Cherry Hill to Capitol Hill

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Barry C. Black was 8 when his mother returned to their West Baltimore home one day with a record album of two sermons by Peter Marshall, the famed preacher of Washington's New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

It was a gift from the family whose house she cleaned.

"I learned both of those sermons," says Black. And more than half a century later, he still knows them, putting on Marshall's high Scottish brogue as he recites: "The morning sun had been up for a few hours over the city of David ... "

Marshall was chaplain of the U.S. Senate when he died in 1949. Black has held that same position since 2003, when he retired as an admiral and head of the Navy's chaplain service.

"What are the statistical probabilities that an African-American child, coming out of the pathologies of the inner city, who memorized those sermons, would then grow up to be the Senate chaplain?" he asks. "I would say the probability was extremely low."

Black was in his office in the Capitol, with its view of the National Mall and the Washington Monument - a long journey from Division Street in Baltimore that he made on a path prescribed by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a story he chronicled in his 2006 book, From the Hood to the Hill.

He had just come from the Senate chamber, where he opens most sessions with a prayer. "That's what the public sees, but that's just the tip of the iceberg of what he does," says Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican from Arizona.

As chaplain, Black's days include advising senators on the ethical aspects of legislation, counseling individuals and running seven Bible study groups, whose participants range from senators to cafeteria workers - as well as an extensive schedule of speaking engagements.

"It is amazing all that they do out of this small office," says Aaron Jenkins, a member of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's staff who attends a weekly Bible study. "He really makes people feel comfortable with their faith in this setting."

Though religion is often a political fault line in America, Kyl says Black has made it just the opposite in the Capitol. "Before he became Senate chaplain, he was head of the chaplain services for the Navy," Kyl says. "There he learned how to deal with people of all faiths, to bring them together."

Black, who demonstrated for civil rights while attending college in Alabama, offered a prayer when the body of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks lay in honor in the Capitol rotunda. He did the same when former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald R. Ford lay in state there.

"It is the opportunity to be pastor to about 7,000 people," Black says of this job, a lifetime appointment. "You provide for the spiritual needs of not only the 100 senators and their families, but also for the thousands who make up the Senate side of Capitol Hill."

"He is a great preacher and a great teacher of the Bible," Kyl says. "Not everyone can do both."

At 59, Black still has the lean and fit look of the national-class runner he was in his younger years - 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard dash in college; a 4:05 mile later. His is a story of firsts: the first person of color, the first Seventh-day Adventist and the first retired military officer to serve as Senate chaplain, a position that dates to 1789.

None of that was visible from Division Street.

His mother worked sporadically as a domestic. "I still recall that she made $6 a day," Black says. When his father could get work, it took him away from home as a long-distance truck driver. When he couldn't, he drank.

Welfare was often the only source of income, Black says, and he recalls coming home three times and finding the family's possessions on the street after an eviction.

Right next door was Pennsylvania Avenue. But Black doesn't share the halcyon memories of that street with many in the African-American community of the 1950s, who recall it as a vibrant center of segregated Baltimore's black culture.

"It was a very violent area," he says, and the sound of gunfire was common. "There was all kinds of pathology on Pennsylvania Avenue - prostitution, drugs, alcoholism, all very prevalent."

He has a kinder view of Cherry Hill, where he moved in the late 1950s with his mother and four sisters. "Cherry Hill for us was an oasis," he says. "There was grass, a swimming pool, a playground. We felt like the Jeffersons, 'Movin' on up.' It was a wonderful experience for us."

Black has a simple explanation for his escape from what could have been a very different life: "The church was a lifeline," he says of Berea Temple. "Every time the doors of the church opened, my mother and, at that time, my four siblings were there."

That meant all day on the Adventists' Saturday sabbath - "We brought a sack lunch" - as well as Wednesday night prayer meetings, Sunday evening programs and nightly trips to summertime tent revival meetings.

It was at a summer revival, when she was pregnant with him, that Black's mother, Pearline, was baptized as a Seventh-day Adventist.

"She asked God to bless her unborn child," he says. "I have always wanted to be a minister. I've never wanted to be anything else. I made a commitment to the church when I was baptized at 10, and I never looked back."

Black knows where he might have wound up without the church. "I think I would have been drawn into the subculture of violence and pathology, of promiscuity," he says. "I would eventually have either been killed, as many of the people I grew up with were victims of homicide, or certainly incarcerated."

Black's education through college was in segregated schools run by the Seventh-day Adventists - a movement with one of the largest educational networks of any Protestant denomination. Through 10th grade, Black went to the Baltimore Junior Academy near Druid Hill Park.

"We were whisked off to school each morning," Black says. "In terms of interacting with the neighborhood, when we got back from school, we went inside and adopted a siege mentality."

For his last two years of high school, Black boarded at the church's Oakwood Academy in Pottstown, Pa. "It was a very rural, beautiful, bucolic setting, especially for someone who had never seen the stars, which I didn't really until I got out in the country with no street lights," he says. "I looked up and gasped in incredulity at the beauty of the heavens. 'The heavens declare the glory of God,' says the psalmist. That was a marvelous experience."

From Pennsylvania, Black went to Oakwood College, a historically black Adventist school in Huntsville, Ala. "That was pretty much the route in those days for African-American young people" in his church, Black says, recalling that he never shook the hand of a white person until he was 16.

"People don't understand how powerful the apartheid was that existed then, and now," he says. "There were no white people on the No. 37 Cherry Hill bus."

In Alabama, Black says he heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak and participated in lunch counter sit-ins in Huntsville. After seminary in Michigan - his first predominantly white school - Black was given eight small churches in North and South Carolina.

When he moved to bigger churches in Raleigh and Durham, N.C., he began to notice black sailors who drove hours from Norfolk, Va., to his services. They told him it was because they could find no black clergy in the Navy.

That's what gave him the idea of joining the service. He signed up in 1976 and stayed for 27 years.

"I often say that my worst day in the Navy was a good day," Black says. "It was a beatific experience, a protracted honeymoon. It really was."

He says his counseling, communication and athletic skills matched up well with the Navy, Marine and Coast Guard personnel to whom he ministered. He also credits his wife, Brenda, whom he met in college, with raising and home schooling their three children during his long absences.

Just as with his Senate position, he was the first African-American to head the Navy chaplains and the first Seventh-day Adventist.

Black says Seventh-day Adventists are often misunderstood. Founded in 1863, the denomination had fundamental doctrinal differences with mainstream Protestantism early on. For the most part, these disappeared a century ago, when Seventh-day Adventists accepted the Trinity.

Though few keep strictly kosher, Adventists do follow many of the dietary restrictions in the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. "If it was on God's hit list then, why not view it with caution?" says Black, who, like many in his church, is a vegetarian.

Black says he gets to Baltimore often, sometimes visiting - and preaching at - Berea Temple on Madison Avenue in West Baltimore.

"I tell you, my mother deciding to join the Seventh-day Adventist Church was the most positive thing she could have done for my family," Black says.

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