Q&A with Barry Black, Chaplain of the U.S. Senate
BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Barry C. Black, why did you want to be Chaplain of the United States Senate?
BARRY BLACK, CHAPLAIN, UNITED STATES SENATE: Well, it was actually not something that I dreamed about doing. I became fairly serious about becoming the Chaplain of the United States Senate after being invited to offer a prayer as a guest chaplain when I was the Chief of Chaplains for the Navy. And that is when the first possibility of being the Chaplain of the United States Senate was conceived in my spirit.
LAMB: Explain what the job is.
BLACK: You are the pastor, Brian, for 7,000 people who work on the Senate side of Capitol Hill. So, you’re not just providing ministry for the 100 Senators and the members of their family, but for the staffers and the many other people who work on Capitol Hill – the janitors, the Capitol Police, the journalists. I mean you are a pastor for these individuals.
I conduct five Bible studies a week. One is just for the Senators, another for the spouses of the Senators. I conduct a third for the Chiefs of Staff – these key administrators, and then two plenary Bible studies where anyone who desires to attend may do so and we can get as many as 200 people attending our plenary Bible study.
I conduct a spiritual mentoring class which is a 10-day program attempting to help people master the spiritual disciplines. It’s a smaller venue than the big Bible study because I want a give and take that I don’t have the opportunity to have in the larger Bible studies. I officiate at weddings, I officiate at funerals, I do premarital counseling, marriage enrichment training, leadership training. So, the many, many things that a pastor of a very large congregation would do, that is what this job is about.
LAMB: Where do you do the Bible study sessions?
BLACK: I have Bible studies in different places. The Bible study for the Senators is held in the Capitol. The Bible study for the – and the spouses of the Senators in the Capitol as well. For the Chiefs of Staff, that’s held in Russell. For the plenary Bible studies, one is held actually at Postal Square on the sixth floor and another is held in Dirksen. So, we spread the wealth.
LAMB: Can the general public attend any of these?
BLACK: Well, I don’t know that we would actually have room if the general public came in, but there are people who have begun to come who do not work on Capitol Hill, but they come because they’re very excited about learning the Bible.
LAMB: What kind of attendance do you have with the Senators?
BLACK: Eight or nine Senators for the Bible study. We also have a Prayer Breakfast each week for the Senators and you can get 20 to 25 Senators at that. So, eight or nine at the Bible study, 20 to 25 at the Prayer Breakfast. That’s a fairly significant percentage of the Senators taking time out of their busy week – an entire hour for either one of those – to participate in something spiritual.
I think one of the little known facts about the Senate is the level of spirituality among Senators. The Apostle Paul in Philippians 4 said, ”There are saints in Caesar’s household.” And many people believe he was actually talking about the Emperor Nero. So, if Nero had saints in his household, you can – you can expect some spiritually fit individuals on Capitol Hill as well. And it’s very interesting because Senators from both sides of the aisle participate in the Prayer Breakfasts and in the Bible study.
LAMB: I wrote this quote down from somewhere, either your book or somewhere where you were speaking. ”I think my lawmakers are tempted by the sin of cynicism.” Is cynicism a sin?
BLACK: Well, I think that the definition for sin – one definition is in James 4. It says, ”Sin is the transgression of the law.” And we know that doubting the power of God to extricate you from various challenges and predicaments, that’s a part of cynicism. The Great Commandment is ”Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” But Children of Israel, journeying from Egypt to Canaan, murmured, complained, and manifested cynicism, and they did not enter into the Promised Land because of that. So, I think that cynicism is at least a transgression of the spirit of the law, if not the letter of the law, and therefore I would call it a sin.
LAMB: How do you see cynicism in United States Senators and when and where?
BLACK: Well, I think that there are times when the legislative process is laborious and predictable, and I think particularly when issues are debated and it appears that the parties going into polarized lockstep where there’s almost an attitude, ”Don’t confuse me with the facts.” That can many times engender a spirit of cynicism. You’re basically saying, ”Why are we debating?” I had one Senator tell me when there was a debate going on, he said, ”Chaplain, this is just hot air.”
Well, that’s kind of a cynical way of looking at it. And then he predicted what the vote would be two days later, and he hit it right on the number. This was very early in my – in my time as the Chaplain and I was just astonished because I said, ”The debates haven’t finished yet. How can you know what the numbers are?” But he did. And I think many times that kind of process can engender a spirit of cynicism.
LAMB: You’re the Sixty-Second Chaplain of the United States Senate. There’ve been around that same number in the United States House. In all those years, there have been two Roman Catholics, no Jews, and one Seventh-Day Adventist – you. How does the process work and is somebody’s denomination of any significance?
