Whenever Barry Black gazes upon the photos of his predecessors in the office of the U.S. Senate chaplain, his own image immediately sticks out.
“They go back so far that they start looking like James Madison and Benjamin Franklin. And all of the pictures are in black and white,” Black said. “Two of the pictures are in color. My predecessor, Dr. Lloyd John Ogilvie … And my photograph is in color. And I say, tongue in cheek, and I am in color.”
Black, 74, said the first highlight of his 20-year career as the 62nd chaplain of the U.S. Senate was simply being selected as the first African American person to hold his role.
Additionally, Black is the first Seventh-day Adventist pastor to serve as chaplain. According to the North American division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church — based in Columbia — it is a mainstream Protestant church with over 1.2 million members in North America.
Black was appointed to his role in July 2003, making him the longest-consecutive-serving Senate chaplain in U.S. history; the first chaplain was appointed in 1789. That isn’t a record Black expected to hold when he was first named to the position by then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican.
“I was retiring as a two-star admiral from the United States Navy Chaplain Corps and was looking forward to a magic carpet ride for the rest of my life,” Black said. “If someone told me that I would be on Capitol Hill for two decades, I would have ... said, ‘You’re probably delusional.’”
But it may not be as shocking to Purnell Jones, who grew up going to church and playing with Black; both were one of eight children. Jones, 76, said even when they were young, there was “no question” the “down to earth” Black would pursue a life in the church.
Black grew up in South Baltimore’s Cherry Hill neighborhood, which he said his family thought was the “Promised Land.” He attended Baltimore Junior Academy, a local Christian school. He has degrees from several colleges, including Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, a historically Black and Seventh-day Adventist university.
After pastoring for 11 churches in North and South Carolina, Black said he followed a passion for working with young people through his 27 years with the Navy Chaplain Corps.
In an email, Frist said he selected Black for the Senate position because he demonstrated in the Navy that he has an “uncanny, extraordinary ability to communicate clear and intimate messages to a person of one, or to an audience of a thousand.” Frist added that Black “surpassed all expectations over the past 20 years.”
U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware, was already in office when Black took his. Over the years, the two have bonded over their shared Navy experience and love for exercise, sports, music and their wives.
“I don’t think he ever sleeps because he crams a lot into the days,” Carper said. “He knows his Scripture like I know the back of my hand.”
As chaplain, Black is the pastor to everyone on the Senate side of the legislative branch, which he said adds up to about 6,000 people. (Margaret Grun Kibben is the chaplain of the House of Representatives.) While Black preaches in the Christian tradition, he also has brought in other people of faith for the diverse community he oversees, such as rabbis and imams or Hindu and Buddhist priests. Black also opens each Senate day in prayer, hosts a bipartisan prayer breakfast and holds Bible studies.
U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, also a Democrat from Delaware, said that although “this is as partisan and divided a Senate as we have had in a century or more,” Black is able to “build and maintain authentic, positive relationships with senators of both parties.”
He added that Black is genuine and available to meet with anyone who needs him.
“He always seems to have time for you. Whoever he’s talking to, he helps you feel like you’re the most important person in the world he can talk to right now,” Coons said. “I think he brings to this very difficult service as the chaplain of the United States Senate the kind of seriousness and heartfelt commitment to ministry that this moment and this body, this Senate, needs and demands.”
Born during segregation, Black has seen the world change drastically around him. But he thinks his role today is the same as it was 20 years ago.
“It’s a pastor ministering to the flock and meeting their spiritual needs,” Black said. “They’re away from home and they’re away from their own churches, many of the staffers, nearly all of the senators.”
While he works in D.C. and lives in Northern Virginia, Black still attends church seven or eight times a year at Berea Temple Seventh-day Adventist Church in Baltimore, where he was baptized. Jones, also a member of the church, said they’re all proud of Black.
Black and his wife, Brenda, will celebrate 50 years of marriage in June. They have three sons together.
After putting in two decades of ministry on Capitol Hill, Black said he doesn’t often think about retirement.
“I believe I have a connection with God,” Black said. “And when it’s time for me to push the ejector button, I’m sure he will give me clarity about that decision.”
This article is part of our Newsmaker series, which profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at email@example.com.