He's paid with your tax dollars and authorized by the Constitution to serve as a spiritual adviser to the members of the United States Senate. From his office in the north side of the Capitol building, Senate Chaplain Barry Black composes opening prayers for each day's Senate proceedings, prepares five Bible studies a week, and meets with politicians of every stripe to council them on ethics, marriage, spirituality … and their relationship with their most important Constituent: God.
The first African American, the first military chaplain and the first Seventh-day Adventist to serve in his position, Black is well aware of the uniqueness of his role. But he's more convinced than ever that it is God-not the Constitution-that has created a place for him in Washington, D.C.
While she was pregnant with Barry, his mother was baptized and asked God for a special anointing on her unborn child. The results were tangible. “I have never had another rival in my affections as far as my vocation,” Black explains. “I have always wanted to be a minister.”
Being reared in an impoverished-and virtually fatherless-family in a Baltimore ghetto, Black's chances for vocational ministry seemed slim to none. But his mother daily wove Scripture into the lives of Black and his siblings, offering them a nickel for every Bible verse they memorized. One of these verses may have saved his life.
Black vividly recalls the day his mother assigned him Proverbs 1:10: “My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not.” Hours later, two neighborhood friends invited the 14-year-old Black to join them in “getting back at” a mutual acquaintance. Remembering the verse, Black declined, and the boys left. Later, he learned that the boys were involved in a murder, and both went to prison for life.
In retrospect, one could say that many events in Black's life have pointed to his most recent assignment. When he was only 8 years old, his mother gave him a recording of Senate Chaplain Peter Marshall's message “Were You There?” He listened to it until he could recite it from memory. Even now, nearly five decades later, he is able to deliver the sermon, complete with a convincing version of Marshall's Scottish brogue.
After college and seminary, Black pastored several churches and was commissioned as a Navy chaplain in 1976. He had been promoted to the rank of rear admiral, was serving as chief of the Navy chaplains and was preparing for retirement in 2003 when he was invited to interview for the Senate chaplaincy.
Dressed in a crisp civilian suit and a studious bow tie, Black's demeanor still reflects the military precision of his Navy days. He rises at 5 a.m., works out, spends time in devotions and uses his 45-minute commute to listen to Scripture on CD. The average week is a whirlwind of invocations, counseling sessions, Bible studies and speaking engagements.
Black serves not only the 100 senators and their families but also the 16,000 staff members that work on the Senate side of Capitol Hill. His daily responsibilities rival that of a megachurch pastor-with one notable exception.
“I have the opportunity of being involved with my members at a level that the average pastor cannot,” he says. “I see people on their jobs.”
This level of engagement has given Black a bird's-eye view of the spiritual climate in the nation's capital-a perspective that tends to be overlooked by the mainstream media. Recently, Chaplain Black sat down with Ministries Today to tell us how God is bringing spiritual renewal to the most unlikely of places-and what values should shape the church's involvement in national transformation.
Ministries Today: How does your role fit into the constitutional understanding of “separation of church and state”?
Senate Chaplain Barry Black: The Senate chaplaincy is a nonpartisan responsibility. The congressional chaplaincies were created in 1789 and were established three days before the establishment clause of the Constitution. We know that by the very fact that there was a chaplaincy when that was written, the intention of our founders was not to pull religion completely outside of government activities.
I like to say there's a separation of church and state-a phrase that does not occur in the Constitution-but not a separation of God and state. So, I'm very, very comfortable being who I am as a spiritual person and meeting the spiritual needs of people on Capitol Hill, as best I can, bringing something of the transcendent into this very important environment. Capitol Hill is one place where you need God.
Ministries Today: What are some signs of spiritual interest that you are seeing in the Capitol?
Black: I've seen evidence of what Paul called “saints in Caesar's household.” We can get as many as 200 people at our plenary Bible studies. That's an amazing number of people who regularly gather to study the Word of God.
This study has an amazing level of biblical literacy. I can start in any verse and these so-called ordinary people can tell me chapter and verse. A significant number of senators attend the prayer breakfast-as well as the Bible study. A significant number of spouses and chiefs of staff attend the Bible studies I lead for them.
Ministries Today: What do you think is behind this interest?
Black: These are challenging times. We've had to evacuate the Capitol a couple of times just in the last three months because of airplanes entering prohibited airspace. The news we hear from around the world is enough to make people more vulnerable to the things of the Spirit-to seek answers from someone bigger than any human being.
Ministries Today: What are some misperceptions people have about the spirituality of their elected officials?
Black: One misperception is that people who debate certain issues inside the chamber cannot be friends and spiritual brothers and sisters outside the chamber. People here are seeking after God in the same way that people outside of Capitol Hill are seeking God. Also, very few would know about the people who come into this office, and seek me out because they are wrestling with spiritual and theological issues.
