HeroVet: Senate Chaplain Barry Black

Rear Admiral Barry Black, U.S. Senate Chaplain

As is the case each year, Mother’s Day 2009 reminded us all of our moms and their role and impact in our lives. For the Navy’s own Barry Black, U.S. Senate Chaplain, mom is a central figure in his life of service to the country.

Many of us look to spiritual leaders for advice and guidance. For Barry Black, that means helping 100 senators with diverse faiths, recognizing and appreciating freedom’s gifts just as he did for those in uniform for over 25 years. In July 2003, Barry Black became the first African-American, the first Seventh-day Adventist, and the first military chaplain to hold the office of Senate chaplain. He’s also recognized for delivering scripture and prayer at the Pentagon for the September 11 memorial services. "I really enjoy ministry in a setting of religious diversity. I don’t get excited when everybody is the same—comes from the same religious tradition," he said in an interview with the Adventist Review.

Rear Admiral Barry C. Black (Ret.) was elected the 62nd Chaplain of the United States Senate. He began working in the Senate on July 7, 2003. Prior to coming to Capitol Hill, Chaplain Black served in the U.S. Navy for over twenty-seven years, ending his distinguished career as the Chief of Navy Chaplains. The Senate elected its first chaplain in 1789.

But with a deep spirituality and love of country, Admiral Barry Black is clear in crediting his mother for establishing his bonds of service. "I watched my mother succeed against great odds because of her willingness to work," he wrote in his autobiography, ‘From the Hood to the Hill.’"

"As a domestic, she was unafraid of lowly tasks because she believed Proverbs 14:23: ‘All hard work brings a profit.’ She insisted that her children make a commitment to earning their way in life, to cast aside notions of entitlement. She taught us that God helps those who help themselves and that our reach should exceed our grasp," he added.

Reflecting on his childhood, Black said his mother worked for $6 a day and his father was unemployed most of the time or not around. He remembers the family being evicted three times before moving into a project in Baltimore. He said the projects were heaven compared to other places the family had lived.

Black also credits the members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church he attended with helping him stay out of trouble. A number of them must have seen something good in him, he said, because they encouraged him to rise above poverty and his environment. "They would make jobs for me," he said. "Some church members would let me scrub their white steps for 25 cents. Another lady paid me to help clean her home, but she was a little more generous."

He is also a man with strong ties to President Obama. While in the Senate, the chaplain formed a friendship with the 44th President. Prior to giving the invocation at a post-inaugural luncheon, Admiral Black reflected on the opportunities that lie ahead. He said working across party lines is what he does and continues to do best -- and believes Obama will be able to do the same.

"The people whom I seek to serve, I get to know as brothers and sisters," Black said. "I get to know the Senators as brothers and sisters -- and once you get to know someone, partisan labels sort of fall away and you’re able to relate to them as people. And there are good people on both sides of the aisle."

"My job as Chaplain of the Senate, gives me a front row seat to history," Black said. "The people I interact with on a daily basis, I see on the evening news. So this is very, very exciting -- and I’ve had a sense of wonder since coming to this job."

Celebrating the diversity of our nation has been his path. Formerly chief of chaplains with the U.S. Navy, Admiral Black was in charge of advising the secretary of the Navy, chief of Naval Operations, Commandant of the Marine Corps, and commandant of the Coast Guard on religion, ethics, and moral issues. He also directed the ministry for chaplains of different faiths, currently about 1,500 chaplains, both active duty and reserves, spanning those branches of armed forces.

In an interview while still in that role, Admiral Black defined his primary concern to support the "spiritual growth" for the U.S. Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. "We have Islamic chaplains, rabbis, and of course Christian chaplains to provide for the spiritual well being of people all over the world."

"That vision is to deliver innovative, life-transforming service to the people we are called to serve," he added.

Experience, Admiral Black later said in another interview, which also helps him in the Senate chambers:

"First, the military is a pluralistic setting of religious diversity, and so is the Senate. Second, in my responsibility as chief of chaplains I have an advisory function to some very powerful people. It will be the same in the Senate. Third, the military is frequently faced with tremendous challenges that relate to national security and international stability, and that will also take place in the Senate."

All legislative sessions in the Senate are opened with prayer. In addition, the Senate chaplain provides ongoing pastoral counseling to senators and their families and staff. They perform a variety of ceremonies, from officiating at weddings to conducting memorial services. Roughly 6,000 individuals are helped by the Senate Chaplain, a position that spans as far back as the birth of our nation’s government, created for the first U.S. Senate in 1789.

But above all, as he says in his book, his mother was the common denominator throughout it all:

"My mother and an extended church family imparted to my siblings and me the belief that God had great plans for our lives. They backed this optimism with their cheerful diligence and used Scripture to reinforce a positive outlook. These wonderful people encouraged and mentored me."

Commissioned as a Navy Chaplain in 1976, Chaplain Black’s first duty station was the Fleet Religious Support Activity in Norfolk, Virginia, and culminated as the Chief of Chaplains with the Navy prior to his retirement in 2003.

Along with his Adventist education, Black holds a Master of Arts degree in counseling from North Carolina Central University, a Master of Arts in management from Salve Regina University, a Doctorate in ministry from East Baptist Seminary, and a Doctorate in psychology from the United States International University.

As Rear Admiral, his personal decorations included the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit Medal, Defense Meritorious Service Medal (two medals), Meritorious Service Medals (two awards), Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals (two awards), and numerous unit awards, campaign, and service medals.


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