BLACK: I don’t think so. I think that the first nine or ten Chaplains in the Senate were Episcopalian and I think that the framers and the people who were selecting these chaplains were interested in individuals who could write and read prayers, for one thing. And so they selected liturgical Protestants rather than the more spontaneous impromptu or extemporaneous utterances of the non-liturgical Protestants like a Baptist or a Pentecostal.
So, I think the fact that the early track record consisted of liturgical Protestants is more indicative of the fact of the kind of chaplain they were hoping would provide ministry to the legislative body. The Senate ended up with two Unitarians, also, which is – which is not really very conventional.
So, I think the focus is on the actual selection process where Senators nominate chaplains to be interviewed and it’s a matter of chemistry between the interviewer and the – and the interviewee. The bottom line is this is an individual I feel comfortable with and I think will do a good job in providing ministry. I did not get the sense when I was interviewed for the job that denomination was a critical variable at all.
LAMB: Who – what senator interviewed you?
BLACK: Well, I was actually interviewed by an eight-member Senate selection committee, so it was a group of senators from a wide variety of religious traditions, including Jewish.
LAMB: Can you tell us who they were?
BLACK: Well, I would rather not mention – my old military training, I’d rather not mention the names of the senators on the – on the – on the selection committee.
LAMB: Who designated those eight?
BLACK: Well, I think they were selected probably by the Majority Leader at the time, Dr. Bill Frist. It was a three-interview process. The first interview there – a significant number of ministers, priest, and rabbis were interviewed. It was winnowed down to about ten. A second interview involved very specific questions regarding the strategic direction that you would take the Chaplain’s Department if you were the selectee. And then the ten were whittled down to two, and the two had an extended interview with Dr. Frist, a Renaissance man. Two hours – no notes, just sitting and talking with him for two hours. And then he is the one who made the final determination as to who would be appointed as the Sixty-Second Chaplain of the Senate. And I think the process had been similar for a number of decades.
LAMB: OK, this is – it sounds like a nasty question, but it’s not meant to be. If somebody wanted to move you out of there or let’s just say the Senate did, how does that process work and how long – I mean I know you started in 2003 – how long is your term?
BLACK: Well, it’s an open-ended appointment so that when there is a change in the Majority in the Senate, there is not a change in the Chaplain. There’s a change usually in the Secretary of the Senate and the Sergeant-At-Arms, but not a change in the Chaplain. One chaplain, Chaplain Frederick Harris – Peter Marshall, the iconic Peter Marshall successor, was there for 25 years. He was there five years before Marshall providing ministry to the Senate, and then a number of Senators had begun to attend Marshall’s church, and hearing the lyrical eloquence of this – of this Scottish preacher. And so they went to Harris and said, ”Would you mind stepping down so that Dr. Marshall could become the Chaplain of the Senate?” And Harris said, ”Not at all.” So, it was a wonderful spirit.
Marshall became Chaplain of the Senate in 1947 and although because of the book and the movie, ”A Man Called Peter,” most people think that he was there forever, he was – he was there for less than two years and died and then they went back to Harris and said, ”Dr. Harris, would you mind coming back and becoming Chaplain of the Senate?” Not a problem and he came back for 20 years, so for a quarter of a century – five before Peter Marshall and 20 after Marshall – Harris provided ministry.
I think if a Chaplain sensed that his or her ministry was no longer effective, I don’t think that Chaplain would have any problem stepping down. But I think the way it’s set up now, the open-ended appointment, barring felonious conduct and ineptitude, I think a Chaplain can pretty much stay for as long as he or she desires. And the fact is that most of the Chaplains have stayed almost to the point of death. Dr. Halverson died shortly after he retired. I mean – and to me, that’s indicative of the fact of how much they really enjoyed the job, that even through illness they continued to provide ministry. It is really an exciting ministry opportunity and I don’t see anyone just walking away voluntarily.
LAMB: Where’s your office?
BLACK: My office is on the third floor of the Capitol, overlooking the Mall, so the Washington Monument is straight ahead. I can actually sit at my desk and watch the Inauguration of the President. I can watch the Fourth of July fireworks. I can watch the New Years’ Eve fireworks, you know just sitting there at my desk. It is one of the most beatific views I think anywhere in the world, and I, in my Navy experience, I’ve seen a lot of beauty, but that to me is just absolutely gorgeous. When I first came and offered a prayer as a Guest Chaplain, I didn’t get a chance to see the Chaplain’s Office. Dr. Lloyd John Ogilvie, a great, great man, was the Chaplain of the Senate at the time.
