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A Higher Power

Senate Chaplain Looks to Past for Inspiration

His visage was already familiar within the Capitol complex, but during last session’s battles over the debt and deficit, Senate Chaplain Barry Black achieved an even higher level of fame. 

Quiet and composed, he doesn’t seek the political limelight. But as the clock ticked down on legislative deadlines and warnings of financial ruin became routine, Black’s prayers for divine intervention struck a collective chord and received national media attention.

Senate rules require each legislative session to begin with prayer. After the presiding officer calls the chamber to order, Black, often dressed in a bow tie and double-breasted suit, walks up to the dais, bows his head and delivers a short, one-minute prayer with his mellow, baritone voice.

During last year’s legislative fights, though, the chaplain’s prayers raised a few eyebrows.

When the chamber faced the likely possibility of a government default, he offered these words: “Save us, oh God, for the waters are coming in upon us. We are weary from the struggle, tempted to throw in the towel.”

And when the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction seemed unlikely to reach a compromise, he prayed that its members find common ground. “In a special way, guide the super committee in its challenging work.”

The prayers went viral. National news outlets — including the Washington Post, ABC News, CBS News and NPR — quoted them alongside longer reports about legislative gridlock. 

While Black’s function in the Senate is a spiritual one, he says his office plays a crucial supportive role in the chamber’s legislative business.

“Well, you know, I am a part of this process and am affected by this process,” he says in a recent interview with Roll Call. “And I have an emotional investment in the outcomes. … That’s basically how I was feeling, and I poured it out. It was great catharsis.”

Discussing his role in the Senate, he leans back comfortably in his chair. Shelves of theological texts line the mahogany bookshelves in his third-floor Capitol office. At one time, the office served as the Senate library. It’s now a fitting setting for a chaplain who quotes Aristotle and Epictetus as easily as he recites the Psalms.

His decision to pray for the super committee was motivated by the number of requests he received from the panel’s members.  “They knew it didn’t look good, and they said, ‘Chaps, we need some supernatural help.’ … They were coming to me personally and saying, ‘Hey, turn it up.’”

On both sides of the aisle, there was a great desire “to ask God to help us find a way to break through this impasse.”

He says he’s not surprised by the highly partisan nature of the debates over the debt and deficit. Issues that involve money, he insists, often involve moral differences, more than simple party loyalty. 

“You will inevitably reach a point on both sides of the aisle where people think they can’t budge without compromising principles,” he says. “And that’s a very serious thing. And you need some type of supernatural intervention to overcome that, and that seems to be a recurring concern.”

It’s because of this that he refuses to deliver what he calls “sugar stick” prayers that could work in a number of different contexts. He always addresses the ethical and moral challenges that the chamber faces.

“When we’re going through difficult emotional time,” he says, “I’m not just praying these stained-glass passionless prayers. I get right into the fray and let ’er rip.”

‘Earnestness and Fervency’

Black’s recent stint in the national spotlight shows him following a precedent set by the Rev. Dr. Peter Marshall, who served as Senate chaplain during the late 1940s. Marshall might be most famous for a Hollywood biopic about him, “A Man Called Peter,” which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1956. 

Marshall is also known for complaining that the role of Senate chaplain was the equivalent of parsley — just there for garnish.

That changed under his tenure. Marshall wrote his prayers in colloquial language and addressed political issues without crossing the line of partisan advocacy. Senators lined the chamber just to hear him speak. 

As a child, Black remembers listening to recordings of the reverend’s sermons. His mother had a few LPs of Marshall’s sermons, and Black played them so many times that they grew scratchy. 

“When I was 8 years of age, I was drawn into the lyrical cadence of his sermons and how he could paint pictures,” Black said. 

They captivated Black’s childhood imagination. He “heard language the way that other children heard music.” He memorized the reverend’s sermons in their entirety. 

Looking out his office window at a panoramic view of the National Mall, Black recites one from memory without missing a beat. “The morning sun had been up for some time over the city of David. Already pilgrims and visitors were pouring in through the gates, mingling with merchants from the gates round about.”

What set Marshall apart from other chaplains was that, as Black says, “he had the content, and he had the delivery.”

One could easily turn the comment back on Black. Regular viewers of C-SPAN2 recognize the rhythm of his prayers.

As far as content goes, look no further than the prayers that elevated him, after a fashion, to brief national fame. 

“I don’t think that my prayers are ever pedestrian,” he says. “There’s always an earnestness and fervency that reflects the challenging times we’ve been going through.”

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