Rear Admiral Barry Black is the current Chaplain of the U.S. Senate. He was asked to speak at a memorial ceremony for Senator John McCain on Friday, August 31st at the Capitol Rotunda.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Barry Black Is the First African-American Man to Serve as Senate Chaplain
Retired Rear Admiral Barry Black has been serving as Senate Chaplain since June 27, 2003. He is the 62nd person in the position but he set three notable records with his election. Black is the first African-American to hold the position. He is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, marking the first time the Senate has had a Chaplain with that affiliation. And Black is the first retired military officer chosen for the office.
The United States separates Church from State. But according to the Senate website, a Chaplain was appointed in 1789 because the founders wanted lawmakers to have a connection to God and spirituality when conducting their duties, regardless of individual religious affiliation. The Chaplain’s regular duties are laid out as follows:
“In addition to opening the Senate each day in prayer, Chaplain Black’s duties include counseling and spiritual care for the Senators, their families and their staffs, a combined constituency of six thousand people. Chaplain Black’s days are filled with meeting Senators about spiritual and moral issues, assisting Senators’ staffs with research on theological and biblical questions, teaching Senate Bible study groups, encouraging such groups as the weekly Senate Prayer Breakfast, and facilitating discussion and reflection small groups among Senators and staff.”
In an interview with C-SPAN in 2009, Black explained that of the 100 Senators, several regularly take the time to participate in Bible study and prayer sessions with him.
“We have a Prayer Breakfast each week for the Senators and you can get 20 to 25 Senators at that. So, eight or nine at the Bible study, 20 to 25 at the Prayer Breakfast. That’s a fairly significant percentage of the Senators taking time out of their busy week, an entire hour for either one of those, to participate in something spiritual.
I think one of the little known facts about the Senate is the level of spirituality among Senators. The Apostle Paul in Philippians 4 said, “There are saints in Caesar’s household.” And many people believe he was actually talking about the Emperor Nero. So, if Nero had saints in his household, you can – you can expect some spiritually fit individuals on Capitol Hill as well. And it’s very interesting because Senators from both sides of the aisle participate in the Prayer Breakfasts and in the Bible study.”
2. Barry Black Was Raised in Inner-City Baltimore Along With Seven Siblings and Described His Father as Being ‘In and Out’ of his Childhood
Rear Admiral Barry Black was born on November 1, 1948 in inner-city Baltimore. His mother, Pearline, raised him and his seven siblings largely on her own. Pearline was baptized as a Seventh-day Adventist when she was pregnant with Black, who was her fourth child. His mother prayed that God would place a “special anointing” on her unborn child. Black partially credits that consecration with his lifelong desire to be a minister. As he grew up, Black honed his speaking skills by memorizing and reciting scripture verses.
In the C-SPAN interview referenced above, Black explained that his childhood was a difficult one. He also detailed his upbringing in an autobiography, From the Hood to the Hill.
Black described his neighborhood in Baltimore as “toxic,” filled with drug dealers, prostitution and domestic violence. He says his mother, who earned $6 per day scrubbing floors and ironing other people’s clothing, did everything she could to make sure her children could attend Christian schools. To accomplish this, Pearline sometimes couldn’t pay the rent. Black says there were three instances growing up when he came home from school to find the furniture in the street, because they had been evicted.
His father was not around most of the time. He worked as a long-distance truck driver and was a “nomad.” Barry Black says the three youngest siblings had a better relationship with their dad, but that the oldest five had very little interaction with him. Black explained to C-SPAN that at his father’s funeral, “the first five, and I was in that group, we were almost stoical. I mean we really didn’t know him very well. And the other three were almost inconsolable.”
Black left Baltimore as a junior in high school, to attend a boarding school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. From there, he attended college at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. He earned a bachelor’s degree in theology in 1970. He made the decision to pursue a career in the ministry when he was a junior in college. He moved back north to attend Andrews University Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan, where he earned a Master of Divinity degree. Barry Black also obtained degrees from North Carolina Central University, the Eastern Baptist Seminary, Salve Regina University, and United States International University. In addition to his religious degrees, Black also has a doctorate in psychology.