The second time I was invited as a Guest Chaplain, he asked me to come up and visit with him in the office, and I walked through the door and I saw the Washington Monument straight ahead. It was a beautiful clear Washington day and I was absolutely mesmerized by the view. It was – I mean I just felt goose bumps all over. It was just absolutely amazing.
Dr. Ogilvie put a hand on my shoulder and with that amazing baritone voice, he said, ”Barry, if a man can’t pray for the nation with a view like this, something is seriously wrong.” And we just chuckled together. But I – my office is the old Senate Library, so I had these beautiful mahogany bookcases around the wall and my wife has repeatedly, through the decades of our marriage, accused me of what she calls ”bookaholism.” We’ve reached a point in our marriage now where every new book I bring home, I have to get rid of one of my old books. I probably have a library of over 10,000 books. And so I’ve begun to smuggle books into the house now. It’s a shame.
But it’s on the third floor and these beautiful mahogany bookcases filled with books from home and then this amazing view, it’s a wonderful place to write prayers and to prepare Bible studies and sermons and I can’t wait to get to work in the morning.
LAMB: How many people work for you?
BLACK: I have three people on my staff – a Chief-of-Staff, who was my Executive Assistant when I was Chief of Chaplains for the Navy, Dr. Alan Keiran, one of the best administrators I’ve ever met; a Communications Director, Lisa Schultz; and an Executive Assistant, Jodie Spraggins.
LAMB: And your duties as far as the Senate itself is concerned, how often do you give a prayer?
BLACK: Each time the Senate convenes, I open with an invocation, but there are also many other times that I will also offer a prayer because there are meetings and functions in the – in the Senate where I have an opportunity to offer an invocation or a benediction. When there’s a Congressional Medal of Freedom, I offer an invocation. When there’s a new statue placed in Statuary Hall, I offer an invocation or a benediction. When there is a state funeral, I offer a prayer. For Ronald Reagan’s State funeral, for Gerald Ford’s State funeral, I offered a prayer. When Rosa Parks was lying in honor, I offered a prayer.
So, there are many other opportunities to offer prayers. And then there are many, many things happening in Washington where the services of the Senate Chaplain are solicited to assist with prayers.
LAMB: How long is your opening prayer in the Senate every day and do you write them?
BLACK: I write all of my prayers and I try – I try to stay within the one-minute mark when I write them out. I actually will time them sometimes. I like between 45 seconds and a minute. And that’s probably to some extent because of my Navy experience. In the Navy, most of the invocations and benedictions were offered while ”The Eternal Father,” the Navy Hymn, was being played. And the first stanza of ”The Eternal Father” is about 45 seconds, so you became accustomed to hearing that – the beautiful strains of music and coming down to the conclusion and you galloped on to the finish line. So, a little bit of that has to, I think, affects my prayer.
LAMB: Here you are giving the prayer on March 2 of this year.
VIDEOTAPE – BARRY BLACK: Let us pray. Oh Merciful Lord, we thank you for the refreshment and accomplishments of our time away and for your clear, shining, inward light that directs our steps. May the members of this body feel your peace and power today, restrain wandering thoughts, and break in pieces those temptations that lead them away from your will. Lord, join our Senators to yourself with an inseparable bond of love, for you alone truly satisfy. Grant that their love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight so that they may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless when they stand before you.
Lord, this is the first time in nearly 50 years that the Senate will convene without Senator Edward Kennedy as one of its members. Thank you for his life and legacy. We pray in your sovereign name. Amen.
LAMB: That was actually September 8. I had the wrong date on it – of this year. Little longer than normal?
BLACK: I don’t know. What was the time on that?
LAMB: I think it was a minute 49 seconds.
BLACK: OK, well, maybe it was because of the fact that I was mentioning the Senator and that was added on to what I normally would do, but I think it’s a little longer than normal, yes.
LAMB: How often do you single out a senator?
BLACK: I think if we – if a senator dies obviously that is something that I would mention. If there is a serious sickness in the family, I might lift that individual in the senator’s family in prayer as well. It doesn’t happen very often.
LAMB: I ran across a word I’d never seen before in looking at your background. Homiletician?
LAMB: And at the same time – and this takes me back to my schooling – Monroe’s Motivated Sequence. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anybody use it but you.
BLACK: Oh, yes. Alan Monroe.
LAMB: Explain – what’s a homiletician?
