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Chaplains remain socially distant but spiritually connected

They’re trading C-SPAN prayers for Zoom pulpits

“I thank God for the technology,” Barry Black said over Zoom.

The 62nd chaplain of the Senate is working from home in his self-proclaimed “man cave,” and so is his bow tie. It’s not exactly quarantine attire, but he has more than 100 in his collection, and that counts for something right now.

At first, when the crisis was intensifying, it was pretty much business as usual for him. “As they battle this coronavirus pandemic, may they not forget the marginalized,” he said on the Senate floor March 23, as he delivered the opening prayer that is one of the chaplain’s regular duties.

He’s never had to preach quite like this. So the bow tie stays because it’s familiar, even if the video chats are not. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a great spiritual awakening is the harvest that comes out of this challenging season,” he told me, after we both adjusted our cameras and exchanged phrases like, “OK, is this working?”

Black is the first Seventh-day Adventist and the first African American to hold the job. He’s prayed through an impeachment trial, government shutdowns and the Great Recession. For 17 years, he’s had the ear of the powerful, speaking of moral clarity in a deep ringing voice. 

He has always risen to moments like these. When the country is hurting and the Senate is deadlocked, he uses his pulpit on C-SPAN to ask for better. As he appeals to a higher power, he also manages to call out the powerful on Earth, a knack that once earned him a spoof on “Saturday Night Live.” (“May they find themselves in a restroom stall devoid of toilet paper,” went a bit in 2013, with Kenan Thompson playing an exasperated Black as a government shutdown dragged on.)

[ You can still wear a bow tie on virtual Easter, and Senate Chaplain Barry Black is proof ]

Now, with lawmakers out for an extended April break, scattered in their home districts and wondering what comes next, Black has had to adjust. He’s building a virtual ministry from scratch, conducting Bible studies with Senate chiefs of staff over video and offering recorded sermons, which he likens to TED Talks. “I’ve been doing a lot of these,” he said, meaning Zoom chats.

His counterpart on the House side is going virtual too. “I want them to know I haven’t forgotten them,” House chaplain Patrick Conroy told me of the lawmakers and aides he’s used to seeing in person. “I’m praying for them.” 

So far he’s been doing a lot by phone, which isn’t his norm, and he’s fine with leaving a voicemail. The Jesuit priest and 60th House chaplain has a Portland area code, and members of Congress already have enough “unknown” calls to field. “Who knows what they think” when they see his number pop up, he laughed.

When Black talks about mortality, or quotes from Corinthians about finding comfort, it isn’t theoretical. He’s already lost a friend in the clergy to COVID-19. He wrote a book years ago called “The Blessing of Adversity,” and you can hear those themes surfacing again as he figures out what to say to the Hill decision-makers tasked with blunting the pandemic’s economic impact.

Conroy is encouraged by the relationships between friends and even acquaintances that are being deepened despite physical distancing and isolation. “Wouldn’t that be nice if that became our future?” he asked.

“It’s amazing what technology affords,” Black agreed, but his ultimate advice doesn’t come with a download or charger. “Pray about everything,” he urged. And he means it — he admitted to looking for some godly guidance in the past on what he calls his “Michael Jordan” haircut. (He’s bald.)

“There’s so much to be thankful for in spite of everything we’re going through,” Black said.

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