Analysis | After 20 years as Senate chaplain, Barry Black still speaks ‘truth to power’

As a finalist for the position of chaplain, the Rev. Barry Black faced questions about being intimidated by senators. As chief chaplain of the Navy, Black politely replied, he had already ministered to secretaries of defense, top admirals and other senior military.

Besides, he talks every day to the highest power of all.

“Just because someone has four stars,” Black recalled from his 2003 job interview, “why would it intimidate someone who, before commuting to work, spoke to the one who created the stars? So, the connection with the transcendent certainly takes away the intimidation factor.”

Needless to say, Black got the job and more than 20 years later, he has emerged as a powerful institution within the institution. No one has served a longer, consecutive term ministering to the Senate, and if he stays on another four years, Black will be the most tenured Senate chaplain ever.

His flock extends to the 6,000 or so staff, police and administrative aides who work on the Senate side of the Capitol, but his bonds run deepest with the 100 senators who come from all faiths and backgrounds.

He has prayed with a young Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) deciding whether to run for president, and with Vice President Mike Pence as he faced the most consequential decision of his career as the sitting president attacked him over executing his constitutional role in the transition of presidential power.

His only mandatory duty comes at the start of each Senate session, an opening prayer. But Black occasionally uses these moments to implore action on major current events, as he did deep into a government shutdown when he declared “enough is enough.”

In March, when a shooter killed six people, including three 9-year-old children, at a church school in Nashville, Black abandoned his planned prayer and instead jabbed at Republican rejections of more gun control.

“When babies die at a church school, it is time for us to move beyond thoughts and prayers,” Black prayed from the rostrum.

In his opening prayer March 28, Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black called for lawmakers to take action a day after a shooter killed six people in Nashville. (Video: The Washington Post)

And when Pence asked him to deliver a closing prayer, early on the morning of Jan. 7, 2021, following the attack on the Capitol, Black made clear that President Trump’s words caused the riot.

“These tragedies have reminded us that words matter and that the power of life and death is the tongue,” he prayed after Congress certified President Biden’s victory.

If he were a senator himself, Black would rank 17th out of 100 in seniority. That he is the first non-White chaplain is lost on most senators, who due to his tenure really only know of one chaplain: The Reverend Black.

Senate chaplain Retired Navy Adm. Barry C. Black recognized President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the Dec. 15 opening prayer. (Video: C-SPAN)

At 74, he intends to stay on the job for years to come — technically an elected position, he’s already served with complete support from two Democratic and two Republican majority leaders. All signs point to a preacher whose clout is only growing.

“I speak the truth to power,” he said in an hour-long interview. He thought about the many events over the two decades he’s seen — and prayed over — from his third-floor office with a porthole-like window that provides a sweeping view of the National Mall.

“I have the joy of having to depend upon the wisdom of scripture and the power of what I consider the Holy Spirit,” he said, “to give me clarity on what the biblical admonition is regarding these issues.”

It’s pointless trying to pin down Black’s politics. He grew up in federal housing in the projects of Baltimore, benefiting from welfare programs and then government aide to attend Oakwood University, a historically Black Seventh-day Adventist college, where he received his first of many divinity degrees.

“I think my inner-city background has made me appreciate the power of government to make a difference,” he said. “The power of government to hold in check pathology.”

Yet after several years in private ministry, he became a Navy chaplain and spent more than 25 years inside a fairly conservative institution where he found inspiration from a beloved conservative.

“The Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, and at the end of one of his little speeches, [I] turned to my wife and said, ‘I think we’re going to be okay.’ I mean, a shining city on a hill,” Black said. “I know the power of government when it is properly used.”

What drives him is the Bible. The Bible. The Bible. The Bible.

“Scripture speaks to certain issues — homelessness, poverty, the value of a life,” said Sen. Jim Lankford (R-Okla.), a regular member of Black’s prayer groups. “Those are things that scripture speaks to, so he’s within his bounds to be able to speak out on areas of his own personal faith.”

Prayers come to Black any time of day, prompting him to grab his phone to dictate his thoughts into the collection of audio files that serve as a holy library.

Black devotes an hour a day to reading scripture. At one point he paused our interview to walk across the room and collect his Bible — with various sticky notes and bookmarks serving as reminders for certain passages — so he could demonstrate how he prays and why he speaks so deliberately when opening the Senate.

“You read very, very slowly. They call it lectio devina and lectio continua,” he said, citing the Latin phrases for meditational prayer. “So you read continuously through scripture very slowly.”

He then took seven long seconds to read from the Book of Psalms: “The Lord is King, let the earth rejoice.”