BLACK: Well, the study or science of sermon preparation is called homiletics. And a homiletician is a teacher or professor or an educator who is dedicated to the science of homiletics, teaching men and women how to prepare sermons. When I was in seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan, my seminary professor taught Alan Monroe’s Motivated Sequence, which is a marvelous way of presenting a persuasive argument or message – attention need satisfaction visualization. And that is something that I’ve used in writing expository essays and obviously in writing books and in writing – in writing prayers as well.
LAMB: Go back to the beginning. Where were you born?
BLACK: I grew up in southwest Baltimore, so right up the street almost from D.C.
LAMB: In your book, you say that you were thrown out of your home three times in your life. Explain.
BLACK: Well, we were in a – we were in a difficult situation. One of the reasons why I call my book ”From the Hood to the Hill” is because we grew up in the hood. We grew up in the toxic pathology of an inner city ghetto. There were prostitutes on the corner, there were drug pushers, there was domestic violence that you could see sitting on the steps of your – of your home. So, it was a very challenging situation.
And my mother, who for a significant portion of my life was on public assistance, would often have difficulty paying the rent and ensuring that her children matriculated at Christian schools because my seven siblings and I all matriculated at Christian schools from grade 1 all the way through graduate school. So, to pull this off, many times she couldn’t pay the rent, and when you don’t pay the rent, you will be evicted. And so, three times in my life, I came home from my nice Christian school to find our furniture out on the street.
LAMB: What happened then?
BLACK: Well, it was rather embarrassing because I don’t think as a child the trauma of being evicted is great because you don’t know where you’re going to be staying. I think you’re embarrassed by just how little you actually have. And so now the neighbors can see. You know, ”Oh my god, I knew we were poor, but is this really it?” So, it’s – for me as a child, it was more of an embarrassment than a concern about where will – where will we stay. And of course, we had relatives in Baltimore, so inevitably, the old philosophy of any port in a storm, we would end up staying with relatives, sometimes sleeping three or four to a bed until my mother could locate another port.
LAMB: How many children did your mother have?
BLACK: My mom had eight.
LAMB: What’d your mom do?
BLACK: My mother was a domestic. She scrubbed floors and ironed clothing for $6 a day.
LAMB: Your father?
BLACK: My father was a long-distance truck driver and something of a nomad. He was in and out. So, the first five children had a very tenuous relationship at best with him. The third – the second group – the three – the final three had a much greater bond with him. It was very interesting because at his funeral, the first five, and I was in that group, we were almost stoical. I mean we really didn’t know him very well. And the other three were almost inconsolable.
So, he came home at the eleventh hour and did a fairly decent job parenting the second group. But he was gone most of – most of my life. By the time I left Baltimore to go away to a boarding school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania in the eleventh grade, I had had very little substantive interaction with my father.
LAMB: I don’t have the quote in front of me, but I read in one of the Seventh-Day Adventist publications that – and this is really just by memory – something to the effect that Barry Black became Chief of Chaplain and also Chaplain of the United States Senate something that we’ll probably never see again in our history, meaning the Seventh-Day Adventist. How – why is that at all controversial and why are they so surprised that they have somebody in your spot?
BLACK: Well, I don’t know that I agree with that conclusion, but James Madison, who supported the establishing of the legislative chaplaincy in 1789, when he retired, he wrote something called ”Practical Memoranda” where he just mused about various political machinations. And Madison said, ”I’m not sure that having a legislative chaplaincy was a good idea,” he said. ”And one of the reasons is I think that the selection process is sufficiently political that we will never have a Roman Catholic and we will never have a member from a minority denomination selected as a chaplain in the legislative branch.”
Now, I think it’s great to see that our framers were not omniscient because he was wrong. We’ve had a couple Unitarians, Seventh-Day Adventists, and we’ve had a couple of Roman Catholics. So, I think it is probably that mindset of senators nominate the people who will be interviewed for the job of Chaplain of the Senate, you usually nominate people you’re familiar with, so you’re going to be nominating people from your denomination, and because we haven’t had – I don’t know if we’ve ever had a Seventh-Day Adventist senator, the likelihood of a senator nominating someone who is Seventh-Day Adventist would be slim to none.
But I think my case proves that that’s not necessarily valid.
LAMB: Correct me if my memory’s wrong – 25 Catholics, 13 Jews, and the rest Protestants.
BLACK: Yes, I think that’s true.
LAMB: Go back to your mother. I read this, but I gather that she became a Seventh-Day Adventist because of one happenstance.
