Chaplain Readies to Tend a New Flock
Call it destiny or divine intervention, but Senate Chaplain Barry Black said he believes it was God’s will for him to one day serve as the chamber’s chief spiritual adviser.
The just-retired rear admiral said he started developing “a fascination with the Capitol building” about four years ago, two years after he was assigned by the Navy to be its deputy chief of chaplains.
“I know that sounds mystical and esoteric, but I was drawn to the Dome,” Black said Friday in an interview in his Pentagon office, hours before he retired from the Navy. “I mean it was almost a romantic quality, a magnetism drawing me, and it was around that time that I was first invited to pray at the Senate … and I think that was sort of the final polishing of my preparation to serve.
“So, I think there has been a providence behind it,” he added.
Black began work in the Senate on Monday, a transition of sorts for a clergyman who has devoted most of his career to ministering to individuals in the armed services.
“It’s a shift, but it isn’t a shift,” said Black, whose final posting as chief of chaplains for the Navy required him to be the religious adviser to senior Coast Guard, Marine and Navy officials.
“It’s a shift in that I do minister to probably people from age 18 to 35 primarily, but as a two-star admiral and the manager of the chaplain corps, I interact with people who are … the ages of the Senators,” he added.
Prayer Above Politics
Black replaces the recently retired Senate Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie, who served in the position for eight years and developed strong bonds with many lawmakers and staffers. However, Ogilvie also stirred some controversy during his tenure, most notably when he appeared to warn Senators there might be divine repercussions if they voted against the nomination of former Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) to become attorney general.
“Dear Father, this is a crucial day for the Senate,” Ogilvie said in his Feb. 1, 2001, prayer to open the Senate. “Remind the Senators on both sides of the aisle that what goes around does come around.”
Ogilvie retired in March and despite an effort on the part of some Senators to convince him to return, the former Chaplain demurred. Black described Ogilvie as a friend and called him “one of the most special men of God I have ever met.”
Black was careful, however, to say he has no intention of weaving his personal political beliefs into his prayers that open the Senate each day.
“I would not intentionally inject politics into my ministry,” Black said. Instead, the new Chaplain said he sees his role as that of a “healer” who might be able to help ease the partisan tensions in the Senate.
“One of the refreshing things, quite honestly, about this job is the opportunity to be a force of unity,” Black said. “I think … if you can get Senators from different sides of the aisle to sit down, pray together, study the word together, participate in a prayer breakfast together or something like that, they may learn things about one another that will change their opinion about a particular individual.
“It may be a unifying force in an environment that tends to be polarized,” he added.
To effectively do so, Black must walk a fine line in the Capitol corridors, particularly refraining from discussing politically charged issues such as abortion.
“That’s not my job to debate,” he said. “My job is to enhance the spiritual readiness of people so that they are in a position to make the best decisions regarding the various issues.”
A Man of Firsts
Black is the 62nd Chaplain to serve the Senate, but his appointment is historic for many reasons. He is the first black Senate Chaplain; the first Navy chaplain to head the Senate’s religious office; and the first Seventh-day Adventist to be the chamber’s chief spiritual adviser. This is not a new concept for Black, who has become accustomed to being a trailblazer. He was the first black to become fleet chaplain, deputy chief of chaplains and chief of chaplains.
But Black said his race is not something he thinks about regularly and prefers to identify himself simply as a “servant of God.”
“I don’t walk around during the day thinking, ‘You are an African American,’” he said. “When I am sitting in meetings and deliberating, I’m not thinking, ‘You are an African American.’ When someone says, ‘What do African Americans think about,’ I do not immediately become the authority and say, ‘Oh, I know that.’
“So it’s not something that I have done a great deal of reflecting on,” he added.
Black said he has always felt the tug of the church, and related the family lore that when his pregnant mother was baptized “she prayed that God would do something special for the unborn child in her womb.
“The rumor is that I came out with a sense of calling,” he said. “I never wanted to be anything but a minister.”
Before joining the Navy in 1976, the Baltimore native was a pastor at 11 churches in North Carolina and South Carolina. In the Navy, Black learned to minister to a diverse flock, a skill that he said will help him in his new position.
“In the military you have to know how to pray inclusively, because there is a heterogeneity to many of the audiences that you are addressing.”
In 2000, Black was promoted to chief of chaplains, where he was charged with overseeing the chaplain corps. His appointment came a year after an internal review by the Navy chaplain’s office found that an alarming number of chaplains were engaged in misconduct ranging from sexual misconduct to spousal abuse, The Associated Press reported last week.
Black described the lapses of these chaplains as “disturbing” but added the Navy instituted a new training policy to screen candidates for the posts.
“We initiated a quality assurance program after the study was aired, and we learned about it and raised the bar in terms of the quality of chaplains that we’re bringing aboard,” he said. “We started a procedure where we interviewed each chaplain as he or she came aboard. They actually come to D.C. now and are interviewed by a committee of seven people. We raised the bar of [whom] we will accept.”
The Task Ahead
Black said his primary goal is to continue to carry on Ogilvie’s “legacy” by building on many of the former Chaplain’s ministering programs, but in the short term, the new Chaplain said he would refrain from talking in “concrete ways about strategic objectives and goals.”
“I’m not coming in with a Decalogue that, like Moses, I hand down from Mount Sinai, ‘I know what you need and here it is,’” Black said. “It would be presumptuous of me to. I’m coming in to serve, and a servant knows how to take orders and a military person knows how to take orders. Listening to learn to lead. That’s what I intend to do.”
Black said he does intend to spend the next couple of months learning the Senate and its individuals and plans to follow in the footsteps of many freshman Senators by paying Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) a private visit.
“I will be paying a courtesy call to him, and I look to take advantage of the incredible understanding of the history of the institution that he brings,” Black said.
Asked what message he would like to deliver to his new flock, Black hesitated before saying matter of factly, “God is about to do something special.”
Ashley Johnson contributed to this report.