Yet for all his ministerial ways, Black moves seamlessly into pop culture, quoting characters from “Casablanca” and “The Godfather,” the cartoon movie series “Kung Fu Panda,” and country music singer George Strait.

Black has used the prophet Nathan’s technique to at times shame senators or military officers when they’ve done wrong. Nathan confronted King David, after his affair with Bathsheba and murdering her husband, by indirectly telling him the story of a rich, powerful man who murdered a poor person’s only lamb. It outraged David, just as Black’s own tales anger senators.

“Tell a story,” Black said, “before you say ‘you are that man in the story.’”

The chaplain’s view down the Mall on Jan. 6, 2021, looked familiar, but in a menacing way.

“It looked like an inauguration size crowd was on its way there. And I know enough about the military, so this looks like 10-to-1 in terms of being outnumbered,” Black recalled of the moments before a Capitol Police officer moved him underground and into a secure hearing room across the street.

Inside that room, senators lined up to talk with Black and pray, almost like a mafia boss receiving line as underlings come by to kiss the ring. “I felt like Michael Corleone at one point,” he quipped.

Finally, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) quieted the room and asked the chaplain to deliver a prayer for everyone. The extemporaneous offering cited Romans in the New Testament, thanking God for looking after the huddled group of lawmakers and staff, but it also referenced a fortifying Old Testament verse from Isaiah.

“No weapon formed against us will be able to prosper,” Black prayed.

Just before 4 a.m., when the joint-session of Congress had finished in the House chamber, Pence asked Black to deliver a closing prayer for which he had no real preparation. “Whatever the Holy Spirit puts on your heart,” Pence told him, Black recalled.

After blaming Trump’s words for inciting the riot, Black thanked the lawmakers for standing up “against all enemies, domestic as well as foreign.”

When he prays, does God ever explain why the Capitol seems so screwed up these days?

“In everything, God is working for the good,” Black responded, citing the Apostle Paul in Romans. “It tells me that God’s primary business is not to make me happy, it’s not to give me kumbaya moments repeatedly. I mean, the legislative process is adversarial by nature.”

Most weeks aren’t so dramatic. Just chock full with four Bible studies, including two open to anyone in the Capitol, along with a Wednesday bipartisan prayer breakfast with senators.

Black visits lawmakers and staff in hospitals, serves at weddings and funerals. He appreciates the “pluralistic ministry” the Navy and Senate have provided, a sharp reversal from a childhood and early adult life spent attending and pastoring Black-only churches.

“I don’t like silos. I don’t like denominations,” he said.

Black provides a safe space for intimate discussions among senators that sometimes touch on policy but often focus on the tension in their lives.

“Look, most of us who spend time with him are thirsty for an environment that allows for vulnerability, for genuine conversation about family, about the stressors in our lives and about remaining grounded. And he focuses on that,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a graduate of Yale Divinity School.

Black knows that his sessions provide a balm, however temporary, from a Senate that increasingly mirrors the politically polarized outside world.

“It’s very difficult to stand, join hands at the end of a prayer breakfast, pray together and then go up to the chamber and insult one of the lawmakers you just prayed with,” one senator told Black. “Not impossible, but difficult.”

In late 2004, a young African American man walked into Black’s orientation session for new senators and the pastor admittedly couldn’t see how quick the star would shine.

“He looked like a teenager to me,” he said, never believing America would elect a Black president, let alone someone the reverend would come to know so well. “God has blessed the Doubting Thomas in me.”

Black gave the benediction at Obama’s first inaugural luncheon, the first Black chaplain praying for the first Black president. A formal 65th birthday letter is framed next to the chaplain’s office front door, with the presidential seal, but Obama inscribed a handwritten tribute to make sure the chaplain knew it wasn’t some auto-pen note.

“You continue to inspire,” the president wrote.

Black believes that his younger self would have spoken “truth to power” about the Christian-school shooting or the Capitol attack, but he acknowledges that it wouldn’t have been heard the same way. All these years praying with senators — two future presidents, the current vice president — gives him what Aristotle called “ethos” in terms of how people perceive your words.

“That takes time to build that kind of trust,” he said. “It can’t be your first rodeo.”

He’s prayed many times asking if, borrowing from one of Strait’s famous songs, whether “this is where the cowboy rides away.”

“No, no, no,” the Lord replies each time, Black said. “We’re just getting started.”

When he stares out the porthole looking across the West Front of the Capitol, Black doesn’t think of the angry mob attempting an insurrection. He looks down past the Washington Monument and to the Lincoln Memorial, where he conjures the image of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “March on Washington” — which his wife of 50 years, Brenda, attended in 1963.

“I owe so much to this nation and my God,” Black said of his perch, from which he sees history unfold. “This is as iconic as it comes.”

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