BLACK: Yes. My mother was the daughter of a South Carolina sharecropper. She only had a fourth-grade education. She migrated to Baltimore and she was having a very challenging time. Someone placed an evangelistic handbill in her mailbox, and the title of the sermon that the evangelist used as bait to get the people to come out and hear him preach was ”The Day Money Will Be Thrown in the Streets of Baltimore, Maryland and No One Will Stop to Pick It Up.”
Well, my mother, in recounting the story, said she thought to herself, ”I’m not even going to stay for the whole service. I just want to know when is the money going to be thrown and where will it be thrown because I know at least one person who will stop to pick it up. She went to the meeting and of course it was a meeting on Bible prophecy.
She was drawn into the superb scriptural exposition of the evangelist and eventually I guess about 12 weeks later – were very long evangelistic meetings in those days – she was baptized as a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. And as she entered the water, she was pregnant with her fourth child, she prayed that the Holy Spirit would place a special anointing or consecration on her unborn child. And I was that child.
So, I cannot think of a time in my life when I did not want to pursue the ministry. As far back as I can remember, that is all I’ve ever wanted to do. There has not been another rival in my vocational affection and I believe to some extent it was because of the consecration I received when my mother was baptized in a meeting where the bait was ”The Day Money Will Be Thrown In the Streets of Baltimore, Maryland and No One Will Stop to Pick It Up.”
LAMB: What makes a Seventh-Day Adventist not in the mainstream?
BLACK: Well, I think what makes a Seventh-Day Adventist not in the mainstream is probably a lack of understanding of what the doctrines of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church consist of. I think if you looked at Evangelical Protestantism, most of the doctrines a Seventh-Day Adventist would be able to give a fervent ”Amen” to.
In fact, if you look at the Apostles’ Creed, a Seventh-Day Adventist reciting the Apostles’ Creed would say a fervent ”Amen” to every ”I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, in Jesus Christ, His Only Son, Our Lord. Do they believe in the deity of Christ, conceived of the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified – ” the entire Apostles’ Creed, there is nothing in that Creed that a Seventh-Day Adventist would not say, ”I believe that. Amen. Amen.”
But I think because Seventh-Day Adventists teach something that is very different from the mainstream, and that is that the sanctity of the Sabbath Day which we are enjoined to keep in the Fourth Commandment, Exodus 20:8, ”Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy, six days shalt thou labor,” et cetera. The Seventh-Day Adventist Church teaches that that sanctity was never changed, and so we worship, as do Orthodox Jews, on – from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday as our Sabbath. That many folk would say – would take us out of the mainstream.
There’s also the fact that we still eat according to the Old Testament, and so the hit list in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 of certain foods, Seventh-Day Adventists would not eat those foods. And so that health emphasis would also some would say, would be out of the mainstream. But from my perspective, that’s a very small percentage of doctrine in light of the many, many other aspects of Biblical Christianity that we say ”Amen” to.
LAMB: The diet – are you a vegetarian?
BLACK: I am. But that is not something that is a test of fellowship in my church. I’m a vegetarian because I grew up that way and I believe it’s a – it’s a rather healthy lifestyle.
LAMB: Do you drink alcohol?
LAMB: Do you drink caffeine?
LAMB: Why not all of that? I mean what’s the – what’s …
BLACK: Well, First Corinthians 3 says, ”Know ye not that your body is the Temple of God?” And there are physicians who would say that obviously alcohol in excess is problematic and that caffeine in excess is problematic. The Apostle Paul said in First Corinthians 6, ”All things are lawful, but I will not be brought under the power of any.”
And so, I think my not drinking caffeine, I’m not saying that under no circumstances would I drink caffeine. If I’m driving long distance and I’m dozing off at the wheel, I might go in and get a cup of coffee to try to you know stay awake. But you know I didn’t drink coffee coming up, I saw the problem of alcohol with my father who was an alcoholic, and so I don’t engage in any of that.
LAMB: You spoke at a conference, and this is just a minute clip I want to show you. This was actually back in March of this year. Let’s watch and I’ll get your reaction.
VIDEOTAPE – BARRY BLACK: There are remarkable spiritual giants on Capitol Hill. In fact, I am convinced that going to Capitol Hill actually makes you more spiritually vulnerable. You see, most of these senators have experienced a succession of successes, and then suddenly they enter the marvelous deliberative body called the United States Senate, which was designed by the framers to enable a minority to produce a stalemate and perpetual check for you chess masters.
And so, here are people who are accustomed to using their intellects and talents to accomplish things, often discovering that their best efforts will not be good enough, and that will lead you to look up and say, ”My God, my God, why?” So, there are some spiritual giants – trust me – in the Senate.
LAMB: How do you see that?
