As the 62nd Chaplain of the United States Senate, Barry C. Black embodies the poetic progression of providence. Reared in urban Baltimore during the 50s and 60s, his mother, a domestic worker, once brought home goodies from work. His prize was an old record album of the 57th Senate Chaplain Peter Marshall. Inspired by Marshall’s “melodious sermons” Black memorized them and tried them out on his neighborhood friends, Scottish accent and all. Black never dreamed he would one day stand in that place as one of its longest serving chaplains, the first African American and the first Seventh-day Adventist.
MESSAGE INTERVIEW WITH UNITED STATES SENATE CHAPL AIN, BARRY C. BL ACK
The former Navy Chief of Chaplains now conducts a robust spiritual program for diverse members of the Senate, their staffers and their families. This includes four weekly Bible studies and prayer breakfasts. His central duty, however, that of opening Senate sessions with prayer, is a cornerstone of U.S. history, and one proposed by Benjamin Franklin in 1787:
I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that ‘except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe this. . . I therefore beg leave to move— that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business …
Black’s blunt prayers during a government shutdown garnered media notice, and even a 2013 Saturday Night Live spoof. However, the power in his prayers put him in the spotlight, and “Making Your Voice Heard in Heaven” was the title of his address to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast, and the title of his fourth book (Tyndale). Black’s inspired impressions find their way into his books and sermons he preaches almost every weekend. Though he speaks without notes, he tosses one of his many ever-ready and evergreen three-ring binders full of “unpreached” sermon material into his bag when he leaves his office.
Black’s three earned master’s degrees and two earned doctorate degrees, and extensive grasp on philosophy, literature and the Word of God betray his youthful, “dapper” appearance. In what has to be a most coveted of the historic offices in the Capitol overlooking the National Mall, he insists, he is not Daniel. “I’m Barry.”
MESSAGE: In today’s political climate, with all the tensions we see on the news, do you find it more difficult to relate to people across parties, ideologies, beliefs?
BLACK: I don’t find it difficult. First of all, because my position, as you know, is non-partisan and non-sectarian, so, I don’t have to take sides. Moreover, this not taking sides does not mean I have to put my brain in neutral. I just taught a Bible study to senators at a prayer breakfast where only senators are involved. And, when they ask me about my perspective on a particular issue, I can share in a very transparent way what I think, usually using theological or philosophical principles to make my case. So, I just don’t have to publicize, where I’m coming from in terms of my political position, and I actually enjoy that because it makes it easier to work with a diverse group.
MESSAGE: What’s a good Bible study that you get together and people really get engaged in?
Black: Today we had a Bible study called “Receiving Guidance All the Way Home.” It was basically on the gift of the Holy Spirit. We talked about that fact that Jesus said in John 16:7, It’s better for you that I go away. If I don’t go away, I cannot send to you this amazing gift called the Holy Spirit. He will teach you all things. He will even tell you the future, John 13:16, alright? He will pray for you. Romans 8:26: You don’t know how to pray, or for what to pray, but the Spirit will pray for you. So, this amazing gift that God has given to the body of Christ will testify of Christ, even as Jesus testified of the Father. He said to Phillip in John 14:9 “You have seen Me; you have seen the Father.” The Holy Spirit testifies of Christ. He’s always with us.
This amazing gift, and that’s what we talked about for an hour with our lawmakers. And that’s exciting.
MESSAGE: Is there ever an Adventist—in the generic sense—thing that comes up, such as a mention that these are the last days? That the things going on right now are unprecedented?
Black: I think there are many Protestant denominations who are aware of the Second Coming of Christ, and are anticipating the Second Coming of Christ. “I go to prepare a place for you . . .” [John 14:2, 3]. That’s why even in the Apostles’ Creed it says: “From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” That’s 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18.
Yes, there are people who know that there will be a second coming. Some of them are premillennialist—1000 years will come before His coming; some of them are post-millennialists—the Lord will come, and then the millennium; some are amillennialists.
Basically, they believe Jesus is coming again.
MESSAGE: I guess my question relates more to what is happening. You seem to display an extreme sense of calm right now, considering the news, the brinksmanship and different things like that.
Black: I think [of] the guidance in scripture, Philippians 4:6, 7, “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, in Christ Jesus.”
And, I think that understanding, [should be] coupled with living in day-tight compartments—Matthew 6:34 says “Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
So, I don’t borrow from yesterday and pile it on to today. I don’t reach into the future, and pile that on to today. That’s more than I can handle. But, I can get through a day. I can get through a day very easily.
MESSAGE: That said, there are some things going on now that we haven’t seen. There’s a president who talks differently, to put that mildly. There’s probably a sense of camaraderie here that you probably see better than the rest of us. But has there ever been a time where you see something going on, a debate or a conflict, that you said to yourself, ‘I’m going to go back and pray on this?’
Black: That’s just not my style.
I’m fascinated by history. There was a time, 1857, the Supreme Court [in Dred Scott v. Sandford] said I was 3/5 human. There was a time, 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson, when Jim Crow was institutionalized for over half a century. We had two World Wars, and the second, it is estimated that between 60 and 80 million people, mostly civilians, died. We had a civil war where six to seven hundred thousand people lost their lives. Yes, these are challenging times, but hey, God has brought us through much worse than this.
