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Senate Chaplain: Religious Leader For Secular Flock

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Senate Chaplain: Religious Leader For Secular Flock

Religion

Senate Chaplain: Religious Leader For Secular Flock

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

When I began covering Congress a year ago, one of the first people I met on the job was the chaplain of the Senate, Barry C. Black. And in this part of the program, you'll get to know him a little bit better. Tall, with a shiny shaved head, Chaplain Black is always starched and pressed to the nines, with polka-dotted bow ties and complimenting pocket squares.

He takes long but quick strides as he makes his way to the chamber - and never skips an opportunity to greet everyone - everyone - from interns and maintenance people to clerks and Capitol Hill police.

Dr. BARRY C. BLACK (Chaplain, Senate): The guardians of liberty, hey. Good to see you.

CORNISH: Of course, he doesn't have the wiggle room to be late.

Unidentified Woman: The Senate will come to order. The Chaplain Dr. Barry Black will lead the Senate in prayer.

CORNISH: Because it's Chaplain Black who kicks off the show on the Senate floor.

Dr. BLACK: Oh God, from whom all noble desires and all good counsels do proceed, crown the deliberations of our lawmakers with spacious thinking and with sympathy for all humanity.

CORNISH: I wanted to learn more about this spiritual leader of this secular body, so I visited him in his office - a well-appointed room with high-arching ceilings with wall-to-wall mahogany bookcases, a reminder of the room's origins as the Senate library.

From this third-floor perch, the chaplain enjoys one of the best views of the National Mall's mosaic of cherry trees, museums and monuments. We sit down to talk. And during a sound check for his microphone, we asked Chaplain Black what he had for breakfast, and instead we get:

Dr. BLACK: Your children are not your children. 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.

CORNISH: That's from Poet Khalil Gibran's book, "The Prophet." Chaplain Black is full of nuggets like this - quotes, passages and verses from the gospels to Longfellow and even Barney Fife. It's a practice that he picked up from his mother, Pearline. She was a devout Christian and a Seventh Day Adventist raising eight children in Baltimore's public housing. Her husband, Lester Black, was a truck driver, away for long stints for work.

In Pearline's house, 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, such as that of the Reverend Peter Marshall, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, who served as Senate chaplain in the 1940s.

Dr. BLACK: I was eight years of age. My mother brought home a record, one of these big 78 records. My mother was a domestic and the woman for whom she worked had given her some records. And this was a narration, and so I put it on and I heard the words: the warming sun had been up for some hours over the city of David, and I was just absolutely drawn in.

Reverend PETER MARSHALL (Former Senator Chaplain):Already pilgrims and visitors were pouring in through the gates, mingling with merchants from the village's roundabout, with shepherds coming down from the hill and the narrow streets were crowded.

Dr. BLACK: And so, there's a wonderful kind of providence in the fact that not knowing that I was memorizing the words of the Senate chaplain I would one day be one of his successors.

CORNISH: Black went on to earn several college degrees. In the 1970s, he was preaching in North Carolina when he got to talking with two young black servicemen. 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 Admiral Barry Black, the first African-American to hold the position. It was there he learned to keep his prayers short, because his benedictions could only run as long as the first 45 seconds of the Navy hymn. It's one of many skills to come in handy since his 2003 appointment to the Senate, where he leads five bible study groups a week, offers spiritual counseling and, of course, is responsible for the daily prayer.

Dr. BLACK: Lord, lead our lawmakers on the road you have chosen. Guide them with your counsel and teach them with your precepts.

CORNISH: Sometimes in those prayers I notice there are sort of words about asking God to give them sort of guidance or providence. It's not just sort of God bless America. It seems like you're actually praying over the mechanics, the relationships in the Senate.

Dr. BLACK: A senator needs wisdom. A senator needs to be guided, supernaturally guided many times, on these issues. A senator is often dealing with issues where he or she isn't certain as to what he or she should do. I mean, senators will even come to me and ask me, you know, what do you think I should do on this thing? Senators actually get on their knees in their offices during the prayer.

CORNISH: We're talking with Chaplain Barry C. Black of the U.S. Senate. Chaplain Black, you almost occupy the exact space between church and state, and you are essentially a shepherd, and a religious shepherd, but for a secular flock. And what is that like, specifically on, say, the bible studies or some of the mentoring? How far reaching can that conversation be?

Dr. BLACK: Well, I think that almost any issue that you are debating, there are biblical aspects that can be discussed. For instance, when the health care bill as being debated in the chamber, the people at my bible study were from both sides of the aisle. And though we did not directly talk about the health care bill, I did a study on euthanasia and what the Bible says about end of life.

CORNISH: This would have been around the time where people were combating the term death panels.

Chaplain BLACK: That's correct.

CORNISH: And you actually kind of addressed this. You're...

Chaplain BLACK: Because the Bible does. And so, we were able to discuss that from a theological and a philosophical standpoint. So my Bible study themes come from what is actually going on on Capitol Hill.

CORNISH: At the same time, there are going to be a lot of our listeners who are going to say, I think it's inappropriate for there to be a pastor of any denomination offering his opinion to my senator, having that access that maybe I dont even have or I dont feel I have as a citizen. And is that appropriate?

Chaplain BLACK: Well, I would say to him or her that The Framers intended that that, guidance would be available to our lawmakers. And remember, the Establishment Clause says, Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. So, to have the opportunity of being advised from an ethical perspective, The Framers basically said we think it should be there and I think that's why it's here.

CORNISH: The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the position of chaplain in 1983. The practice of opening legislative sessions with a prayer goes back to the Founding Fathers at the Continental Congress in 1774. Congressional chaplains have been a mainstay almost continuously ever since. Part of that tradition also includes representing the Senate in churches and houses of worship off the Hill, as well.

(Soundbite of song, "I Surrender All")

CORNISH: We caught up with him at the Washington Brazilian Seventh-Day Adventist Church in College Park, Maryland

Chaplain BLACK: (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Chaplain BLACK: Let us pray. We surrender all, all to you, our blessed savior.

CORNISH: What is significant or valuable to you in coming to just a church in the community?

Chaplain BLACK: Well, you have to remember, this is my worship experience. So I need to worship. I need to have an opportunity to praise God. But because I am usually behind the pulpit, this is my umbilical cord and I really appreciate the opportunity.

CORNISH: An opportunity Chaplain Black takes four or five times a month, when he's invited to preach at various churches around the country. He also puts on events with other spiritual leaders throughout the year from rabbis to Muslims imams, and he does weddings, funerals and christenings for lawmakers, their families and their staff.

Chaplain, what is the thing that most surprised you about this job?

Chaplain BLACK: It was greater than I expected. The level of spirituality among many of the senators was greater than I expected it to be. And so that might be a pleasant surprise.

CORNISH: Appreciate you taking the time out to talk with us.

Chaplain BLACK: Ah, thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Barry C. Black is the 62nd chaplain of the United States Senate. Our story was produced by Walter Ray Watson. You can see pictures of the chaplain in action or read an excerpt from his memoir, "From the Hood to the Hill," at our Web site, NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

CORNISH: You are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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