BLACK: Well, I believe there are senators whose spirituality dwarfs my own, quite frankly. I think that the old saw, ”Humanity’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” So, here is the senator accustomed to getting it done. And then all of a sudden, because of the filibuster and because of the nature of the deliberative process in the Senate, sometimes you can’t even get a bill to be voted on – an up or down vote because of the nature of the – of the deliberative process. That can become very, very frustrating.
And so I think that many times when we reach the end of our resources – in fact there’s a hymn that says, ”When we – when we come to the end of our horded resources, our Father’s power has only begun.” So, I think that that is what I am talking about when I say spiritually vulnerable. It actually can – it actually can make you more spiritually fit. You’ll do a lot more praying, a lot more meditating because of the challenge of getting through the sometimes gridlock that you encounter in the legislative process.
LAMB: On the back of your book you have a quote from John Kyl, Republican Conservative, and from Barack Obama, former United States Senator, not a Conservative. And John Kyl says, ”In ”From the Hood to the Hill,” Barry Black shows you how to walk the walk on your faith journey.” Barack Obama says, ”Chaplain Barry Black embodies the best of the American spirit and the Christian tradition. The Senate and the country are grateful for his service.”
The reason I mention both of them – how do you thread the needle? Do you have strong persona political views yourself and how do you deal with the members who are all over this place politically?
BLACK: Well, I have very strong political views because I believe in the Bible and I think that anyone who takes biblical theology seriously is going to have some very strong political views. But my position as Chaplain of the Senate is nonpartisan and nonsectarian. That does not mean, however, that I must put my intellect in neutral. One of the reasons I think that I was selected as the Sixty-Second Chaplain of the United States Senate is that senators desired someone who could provide them with advice, and they want to hear, ”Chaplain, what do you think about this issue?”
And so they ask for my opinion, and under the radar, behind closed doors, I can tell them exactly what I feel about any issue that is being debated in the Chamber, and then they can do with that issue whatever they desire to do. My primary concern is that when a senator makes a decision, he or she has an ethical reason or reasons for the decision that is being made, for the way he or she is voting.
And in a number of my Bible studies, we talk about the ethical decision-making process. We grapple with, ”What do you do with a right versus right conundrum?” because so often the issues that come to the Senate are not right versus wrong. They’re two colliding stories. They’re right versus right. That’s why you can get sincere people on both sides saying, ”This is the way that we should go.” And so, I talk to them about identifying right versus right paradigms like, ”Is it truth versus loyalty? Is it long-term versus short-term? Is it justice versus mercy? Is it the individual versus the community?”
And learning how to do that and then bringing ethical lenses, both theological and philosophical, like an ophthalmologist who is giving you an eye test. ”Is it clearer now? Well, let’s try this. Is it clearer now?” So, we will talk about John Stewart Mill utilitarianism – ”Strive to do the most good for the most people.” Or Kant, a part of his categorical imperative – ”Live in such a way that your action can be made universal law.” Or the Golden Rule of Jesus Christ – ”Treat others as you want to be treated.” And on – and I’ve got about 25 lenses that we talk about and we discuss.
So that when a senator votes, I’m not – I don’t care which way he or she votes, even though I have a very definite opinion about an issue, but I want to know, ”Why did you vote that way, Senator?” And as long as there are ethical reasons and evidence for that vote, I’m fine. I’m fine with that because most of the issues that are debated in the Chamber are sufficiently nuanced that you know it can often end up being, ”You say ’potato’ and I say ’potahto’.” Not always, but many times that’s the case.
LAMB: How much of an effort do you make to go to each of the senators and spend time with them?
BLACK: Well, because of the Prayer Breakfasts and Bible study, I’m going to spend time with 30 to 35 of them a week anyhow in a – in a teaching mode sometimes. When we have a roll-call vote and all of the Senators promenade to the Chamber to vote, I will usually make my way there as well and I’m interacting with Senators at that time. I meet them in the various corridors. I go to their offices sometimes; sometimes they will come to my office. So, there are many, many opportunities that I have to interact with them.
I started out by saying my job is like being pastor of a very large church. I think the kind of interaction that I have with my congregation is probably more substantive than what the average pastor can do because very few pastors actually interact with members on their job. But I’m working in the same place where my congregation is working.
LAMB: You have a Chaplain of the House, a Chaplain of the Senate, by why no Chaplain of the Supreme Court and no Chaplain of the White House?
BLACK: That’s a good question. I guess the framers never got around to doing that. But I think another reason may very well be that the – in the Constitution, the Legislative Branch really is walking point, and that may be – that may be one of the reasons.