3. Barry Black Says He Isn’t Shy About Sharing His Political Views With Senators, Even Though His Office Is Non-Partisan
The office of the Senate Chaplain is non-partisan. But Rear Admiral Barry Black has said he is not shy about expressing his political opinions with Senators if they ask for his opinion behind closed doors. Black told C-SPAN, “My primary concern is that when a senator makes a decision, he or she has an ethical reason or reasons for the decision that is being made, for the way he or she is voting.”
In February 2017, Black brought thousands of people to their feet when he addressed the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. He spoke about the power of prayer and called for people on both sides of the aisle to come together. After the speech, President Trump praised Black, telling him, “Your job is very, very secure.” You can watch the speech in its entirety above.
In July of 2018, Black addressed the ever-worsening political discord dividing the country in an interview with CBN. He said that Republicans and Democrats come together during the prayer breakfasts and Bible studies that Black leads, and that that kind of leadership needs to be incorporated on the Senate floor.
In the interview, Black was asked to comment on President Trump’s frequent Twitter tirades, which he often uses to criticize others. Black responded that God works in mysterious ways, and referenced a Bible verse from the story of Joseph and his brothers: “My reaction is Romans 8:28: In everything God is working for the good of those who love Him who have been called according to His purposes.”
4. Black Served in the U.S. Navy for 27 Years and Became Chief of Navy Chaplains Before Joining the Senate
Rear Admiral Barry Black joined the U.S Navy in 1976. This role moved him and his family around often. His assignments included stations in:
• Fleet Religious Support Activity in Norfolk, Virginia
• Naval Support Activity in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
• U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland
• First Marine Aircraft Wing in Okinawa, Japan
• Naval Training Center in San Diego, California
• Marine Aircraft Group THIRTY-ONE in Beaufort, South Carolina
• Chief of Naval Education and Training in Pensacola, Florida
Black was highly decorated during in the Navy. His awards included:
• Navy Distinguished Service Medal
• Legion of Merit Medal
• Defense Meritorious Service Medal (2)
• Meritorious Service Medals (2)
• Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals (2)
On August 18, 2000, Barry Black became the Chief of Chaplains for the U.S. Navy. President Bill Clinton and Navy Secretary Richard Danzig nominated him for that position, which also requires Senate confirmation. In this role, Black was responsible for overseeing more than 1,000 U.S. Navy Chaplains.
5. Chaplain Black Met His Wife During College and They Have Three Sons
Rear Admiral Barry Black has been married to Brenda Pearsall Black since 1973. She is originally from St. Petersburg, Florida. Her career was teaching; she was a college English teacher for more than 30 years.
Brenda has been an active member of the ministry in Washington, D.C. According to an article she wrote for CLUTCH in 2011, Brenda volunteers as a mentor at an urban community center and school in the area. She also was active in the local Seventh-day Adventist Church, as a teacher and women’s ministries coordinator.
In the article, she wrote that women need to forgive themselves for being unable to “do it all,” all the time.
“There is no such thing as having it all. Life is made of trade-offs. If marriage and parenting is a full-time job, and I think most of us would agree that it is, then you have to decide for yourself what will get traded off. But be honest with yourself — something has to go. Don’t even delude yourself into believing that you can cover all the bases…
When my husband was deployed for six-month periods, being there for our three sons was a challenge for me. I wish I could say I covered all the bases and did it all. But, in so many ways, I often failed miserably—as a wife, as a mother, as a college English teacher, as a woman of God. When people hear me introduced as having 37 years of marriage and three successful sons, they want to know how I did it. My standard answer is “Grace and Mercy!”
Barry and Brenda Black raised three sons: Barry II, Brendan, and Bradford. Barry II lives in Washington, D.C. as well and works as a senior marketing manager for a composites industry trade group, according to his LinkedIn page. Brendan attended medical school at the University of Michigan. Bradford attended the University of Chicago.