When the U.S. Senate is called to order, the first 75 seconds or so are yielded to the gentleman with the deep baritone voice and bow tie.
Standing at the rostrum of the Senate chambers in the U.S. Capitol, Senate Chaplain Barry Black reverently prays, often borrowing from Scripture or the lyrics of a classic hymn, as he did on March 21 when he addressed the Lord as “immortal, invisible, God only wise.”
He prays for the 100 senators he pastors—whose work is deeply divided by partisan politics.
“Give them the wisdom to refuse to do to others what they would not want done to themselves,” Black asked on March 5.
Sometimes his prayers are feisty, like during the 2013 governmental shutdown. Black daringly asked: “Save us from the madness.”
And he prays with a global vision, including this plea for revival on March 6: “Bring a spiritual awakening to our nation and world, prompting people to experience the transformative power of Your mercy and grace.”
At a time when religious liberty is under vicious attack in America, with court cases challenging formal public prayer at local government meetings, Black’s power-packed intercession at the highest level of the U.S. government goes on seamlessly in the tradition begun by the Founding Fathers.
Black, 69, is the 62nd Senate chaplain, serving since 2003, and is the first African-American to hold the position. He was previously the Navy’s chief of chaplains and rose to the rank of rear admiral before retiring.
He advises, counsels and prays with senators who seek his guidance, always trying to provide a Scriptural perspective. He meets with some of them in a weekly Bible study.
“Chaplain Barry Black is the picture of dignity and respect for God and His creation,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said in a statement provided for Decision. “He effectively represents the presence of God in a dark place that needs the light of Christ. His platform for ministry has grown across America as his heart for God’s truth has remained rooted in love. I thank God for his partnership in ministry to the Senate and his bold message of faith.”
Black has, as he likes to say, a front-row seat to history. He participated in the lying-in-honor memorial services at the Capitol Rotunda for civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks (invocation) in 2005 and Billy Graham (benediction) on Feb. 28.
“God has given me tremendous opportunities to be in the right place at the right time,” Black told Decision. “He’s chosen the weak things to confound the strong and the foolish things to confound the wise. I’m one of those choices that He uses to let people know He can use anyone.”
Black grew up in a family of eight children in the housing projects of Baltimore’s inner city, with prostitutes on street corners, drug dealers roaming the neighborhood and domestic violence happening in open view. His father, Lester, was rarely around, but his mother, Pearline, a domestic worker, was the rock of the family.
She accepted Christ and was baptized in 1948 while pregnant with Barry. She asked the Lord to give the baby she carried—not knowing if it was a boy or a girl—a special anointing of the Holy Spirit. For as long as Barry can remember, his only vocational desire was for ministry.
His love for Scripture began as a 4-year-old when Pearline started paying her children 5 cents allowance for memorizing a Bible verse. Barry became so prolific that she had to put him on a 25-cent weekly maximum.
Black says he has read the Bible every day since then. He also listens to audio of actor James Earl Jones reading Scripture—in a baritone voice similar to his own—on his 45-minute commutes to and from work. Black estimates that he hears the Bible read all the way through at least three times a year.
“If I were ever in solitary confinement, I wouldn’t need a Bible because I have a Bible with me in my heart,” he said. “But you have to be careful because many of the Pharisees could quote the Pentateuch by rote, and you see what they did to Jesus. It’s not enough to just memorize. You’ve got to get to know the Word made flesh.”
Black talked in his keynote address at the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast—before an audience that included President Trump and Vice President Pence—about the revelation of discovering 1 Peter 1:18-19 at age 10. The passage says we are not redeemed by corruptible things such as silver and gold, but by the precious blood of Jesus.
“Even at 10, I had sufficient analytical skills to know that the value of an object is based upon the price someone is willing to pay,” Black told the crowd. “When it dawned on me—a little guy in the inner city—that God sent what John 3 calls in the Greek the monogenēs—the only One of its kind, His only begotten Son—to die for me, no one was ever able to make me feel inferior again.”
Two years earlier, when Barry was 8, Pearline was given a record album with sermons by widely-known preacher Peter Marshall. She gave it to Barry, who listened to it repeatedly and memorized it.
It would be years before Black realized that Marshall had served as U.S. Senate chaplain (1947-49), including at the time Barry was born.
“That was the only record my mother was ever given,” Black said. “The statistical probability of that happening and then the kid grows up to become a successor to Marshall … I mean, that’s just not going to happen. It’s not an accident.”
Marshall’s album is now framed and hanging on the wall in Black’s home office.
“It reminds me of the goodness of God, that when I was 8 years of age and there were rats and roaches in my domicile, He had a plan for my life,” Black said.
It is with deep confidence in this One who has been so faithful to him that Black lifts up his prayers on the Senate floor. His standing request is that the Holy Spirit will pray through him.
“It has to come out of a connection with the Transcendent,” he said. “As Daniel said, ‘there is a God in Heaven who reveals secrets.’ He is the One I depend on and—praise God—He lives in me. It doesn’t get any better than that.”