LAMB: Are there members of the Senate that want nothing to do with you?
BLACK: Not that I know of.
LAMB: And I don’t mean that personally …
BLACK: Yes, yes.
LAMB: … that they have no interest in your kind of Christianity. I mean you have 13 Jewish members. What do they do?
BLACK: Oh, I interact with Jewish members very often. We have a rabbi who comes in and gives Torah studies and Jewish members participate in that. And Jewish staffers participate in that, as well as Christian staffers. If you really want to understand the Old Testament, let a rabbi teach it. My experience of providing ministry in a pluralistic setting for 27 years in the United States Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard has enabled me to facilitate for the spiritual needs of those who may come from non-Christian traditions. That’s what you do as a – as a military chaplain. So, I interact with our Jewish members and from time to time we have Jewish members who come to our Prayer Breakfasts because you don’t have to be a Christian to be interested in the power of prayer.
LAMB: You’ve been known to say that – and I’m not sure how you put it, but the spouses’ Bible study can be more interesting or more involved than the senators’.
BLACK: Well, the spouses are very transparent, and very often you learn a lot more about the senators as the spouses interact and talk in the Bible study than you would in the – in the Senators’ Bible study. So, that’s what I meant.
LAMB: When do you have a bad day and for what reason?
BLACK: Well, I don’t think I have a bad day. My worst day is probably a good day. I get up in the morning and the first thing I do is I get on my knees in prayer. And before I talk to what some have called members of the most exclusive club in the world, I talk to their Creator. And that gets me going. I deliberately drive in. It’s about a 40-minute drive from northern Virginia in order that I can listen on my CD player to the Bible. And I pray the Scriptures, so I listen until something stops me. I turn off the CD player and I talk to God about it. By the time I get to the Capitol, I am raring to go. I am juiced. I’ve got a high, and that sustains me through the multiplicity of experiences and sometimes vicissitudes that I may encounter.
One of my favorite Bible passages is Philippians 4:6-7 and I try to live it. It says, ”Have no anxiety about anything, but pray about everything with thanksgiving. And the peace of God that passes understanding will guard your heart and mind.” If in Christ Jesus, if there is peace that is beyond human understanding guarding your heart and mind because you are not having anxiety about anything but praying about everything, you’re not going to have a bad day.
LAMB: How many times have you read the Bible in your life or listened to it?
BLACK: Probably 20 or 25.
LAMB: And this memory thing you’ve got, when did you know you had such a good memory and how good is it?
BLACK: Well, when I was in the eleventh grade, I was debating with a teacher about a grade I received on an essay. And she said, ”OK, I’ll tell you what. If you can memorize one of Poe’s short stories by tomorrow because we haven’t covered Poe, I will – I will give you an A instead of an A-minus.” I picked up the book, I started reading ”The Black Cat,” which was the first story that I got to, and I walked the half-mile to the dormitory. When I got to the dorm, I was about a third of the way – two-thirds of the way through it. And I turned around, started reading it on the way back, and was able to recite most of that short story. So, I had, in the old days, almost photographic recall.
And so she said, ”That can’t be possible,” and she – ”It started from my infancy. I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the constant jest of my companions. I was indulged by my parents with a huge variety of pets. With these I spent most of my time and was never more happy than when feeding or caressing them,” and on and on and on and on and on.
I memorized all of Martin King’s speeches by hearing them. Never saw the manuscript. So, there was a time when I had a remarkable memory. I tell people now that it was once photographic, but I’ve run out of film. So, these days it’s not quite that good, but it’s fairly good.
LAMB: How about your brothers and sisters? Are they – how many of them are still alive?
BLACK: Seven of the eight. I lost a brother a couple of years ago. And they’ve all done very well. They all matriculated at Christian schools and ended up teaching at the university level, principals of schools, making significant contributions.
LAMB: Why was your family, with your mother being on welfare, your father not being around – being an alcoholic, why did they manage to live out of this process and so many families don’t?
BLACK: Well, I talk about it in ”From the Hood to the Hill” about developing a cocoon in which young people are able to survive the pathology of the environment and eventually get wings. The three critical factors for my siblings and me being extricated from a generational cycle of poverty – one was a Godly mother in the home who gave us our allowance based upon Scriptural memorization – 5 cents a verse.
And we first picked the low-hanging fruit. We would comb the Scriptures looking for Bible verses. One of my favorite Bible versus today is John 11:35, ”Jesus wept.” And so, we’d get the two-word verses, ”remember Lot’s way”, the three-word verses. And I fell in love with the Book of Proverbs because the verses were short, obviously. So, that training in the home in addition to the Scripture memorization, my mother had morning and evening worship in the home. So, that was the first factor.
