Nearly seven years into his current ministry, Barry Black gets the typical questions all pastors must deal with from their flock: Is this the person I am supposed to marry? How can I get along better with my boss? Does God want me to run for president?
OK, so maybe not every question Black gets is common to all pastors.
That's because Black is the 62nd chaplain of the U.S. Senate. The 61-year-old Baltimore native, the Senate's first African-American chaplain, is charged with meeting the spiritual needs of the chamber's 100 members, their families, and their sizeable staffs. "In short, I pastor a congregation of about 7,000 people," Black recently told a group of visiting Methodist ministers. "And I'm not the senior pastor. I'm the only pastor."
Indeed, Black boasts a three-person staff to help him navigate a schedule that includes an average of five public speaking appearances a day, five Bible studies a week, and countless private counseling moments.
Click on CSPAN2 on most mornings and you are likely to see Black inside the Senate chamber trying to set the tone for the day with a brief but packed prayer: "Gracious God, You have blessed us beyond our deserving, making our nation a land of liberty," he prayed on a recent morning. "Help us to protect our freedoms with diligence and integrity. Bless our national leaders, may each bring glory to Your Name. Help them to seek You so that they may learn not how to get their own way, but how to take Your way."
These prayers often have a spontaneous quality to them because Black, a Seventh-Day Adventist, usually first utters them aloud while having a "conversation with God" in his third-floor Capitol office. There Black prays for the country and its lawmakers while sitting before a window that provides one of the Capitol's best views of the National Mall and its surrounding monuments.
Black describes his job as "singing the Lord's song in a strange land," paraphrasing Psalm 137. This won't be the only time during my visit when Black quotes the Scriptures from memory.
Sitting with me in his arched ceiling office where crammed bookcases line the walls, Black exudes a calm that is rooted in his belief that God has him in this job for a reason-and that God began equipping Black for this challenge nearly 50 years ago.
Growing up on welfare in inner-city Baltimore, Black, one of eight siblings, found refuge at a place within easy walking distance from his small home: Berea Temple Church. Black's mom, Pearline, became a Christian while pregnant with Barry.
When he was 8 years old, Black's mother bought a record of sermons by theologian Peter Marshall. Without many records in the home, Black played it over and over again until he memorized most if it. He could even recite it with a fair imitation of Marshall's Scottish accent. What the young Black didn't know at the time: Marshall, a Presbyterian minister, had twice been appointed Senate chaplain in the late 1940s.
"I would probably have had difficulty spelling Senate at that time," says Black, who even now can recite large chunks of Marshall's sermons complete with accent. "But there I was memorizing Marshall. I believe that was God's way of placing a marker in my life so that years later I would be reminded that the fact I am now a successor to Marshall was probably His idea rather than mine."
Black, who is married with three sons and who recounts his life journey in the book From the Hood to the Hill, unspools this tale to me like a mini-sermon, reciting Romans 8:38 and Jeremiah 29:11-13. During our conversation he inserts passages from Matthew, Luke, John, Philippians, Proverbs, 2 Chronicles, James, and 2 Timothy. They roll off his tongue in such a natural way it seems clear they are written on his heart.
"It doesn't matter what chapter from Genesis to Revelation, he knows the entire Bible," proclaims Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican. "I've tried to find a verse he doesn't know by heart. But you can't do it."
Black credits nickels and quarters for his strong memory. While he was growing up in the 1950s, his mother paid Black and his siblings five cents for every verse they memorized. Black admits that he started with all the low-hanging scriptural fruit of short verses (see "Jesus wept" and Proverbs). But soon he was memorizing so many verses that Pearline put him on a flat rate of 25 cents a week.
Today all that loose change has paid off: As many as 30 senators come to Black's weekly prayer breakfast, while up to a dozen attend the weekly Bible study. "What many people don't see on CSPAN2 is the level of spirituality among the lawmakers," Black tells me. "The apostle Paul said in Philippians 4 that there are saints in Caesars' household, and I can assure you there are saints on Capitol Hill."
Senators are not reluctant to ask Black tough questions on the theological implications of proposed policies, and Black tries to tailor his teachings to what is going on in Congress. When a senator asked if God would allow humans to destroy the planet, Black responded with a study series on the prophesies of Daniel. During the heated healthcare debate, Black led a study on what the Bible says about end-of-life issues.
Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware, calls the Thursday senators-only Bible study one of the best half hours he spends each week. "Oftentimes Barry Black will remind us that we are servants," says Carper, who counts the building of friendships across party lines as an added benefit of the study. He listed to me all the Republican friendships he has that are strengthened by the study. "I have a good, quick group right there to look to when working on legislation together. It helps build a sense of trust when you learn what each other thinks and what our values are."
Black further practices what he calls a "ministry of presence." He stakes out a spot during votes where he can easily engage with senators coming in and out of the chamber: "Capitol Hill can be a very seductive environment. The hunger for power. The wealthy are here. If you are not careful then you can begin to major in minors when it comes to what really has eternal value."
"Barry leads by example much like the Bible teaches," says Isakson, who adds that the first call he received during a recent hospital stay came from Black. "His best advice to me always has been that patience is a virtue and having faith makes that patience possible."
Black, who holds two doctorates and three master's degrees, has a ready answer for those who think a person of faith should not have such up-close access to the nation's leaders. The country's framers, he says, established a congressional chaplaincy before they wrote the clause in the First Amendment that states Congress "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The day the founders wrote the Establishment Clause a chaplain opened the session with prayer. There has been a chaplain in the House and Senate since 1789.
"The framers saw that it was important that there be a spiritual dimension to government," Black tells me. "And, quite frankly, in these challenging times in which we live, we need a spiritual emphasis." As chaplain, Black must also accommodate those of other faiths. He invites rabbis to deliver Old Testament studies and imams for seasonal Muslim services (although there are no Muslims in the Senate; only one lawmaker, in the House, is Muslim).
Black is used to shepherding a diverse flock. As a young pastor in the mid-1970s, Black worked as a travelling preacher for three churches in North Carolina. He began to notice that the same three sailors would drive down from the naval base in Norfolk, Va., every Sunday to hear Black preach. "Why are you driving all of this way just to go to church?" he finally asked them. "There aren't any African-American chaplains on the base," they replied. Less than 18 months later Black became a Navy chaplain.
Black stayed in the Navy for 27 years, rising to the rank of rear admiral and ending his career as the chief of Navy chaplains. With the Navy, Black sailed every ocean and visited every continent. From there to Washington Black says he enjoys having a front row seat to history: "Its like Daniel watching Babylon during Nebuchadnezzar's period."