stood. God not only has a sense of humor, but He can also open doors that no mortal can shut.

Meeting Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie

As it turned out, my fascination would be gripped early on by still another Senate chaplain. As a young civilian pastor, I had watched Dr. Lloyd John Ogilvie's religious TV broadcasts while he was still pastor of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church. I was deeply impressed by the freedom of his preaching and his ability to communicate without notes. Each week, I learned more about successful speaking.

Finally after serving in the Navy for seventeen years, I had the chance to meet him at a military prayer breakfast. By then he had become the sixty-first chaplain of the United States Senate. I sat next to him on the dais, amazed by his humility and spirituality. After we chatted over lunch, he stood behind the podium to speak. Gently, he placed an absolutely blank index card on the podium and began his lyrical message. To the audience, who saw him glance occasionally at the card, he seemed to have notes. But I knew better. He delivered his masterful message from memory.

A few years later, Dr. Ogilvie invited me to the Senate to offer the opening invocation. This was a great honor, and I prepared and delivered my prayer carefully. He then invited me to his office at the Capitol, and for the first time, I saw that office's magnificent view of the city, with the Washington Monument straight ahead. The beauty was breathtaking.

Dr. Ogilvie was no stranger to the effect this view had on his visitors. He placed a hand on my shoulder. "Barry," he told me, "if a person can't pray for the nation with a view like this, something is seriously wrong."

I chuckled and nodded.

The more I saw of Dr. Ogilvie, the greater my respect grew. One weekday in Washington, DC, he was giving a lecture to our Coast Guard chaplains about "passion in preaching." His remarks were insightful and inspirational, and his attentive audience took copious notes. He mentioned in his message that his wife was critically ill in a D.C. hospital. At the end of his presentation, I suggested that we pray for his wife, Mary Jane. I asked him to permit our chaplains to surround him as he knelt and to lay hands upon him. Humbly, the chaplain of the United States Senate knelt on a hotel floor and permitted very junior military officer chaplains to intercede to God on his and his wife's behalf. Tears came to my eyes. This powerful preacher, who had swayed the nation with his television sermons, and who now infused spiritual power into the world's most powerful halls, proved himself touchingly vulnerable that day. I knew then the wisdom of Proverbs 18:12: "Before honour is humility" (KJV). God had marvelously honored Dr. Ogilvie with consummate talents and positions, but it was Lloyd's humility that had qualified him for such promotion.

The John F. Kennedy Jr. Funeral

As the deputy chief of Navy chaplains, I came to live in D.C., where a series of events began to thrust me into the spotlight. One week my boss took some much-needed leave and left me in charge as acting chief of chaplains.

That Monday morning, as I entered my office, my secretary gestured to me. "Senator Edward Kennedy is on the line," she whispered. "He'd like to speak to you."

I picked up the phone and heard a familiar New England accent. "Chaplain Black," said the senator. "You've probably heard that John's plane is missing, and we're preparing for the possibility of a tragedy. Can you help me?"

"Senator," I replied, "please tell me what you need."

"I'll need your assistance for a possible burial at sea."

"Senator," I responded, "if it can be done, I'll make it happen. Please don't concern yourself with any of the logistics. We'll do what we can." And we did just that. Working through Secretary of Defense William Cohen's office, we received permission for the burial. Navy protocol allows sea burial of the children of decorated war veterans, so permission for the service was quickly granted. Unfortunately, the John F. Kennedy was unavailable and couldn't steam to where we needed it in time, so the USS Briscoe was provided.

Meanwhile, I mobilized our Coast Guard chaplains to be ready for the worst news, and we soon learned of the sad loss of three fine young people: John Jr.; his wife, Carolyn; and her sister, Lauren. I became the action officer for this sad event and the senior military officer aboard the USS Briscoe for the service. Accompanied by three other chaplains, we waited aboard for the arrival of the families and the urns.

When the urns arrived, it was my sad task to carry them aboard. Our chaplains had the privilege of mingling with the families for several hours before and after the actual burial at sea. I spent time with Richard and Ann Freeman, the stepfather and mother of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her sister, Lauren. I knew that two families were in great pain and wanted to ensure that each received a ministry outreach. Seeing Lisa Bessette was particularly poignant because she is Lauren's identical twin. I later said the committal prayer as the ashes of America's prince, and two lovely young women, were swallowed by the sea.

This was a great honor for me. President John F. Kennedy had been one of my heroes, and I fondly remembered the excitement of his presidency. I remembered seeing the wonderful photographs of John and Caroline and their parents in the White House. Now I had the deeply moving honor of seeking to say thank you to a great family by offering scriptural and pastoral support. Although my picture appeared in several newspapers, numerous media requests for interviews were turned down. I felt the Kennedy family deserved privacy. Nonetheless, some of the tabloids fabricated their own accounts of this funeral at sea, even making up a prayer that I had supposedly prayed.

Excerpted from From the Hood to the Hill: A Story Of Overcoming by Barry C. Black. Copyright © 2006 Excerpted by permission of Barry C. Black. Published by Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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A Story of Overcoming

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