The second factor was a Christian education. We matriculated at Christian schools where I mean every day we were exposed to what I feel is the life-changing power of God’s word.
And then the third factor was a supportive church. Berea Temple, Seventh-Day Adventist Church, still on 1901 Madison Avenue in Baltimore, Maryland where – there I found wonderful adult role models and people who mentored me, who encouraged me, and who enabled my mom to afford a Christian education for all of us. They had a program where if you were too impoverished to afford the tuition, the church would supplement your income to enable you to do that.
LAMB: There’s a list of schools you’d been to that are not the norm, and I’ll just list them. First, the Public Schools of Baltimore, but Oakwood College, Huntsville, Alabama; Anders Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan; North Carolina Central University, Durham, North Carolina; Eastern Baptist Seminary, Lancaster, Pennsylvania where you got a Doctor of Ministry of Theology in ’82; Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island, Master of Arts and Management in 1989; University – United States International University, San Diego, California, Doctor of Philosophy and Psychology, 1996. How much – who paid for all that?
BLACK: Well, thank God for the GI Bill. And one of the reasons why I continued as a professional student was I would finish a program and I would write a letter thanking the military for financing it and they would call me and basically say you still have money left on your GI Bill. Now, you don’t grow up poor and you’re going to leave any money in the – in the pot when you can get it. So, the Salve Master’s was a part of a program of supervisory leadership that the Navy had and when you became a supervisory chaplain, you were able to do that. So, that was tossed in, but I was working on my Ph.D. at United States International University and the Salve Master’s at the same time. So …
LAMB: Before we end, the story of the young man that came to you – your church which led to you going into the Navy. How old were you? Where did you live? What were you doing?
BLACK: I was pastoring in Durham, North Carolina. I pastored 11 churches before coming into the Navy Chaplain Corps. Now, that’s not as impressive as it sounds. I pastored eight at one time. I was a circuit rider. And then I pastored three. And while I was in Durham, three sailors would drive from Norfolk, Virginia on the weekend to worship in Durham, North Carolina.
LAMB: What’s that distance?
BLACK: It’s at least a 5-hour drive. And I knew you know – you know I’m a – I’m a halfway decent preacher, but nobody’s that good that that’s worth the trip. So, one day I said, ”Why don’t you guys just you know stay up in the Norfolk area?” And they said, ”We have never seen an African-American chaplain in the Navy.” And so that was planting a seed in my mind regarding a ministry opportunity because one of my passions is working with young people. And a few months later my church started soliciting the services of ministers who would be willing to go into the military and the experience of interacting with these three sailors you know motivated me to accept that offer and to become a Navy Chaplain and it was one of the best things I ever did.
LAMB: Do you know where any of those three are today?
BLACK: Oh, yes. Two of them are still in the – in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area.
LAMB: Is the Seventh-Day Adventist Church substantially African-American?
BLACK: Oh, no. No.
LAMB: And there’s 17 million worldwide members.
BLACK: Right. Well, probably 16 and change, but yes. The – we have a very large work in Africa, we have a very large work in Inter-America. But the church was founded in the mid-nineteenth century and it was predominantly white initially, but there was a tremendous and aggressive mission program and reaching out to the marginalized, the lost, the lonely, and the least.
I think the Seventh-Day Adventist Church took very seriously the mandate of Christ in Mathew 25 to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to minister to the incarcerated and the sick and to take care of the stranger, and so they reached out. And so, it’s a very diverse church right now.
LAMB: How much longer do you think you’ll want to be Chaplain of the Senate?
BLACK: Well, all I can say, Brian, is I am enjoying the ride. And if my health holds up, I’m going to continue to have fun as long as God gives me the opportunity. And I’m waiting – Isaiah talks about a voice behind you, saying, ”This is the way. Walk ye in it.” And Proverbs 3 talks about God directing our path, and so that’s what I’m depending on. When he says it’s time to move, then it’s time to move. But until that time, I’m just enjoying the ride.
LAMB: Sixty-two years old?
LAMB: Sixty-Second Chaplain of the United States Senate.
BLACK: There you have it. It must be something providential about that.
LAMB: And we didn’t invite you for this book, but you did it back in 2006. There is a book ”From the Hood to the Hill” that you have published and it was -
BLACK: Thomas Nelson.
LAMB: Yes, publisher. Barry C. Black – Admiral Barry C. Black, thank you very much for joining us.
BLACK: Thank you. It’s been a joy.