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Senate Chaplain: Religious Leader For Secular Flock

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
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.

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.

When the health care bill was being debated in the chamber, the people at my Bible study were from both sides of the aisle.

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.

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

"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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
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