Ministries Today: It sounds like your role is something of an ethical coach to our lawmakers?
Black: Well, I talk to them about ethical conundrums-a “right versus right” challenge. It is what the apostle Paul talked about when he referred to proving “what is excellent”-choosing better over good. They involve decisions of truth versus loyalty, the individual versus the community, long term versus short term and justice versus mercy. And the reasons may differ, but I encourage them to have an ethical foundation to reach their decisions. Former Senate Chaplain Lloyd John Ogilvie used to tell the senators: “You have one constituency: God. If you please Him, everything else works out.”
Ministries Today: So, you would argue that the gospel-and your role-is not out of place on Capitol Hill?
Black: Good news is as needed on Capitol Hill as anywhere. Moreover, many of the challenges we face today are analogous to those faced by Nebuchadnezzar. There's a sense of foreboding, but we can't remember the dream. There are many wise men who can give you the interpretation of a dream that you can remember, but who are powerless when revelatory knowledge is needed.
I think we face challenges as a nation-and as a planet-that create this sense of foreboding. We need supernatural wisdom, supernatural guidance. Our leaders need a wisdom the world can't give them. It's time for people who know the Lord to connect with Him in such a way that He can impart the desperately needed wisdom that can make the difference for a nation.
Ministries Today: You use the word “revelatory.” Do you see God speaking through people today-not just through His Word?
Black: The Scriptures are not some static verbiage encased in the cannon. They're alive, as 2 Timothy 3:16 says. So, we do not so much search the Scriptures, as the Scriptures search us. Not a day goes by that I do not receive a rhema word from God. If I depend on what I read a couple of days ago, that's like trying to save the manna. It just doesn't work that way.
I believe God speaks in the here and now. Joel prophesied, “And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” I think we're in that time.
Ministries Today: Speaking of prophecy, Ugandan pastor Jackson Senyonga prophesied over you about renewal in Washington, D.C. Can you tell us about that?
Black: The week before he came, the Lord had laid on my heart Psalm 2:8, “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” Jackson came and said, “God sent me here with a word for you, and He told me to tell you to ask Him for the nations.”
It was a validation of the rhema word God had laid on my heart. It kept reverberating in the corridors of my spirit, and he and I discussed how this could happen based on what had happened in Uganda. He laid out a step-by-step blueprint of a necessary process of the realization of the vision. It was one of a number of prophetic visits I've received.
Ministries Today: So, would you consider yourself a charismatic?
Black: I would call myself a theological eclectic. I read through the Bible three or four times a year, and I listen to CDs of Scripture. I deliberately drive to work in an hour-and-a-half round trip where I'm in the Word just hearing it and letting it move through me.
What happens when you immerse yourself in the Word is that you break out of labels, you become a moving target. There's a flexibility and a breadth and a lack of strictures to the religion of Jesus Christ. That same freedom manifests itself in terms of our theological stances. The moment you can put something in concrete, you're headed for a problem. You need to always be open to a move of God, a fresh word from the Lord.
Ministries Today: Is there any hope of the Christian “right” and the Christian “left” coming together?
Black: The focus of left and right should be to get back to basics. We've become too smart for our own good. When the Magi came to Herod, they called in the theologians. They came in extremely knowledgeable. They knew where He was to be born, but they did not have the spiritual wisdom to walk the five miles and worship Him. You need more than information. The wise men did not have the information, they had an experience. They were following a star. The ones with the cerebral advantage did not take advantage of it.
My feeling is that what's up here [pointing to head] is minor compared to what's down here [pointing to his heart]. I'll take a rough Elijah who's looking about the political scene and saying: “God, now they're saying that Baal is the one who sends the rain. Show Yourself strong. Stand up and do something.”
James 5 says, “One man, just like us, shut up the heavens for three-and-one-half years.” That's what we need in our pulpits. That's what we need in our churches. That's what we need in our legislative and executive branch.
Ministries Today: So, you would argue that our problems are primarily spiritual, not political?
Black: More will be accomplished by wielding spiritual weapons and practicing the disciplines of fasting, praying and falling on our faces before the Lord than will ever be achieved by working behind the scenes to see if this or that will happen.
The heart of the king is in the Lord's hands. He turns it whichever way He wants to. So, to become preoccupied with who's in the executive branch, who's in the judicial branch, who's in the legislative branch is majoring on minors. There is a power beyond anything that these folk can do. God can have Nebuchadnezzar eating grass tomorrow.
Matthew Green is managing editor of Ministries Today.
Special Offer: Subscribe to Ministry Today magazine and receive two FREE gifts!