WASHINGTON – It’s been nearly a month since Senate Chaplain Barry Black made national headlines by using his opening morning prayer to scold lawmakers for their part in the recent government shutdown.
His words turned him into a folk hero to many.
“It is time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough,” Black said in early October before the chamber. “Cover our shame with the robe of your righteousness.”
“Remove from them that stubborn pride,” the chaplain, a Seventh-day Adventist and retired Navy rear admiral, said during another opening prayer. “Forgive them for the blunders they have committed.”
The impact on popular culture was immediate. Comedian Kenan Thompson parodied his prayer on “Saturday Night Live.” “Bless these braying jackasses,” Thompson said in the sketch.
The New York Times wrote a glowing profile. Senators on both side of the aisle called him a hero.
What seemed to resonate with many was that Black used his proximity to lawmakers to sharply give politicians a message that many Americans would have done if given a chance.
But in the weeks since the national spotlight has faded, Black has kept a low profile. He hasn’t given many interviews since the shutdown ended. His office politely declines to answer questions about his comings and goings.
But Black still does the daily work of talking to audiences about the word.
For instance, Black participated in a three-day revival last month at Zion Baptist Church in Washington, where he preached on the topic “Surviving as a Lamb in a Wolf’s World.” His remarks from the pulpit offered a window into what the Baltimore native is like when he is not presiding over federal lawmakers as chaplain.
“I am not here because I am the 62nd chaplain of the U.S. Senate. I am here because praise is what I do,” Black, quoting from a popular gospel song, told the assembled crowd at Zion.
The Rev. Keith Byrd Sr., the pastor of Zion, said Black first spoke during the church’s Men’s Day Program last December, and he was invited back to conduct a revival. Byrd said the timing of Black’s latest appearance was coincidental. “We had no idea what was going to transpire between December 12th and October 2013 but the Lord knew so he is here for this season and it is meant for him to be here to preach now for this season,” Byrd said.
Byrd said he wasn’t surprised that Black’s words had such an impact. “He is able to communicate with the average person while at the same time understand the challenges of the politician [and] what they are going through,” he said. “And right now we wanted him to speak because he can relate to where people are right now, people who are hurting.”
In an Oct. 23 interview with C-SPAN, Black offered some clues as to why he publicly chastised lawmakers. For example, during the shutdown, Black said: “When our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of children dying on faraway battlefields, it is time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough. Cover our shame with the robe of your righteousness, forgive us, reform us and make us whole. We pray in your merciful name.”
“I write my prayers out of the overflow of my devotional life,” he said, explaining his words. During the interview he quoted Supreme Court cases to offer an unapologetic response to a reporter’s questions as to whether he went too far. “I am a pastor first. I am not a politician. I am descriptive rather than prescriptive.”
Black said members of the Senate know him well, and they know what he prayed during the shutdown was different. “They know when I go off script, go rogue, it must be important. They take that very seriously. The scolding aspect [of prayer] is not the normal aspect of my praying.”
Black took over Senate chaplain duties 10 years ago. But while the national media focused on his recent rebuke to lawmakers, he is no novice to making his voice heard during tough times on Capitol Hill.
During Washington’s last major political stalemate – the 2011 “debt ceiling” fight – Black had some choice prayers, as well.
“Lord, help them to comprehend the global repercussions of some poor decisions, and the irreversibility of some tragic consequences,” he prayed in July 2011. “Quicken their ears to hear. Their eyes to see. Their hearts to believe and their wills to obey you. Before it is too late.”
Later that month, he said: “Deliver our lawmakers from the paralysis of analysis, when constructive and prompt action is desperately needed.”
Indeed, as his recent actions have shown, Black takes his role seriously in helping lawmakers develop the spiritual mettle to solve the country’s problems. He said that though he has many duties on Capitol Hill, his most important assignment is to pray every day for all of the members of the U.S. Senate and their spouses.
“I want to be the greatest intercessor in the history of the U.S. Senate,” Black told the Zion crowd.