Backstory: The senators' minister

Barry Black can do high church. He can do jive. He can do Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, and Oprah. Psychologist, theologian, professor, comedian, the 62nd Chaplain of the United States Senate seems such an ingeniously 21st-century incarnation of a centuries-old role, you wonder if he's been heaven-sent.

Chaplain Black is charged with bringing a bit of the holy to the secular basilica on Capitol Hill. He pastors the 7,000-strong Senate side – the legislators themselves, their staffers, employees, and families. He leads five Bible studies each week, along with a senators' prayer breakfast. He marries, buries, counsels, visits the sick and, of course, prays. He and his three-person staff also field senators' inquiries on religion, morality, and ethics.

What would qualify a man to shepherd a body representing such a diverse nation – one that may not even agree that there should be a shepherd at all, let alone who that shepherd should be? For starters, 27 years in the military. Black, who rose to become chief of chaplains for the Navy, and retired as rear admiral, was responsible for the spiritual welfare of service people of all stripes, required to be as cognizant of Ramadan as of Christmas. And with doctoral degrees in clinical psychology and theology, he's a "twofer," he says, his background "a wonderful blend of helping professions."

Black's earliest training came from his late mother, who raised her eight children in a Baltimore housing project, paying them a nickel for each verse of Scripture memorized. Black, even then a pragmatist, first mastered the Book of Proverbs because its verses were short. Now married with three sons of his own, he still turns to Proverbs as part of his daily prayer.

"I love the Bible," he says plainly. He hears it in full three to four times a year, listening by CD en route to work from his suburban Virginia home. And he turns to it first thing each morning as he settles in at his desk, looking down the Mall at the Washington Monument. "I see prayer as conversation with God, and I give God the courtesy of starting the conversation," he explains.

In dress and demeanor, Black is very much the starched military officer – direct, deflecting inquiries of an introspective nature, turning to his bookshelves of worn classics (Aquinas, Kant, Shakespeare) for meaning. He dips into history when asked whether his job can survive in a religion-averse age, explaining that the founders established his post just three days before penning the free exercise of religion clause of the Constitution. "It would strain credulity to believe that people who had just established a chaplaincy for the Congress would, three days later, write an amendment that basically said 'get rid of it,' " he says.

Black, the first Seventh Day Adventist in a post historically dominated by Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians, is dismissive of denomination. "Anyone who operated in a pluralistic ministry [like the military] has to be something of a theological eclectic." As on the Supreme Court, there is no term of office for the chaplain. Black, whose autobiography, "From the Hood to the Hill" is due out in August, was selected by a nonpartisan committee after Lloyd John Ogilvie retired in 2002.

The chaplain, it might be said, is in the world of party politics but not of it. He relishes his role as spiritual guide. "As you provide ministry over time you build a level of trust," he says. Senators "understand that this is one of the few places you can go and be transparent." Having a glimpse into the moral and ethical struggling, the nuanced thinking, which often precedes an important vote, Black guesses he's more optimistic about the process, and more confident in the legislators, than the average American might be. Using the words of Paul, he has come to believe that there indeed are "saints in Caesar's household."

Unfazed by what outsiders may consider an unseemly world of partisanship, the chaplain sees honor in it. "The fuel of the Senate is trust," he explains, and he aims to foster community among senators, bringing those on opposite sides of the aisle together at Bible studies and prayer breakfasts.

In counseling, Black taps his bounty of religious, historical, and philosophical knowledge. He says he functions as a sort of spiritual ophthalmologist, bringing down the ethical "lenses" of great thinkers in search of something that will provide clarity for the seeker. If the Golden Rule doesn't illuminate an issue, perhaps the notion of striving to do the most good for the most people will. Or, what if you were to live in such a way that your action can be made universal law? "You're going to get to 20-20 vision, or pretty close to it," he says, explaining that many choices are not between right and wrong, but between right and right – between mercy and justice, for instance, or truth and loyalty.

Black believes that the Bible is clear on such issues as gay marriage, the right to life, and abortion, and will say so to those who ask. But his ministry isn't dependent on having senators agree with him. As in the Navy, where the chaplain is also an essential adviser, he says: "You give your advice, and the powers that be can do with it what they want."

His high-level military experience has served him well during a time of war and terrorism in ministering to senators, many of whom have no military experience.

Black's ceremonial self goes to work at about 9:30 a.m. when he opens the Senate day with prayer. His words, entered in the Congressional Record, become part of history in a town consumed with it.

One recent morning, Black – who is boyishly youthful and pristine in cuff links, bow tie, and pocket square – stood in the hallowed but lightly populated Senate chambers, recited the Pledge of Allegiance with the others, and prayed that the senators be instruments of God's will. But for the singular surroundings and the dozen new Senate pages huddled together like kindergartners, it could have been a town meeting almost anywhere.

Later, at a lunchtime Bible study, the chaplain was confident preacher and beloved teacher to some 60 mostly young Senate staffers gathered in a wood- paneled hearing room. Using anecdote and Scripture, he talked motivation, ambition, and manipulation, eliciting laughter as often as reflection, building up to a final "amen" and directive to "be in the Word" at least once a day.

"I take great pride in calling him my pastor," says Sen. Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat and longest-serving senator. He describes an easy relationship with the chaplain: "He comes up to me on the Senate floor and we talk about things together." Senator Byrd notes Black's ministry to the senator's family during his wife Erma's recent illness and death. "When Erma was sick, he'd come to our house and pray with us. I found his strength of faith to be inspiring," says Byrd.

"He brought us all together," the senator recalls. "We felt like he was one of our own."

Of his Capitol Hill ministry, Black says: "I feel the presence of the transcendent just by being here." He says that same presence was at work when, at age 8, he memorized the sermons of the illustrious Senate Chaplain Peter Marshall by playing over and over his mother's 78 r.p.m. records of them.

So, too, was that presence at work as the newly retired admiral stood in an airport line in 2003, praying for guidance in choosing from among three so-so job offers. At that moment, the prayer was answered – by cellphone, no less – when Sen. Bill Frist called to offer him the chaplaincy.

Beyond that, Barry Black is not one for much cosmic conjecture: "The record thing and the cell phone: that would be about it."

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