The Senate's shepherd

"The Senate's shepherd" Continued...

Issue: "Gulf toil," June 5, 2010

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."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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