WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Rev. Barry Black jokes that God was preparing him to be the chaplain of the United States Senate before he knew how to spell "chaplain."
He was 8 when his mom brought home a recording of one of then-chaplain Peter Marshall’s sermons. He listened to the record so much that he could recite every word. More than six decades later, it’s still a source of inspiration.
"I have the album in my man cave at home to remind me of the providence in coming full circle," he said.
The Rev. Black, 70, was selected as the 62nd chaplain of the Senate in 2003, becoming the first African-American and first Seventh-day Adventist in the role. Before that, he spent nearly three decades in the Navy, rising to the position of chief of Navy chaplains.
As Senate chaplain, the Rev. Black is responsible for offering opening prayers each day the Senate is in session and for the spiritual care of around 7,000 people, including senators, staffers and janitors.
He's not supposed to be partisan, but that doesn't stop him from talking about politics.
"Save us from the madness," he prayed during a government shutdown in 2013. His fiery reflection was later spoofed on "Saturday Night Live."
During the most recent shutdown, he reminded senators of Luke 10:7, saying "Those who work deserve their pay."
On Jan. 30, the Rev. Black was honored by the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities as an outstanding Christian leader and offered a keynote address at the group's annual Presidents Conference. In his remarks, he celebrated Christian education, crediting his religious schooling and daily Bible study with making his career successes possible.
"I am Exhibit A for Christian education," he told the crowd of faith-based college and university presidents.
Ahead of the conference, the Rev. Black spoke with the Deseret News about his job duties, his most famous prayers and whether calls for political unity are working. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: Why does the Senate have a chaplain?
The Rev. Barry Black: In 1787 at the Continental Congress, participants ran into an impasse, so Benjamin Franklin suggested they pray.
They debated the idea — you rarely make a suggestion in a setting like that without facing debate — but eventually started praying.
In 1789, when the legislative branch came into existence, one of leaders’ first acts was to establish a chaplaincy. The chaplain position actually predates the establishment clause to the First Amendment. There has been almost uninterrupted prayer since 1789.
DN: How have the chaplain's duties evolved since then?
BB: Initially, the chaplain of Senate had a full-time job pastoring a church somewhere and so being chaplain was a part-time job. But eventually it became a full-time ministry.
Today, the chaplain convenes Senate sessions with prayer and also pastors to the approximately 7,000 people who work on the Senate side of Capitol Hill.
I do hospital visits. I’ve been with lawmakers on their deathbed and with them when they died. I’ve officiated funerals and memorial services. I do an awful lot of counseling.
I officiate at weddings and lead four Bible studies each week and two prayer breakfasts.
It’s a pastoral role in terms of providing for people what they would be able to get in their local churches if they were back home. Just as we have someone to take care of their physical needs in place of their personal physicians, we have a chaplain to take care of their spiritual needs.
DN: What's a typical day like for you?
BB: There really is not a typical day when you’re trying to be a pastor for 7,000 people. Your day starts by looking at the various requests that have come to you that you have no control over. There will be senators and staffers who want to come by and talk.
Remember, I’m not just dealing with the senators and their family members and staffers. I also provide pastoral support for the Capitol Police, waiters, waitresses and janitors.
I have to prepare my prayers and Bible studies. I deal with what my staff calls ‘fan mail.’ Around 40 times a year, I do speaking engagements away from Washington, D.C.
Each day is like jazz music. There’s a basic structure but there’s marvelous improvisation going on.
DN: How do you keep up with 7,000 people? Do senators get first dibs on your time?
BB: There’s no caste system. Obviously I’m very concerned about the request of a lawmaker and I would make that a priority. But from a spiritual position, Jesus was as concerned for the Samaritan woman at the well as he was for Nicodemus, who was probably a multi-millionaire.
So I try to look at the time that I have and to fit as many people in as possible. And it works.
DN: You don't shy away from making strong statements in your daily prayers. Do you worry about being too political?
BB: I think it’s my responsibility to be engaged in what is going on. It’s my responsibility to give a spiritual, biblical, ethical and moral perspective to political issues and what our lawmakers are going through.
During a government shutdown, members of our armed forces aren’t getting paid. That’s up close and personal for me, because I’m a retired Navy admiral.
What does the Bible say about that? In Luke 10:7, Jesus of Nazareth said those who work deserve to be paid. I remind our lawmakers of that biblical position.
My typical prayers aren’t that pointed. But when you have a government shutdown and the entire world is looking on and money is hemorrhaging and people are in need, I have to be a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves.
DN: Do you feel like your prayers make a difference?
BB: I’ve had senators tell me that they do.
DN: American politics is becoming more polarized. Does that affect your work?
BB: I think our lawmakers and representatives represent the sentiment and the pathos of the people they serve. These are more polarized times for everyone, so you’d expect some of that to reflect itself in the legislative process.
Remember, I don't just see senators when I pray. I meet with 25 to 30 of them from both sides of the aisle at a senators Bible study. I have multiple opportunities each week to remind senators of the importance of unity.
But, let’s put it this way, it could be worse. There was a time in our history when someone walked over from the House of Representatives and beat one of our senators into unconsciousness. There hasn’t been a caning on my watch so far.
DN: Nearly all members of Congress are religious today, but that could change in the future. Do you think there will come a time when we don't need a Senate chaplain?25 comments on this story
BB: I think the (Constitution’s) framers would say no. We’ve had some type of spiritual dimension to government for as long as this government has existed.
I believe that, even if you have a lot of agnostic leaders, spirituality is a national security issue. Psalm 127:1 says, "Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain. Unless the Lord keep the city, the guards who watch look in vain."
The framers wanted a separation of church and state, but they certainly did not want a separation of God and state.