I always think of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the stanza that describes the African American experience: “Stony the road we trod, bitter the chast’ning rod, felt in the days,” and here it is, “when hope, unborn, had died.”
How do you abort hope? How do you kill hope in the womb? “When hope unborn had died,” that’s what we’ve gone through.
“Yet with a steady beat have not our weary feet, come to the place to which our forebears sighed.”
If someone had told me that I would have lived to see an African American President, let alone have him as a personal friend . . . [He showed me a small framed picture of the President Obama shaking his hand after a State of the Union address]. Here he’s speaking. Here I am, and it is obvious that we are [friends]. If someone would have told me that I would have lunch with Coretta. If someone would have told me that I would offer the prayer when Rosa Parks was lying in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. If someone would tell me—this is just one of seven of the Christmas pictures that I have [he showed me a picture of him and his wife Brenda with President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama]—you can always tell because the first lady has on a different gown.
Dickens may have had it right in the beginning of Tale of Two Cities, this is the best of times, this is the worst of times. But we need to keep things in perspective because God is still on His throne. And that old song, “This Is My Father’s World”, reminds us that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”
MESSAGE: What do you think about the notion that this is a Christian nation? And this very office is set up now to have prayer, and you have Bible studies, and these foundational books, whether the Bible or other religious books? Does that bother you as a Seventh-day Adventist, who is sensitive, as are many other people, to religious liberty?
Black: I believe that many of the framers, would probably, though appreciating the fact that Christianity is the dominant religion, would say that they came to this land looking for religious freedom, which means insuring that people have an opportunity to worship, according to the dictates of their consciences.
The senate chaplaincy, the legislative chaplaincy, was established in 1789, predates the Establishment Cause to the First Amendment, which states that Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion or prohibiting the exercise thereof. To state that this is a Christian nation would be a breach of the Establishment Clause, I believe. And so, you know, it does not prohibit people from being Christian. We do not have a “Church of England.” We do not have a state-run church or organization.
You can see in this picture the Dali Lama who is certainly not a Christian, as a guest chaplain. I have had a Hindu priest come in as a guest chaplain. I’ve had Rabbis come in for Torah studies for Jewish staffers. Imams who come in for Ramadan and other Islamic Holy Days. So, I facilitate, and that’s the diversity that I alluded to earlier, for non-Christian staffers, as well as for Christian staffers. I call it cooperating without compromise. I don’t have to compromise who I am in order to make sure the spiritual needs of other folk are met.
So, the very act that the framers desired a spiritual dimension to government, one of the first acts was to establish a chaplaincy in the legislative branch. It does not mean that they did not want a separation of church and state. They didn’t want a separation of God and state, and there’s a distinction.
MESSAGE: Does the Spirit push you to say, something in particular?
Black: I think for a minister, you feed people what you are discovering is good nourishment for yourself. The Apostle Paul said to the church in Corinth, “for I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered to you,” [1 Corinthians 11:23].
When you’re flying and the flight attendants give instructions, and they say in the event of turbulence, the oxygen masks will drop. Put the mask on yourself first before putting it on someone else. So, I put the mask on myself first, and the way I do that is to spend what I call the “Holy Hour.” I spend an hour a day, praying the scriptures.
My theory is that there are three kinds of prayer: lip prayer, head prayer, and heart prayer.
Lip prayer is a prayer you pray by rote: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” That’s a lip prayer. “God is great, God is good. Let us thank Him for our food.” That’s a lip prayer.
Head prayer is when you pray the scriptures, because you give God the courtesy of starting the conversation. So, what I do is, I pray before I open the Bible, and the things that stop and inspire me, I talk to God about for at least an hour every day.
Heart prayer is when out of the dialogue with God from praying the Scriptures, you come up with something you just can’t shake, like a jingle, and you nurse that thing, sometimes. Well, I’ve been working on one for about nine days, now, and you say it, like probably 25, 30, 40 times a day, like a mantra, because it’s inspirational and so describes the desires of your heart.
So, you do that an hour a day, and then the overflow, the results of that, you never run out of material to teach or preach.
MESSAGE: How do you keep your spiritual fervor alive?
Black: John 17:17 says: “sanctify them through thy truth, thy word is truth”, so that kind of quality exposure to the Word of God, will almost guarantee sanctification. David said in Psalm 119:99, “I have more wisdom than all of my teachers.” That robust devotional life is critical to staying connected to the Vine. The Lord said, “I am the Vine, ye are the branches” John 15:5. You sever the branch from the Vine and there is no flow of life.
Matthew 4:4, “[We] do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God.” I find that it gives you strength through temptation. Again, the 119th Psalm, verse 11, “Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against You.” It’s just a wonderful way of staying spiritually fit.
I think it’s also critical to remember that truth is progressive. So, He doesn’t drop a load on us. He said in John 16:12, “I have many things to tell you, but you can’t bear them now.” And so, we have Proverbs 4:18, “the path to justice is a shining light,” and so, that’s the way I roll, as the young people say.
During my holy hour, I preach my sermons to the Lord. There’s nothing that helps you see where the duds are, than to speak them to the Lord in prayer when you’re praying Scriptures.