Twenty years ago last week, a new Senate chaplain offered a prayer thanking God for his predecessor’s “legacy of faithfulness” and imploring heaven to “give these leaders the gift of discernment that they will know what matters most, and approve what is excellent.”
It was a job Chaplain Barry Black, a retired Navy rear admiral who had spent 27 years ministering to the military, never expected to still be holding in 2023.
“As George Strait puts it so eloquently in one of his songs, in my opinion, this is where the cowboy rides away. So I fully expected for a very brief stint in the legislative branch,” Black said in a July 7 phone interview, 20 years to the day after that first Senate prayer.
But it’s a post that has made Black one of the most visible staff members of the Senate, and one from which he wanted to offer some advice for fellow Americans.
“We need to stop demonizing government and governmental workers,” he said, saying there needs to be a better appreciation for the role of the government in “holding in check the chaotic.” He cited Romans 13:1-7, in particular the part about the need to honor those to whom honor is due.
“That’s why we call them ‘the honorable,’” Black said. “There are people who deserve honor just because of the position, and we need to have respect even when someone we didn’t vote for ends up being in charge.”
From time to time, Black has used the pulpit of the Senate dais to speak frankly to the senators themselves. That has been true during government shutdowns, and in March after a mass shooting at a parochial elementary school in Nashville.
“When babies die at a church school, it is time for us to move beyond thoughts and prayers,” he said March 28. “Lord, deliver our senators from the paralysis of analysis that waits for the miraculous. Use them to battle the demonic forces that seek to engulf us.”
Two decades into his open-ended appointment (because the Senate is a continuing body, there doesn’t need to be a new chaplain elected until there’s a vacancy), Black says he remains fascinated by the work of ministers in pluralistic settings, be it the Navy or the Capitol.
Black said that experience as a military chaplain or elsewhere in connection with the federal government, whether at the Federal Bureau of Prisons or the Department of Veterans Affairs, is good preparation for the kind of work that he has done in the Senate.
“Those kinds of ministries prepare you to facilitate for those who may not be Christian, which is a challenge for folks who have provided ministry in one denomination, as so many of my predecessors have done, and they are simply senior pastors from usually liturgical, Protestant denominations — Presbyterian, Anglican,” Black said. “They are not accustomed to saying are we ready for the Holy Days for our Jewish people? Are we ready for holidays for those from the Islamic tradition? Can we invite Hindu priests? Can we invite someone from Buddhism, as we have done in my 20 years?”
Guest chaplains during Black’s tenure have come from a variety of faith traditions, perhaps the most memorable coming in 2014, when the Dalai Lama opened the chamber.
Black and his small staff provide the full range of pastoral services to the Senate community, from baptisms, premarital counseling and weddings to funerals. He said he had been at the bedside of four senators when they passed — and with others at the hospital when they were not expected to live.
Away from Capitol Hill, Black keeps a full schedule as a guest preacher at churches and other religious venues across the country, with his office regularly getting five invites a day for outside engagements. Black declines many of them, with the Senate schedule and the pastoral needs of senators, spouses, staffers and others in the Capitol community taking precedence.
“I take advantage of the opportunity to accept invitations from people who are actually interested in what is ministry like in the military chaplaincy and what is ministry like in the legislative chaplaincy,” Black said. When he spoke with CQ Roll Call, Black was preparing to preach to the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist community on the Jersey Shore.
A week before, he was preaching to a Baptist congregation in Florida at First Sarasota for a freedom-themed sermon ahead of the Fourth of July.
“It’s an opportunity to give people a glimpse of what ministry in the Senate feels like,” he said. “What is it like to be a senator and being taught by the chaplain of the Senate? Well, the chaplain of the Senate is right there in their church teaching and preaching, so it’s a wonderful opportunity to expose American citizens to a kind of pluralistic ministry.”
A Seventh-day Adventist, Black said he aims to tailor his approach to the specific setting.
“When I’m speaking in the National Cathedral, it’s a more liturgical setting and the message is going to be a little different from when I’m speaking at First Baptist Church in Sarasota,” Black said.
In the interview, he also spoke about the significance of prayer.
He said one of his messages is that “people should not become exasperated, as I know they often do and think that their prayers don’t matter, because they do. And to keep the prayer pressure on,” Black said.
And beyond prayers, the chaplain emphasized what he described as the importance of righteousness to the preservation of freedom.
“If we are not vigilant in the way we vote, and the way we advocate and the way we think about government to ensure that people are encouraged to live at the highest levels of integrity possible, we are not making as significant a contribution to freedom as we can,” Black said.