ZEPHYRHILLS — He has given moral guidance to the nation's most powerful men and women. He presided at John F. Kennedy Jr.'s memorial service. And this weekend, the man who opens each session of the U.S. Senate in prayer will offer his wisdom at a Thanksgiving service.
Barry C. Black, the Senate's 62nd chaplain, talked with the St. Petersburg Times this week about his life, work and faith. Here are excerpts from his interview:
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? Did you want to be a pastor?
I've always wanted to be a pastor. My mother was pregnant with me when she was baptized, and she prayed a special prayer during the baptism that God would consecrate her unborn child. I was always taught a Bible idea found in Ephesians 3:20 — "God desires to do in our lives immeasurably and abundantly above all we can ask or imagine." After being asked to interview (for the Senate chaplain's post) I was not surprised that God opened that door as well. God has done so many amazing things in my life.
What brought you to visit a Zephyrhills church?
We receive five speaking invitations a day, and they are from all around the United States and the world. We get invitations from Europe to Africa to Asia to Australia. I simply pray over the invitations and decide which ones to accept. It's really not based upon what the church can do for me; it's based on a feeling that is a place where God would have me speak. Our pilgrimage is like Abraham; he was told where to go not knowing where he was going. Sometimes I do get a sense for the need because of a great emphasis on Christian education or because a church has a very aggressive prison ministry, which is a passion of mine.
What message do you plan to convey?
My basic objective in preaching is to help people to see that the work of Christ on Earth belongs to them. We are his hands; we are his feet; we are his heart. In a world facing tremendous challenges … I want to let them know he will use them as instruments of his glory.
What's a typical day like in the life a Senate chaplain?
There is no typical day. A day involves being a pastor for those who make up the Senate side — the senators, their families and their staffs, which numbers about 7,000. It's like being pastor of a megachurch. I convene each Senate session with prayer. I have a Bible study each week for senators and their spouses; there are three others: a Bible study for senators' chiefs of staff and two plenary Bibles studies open to everyone. We can get between 200 and 300 a Bible study. I also counsel and officiate at weddings and funerals. I also bring in rabbis and imams to provide for the specific needs of non-Christians.
Many senators come to you for advice on moral issues. Is there a topic that comes up most?
Any topic being debated in the chamber is fair game to ask the chaplain about, whether it's the Defense of Marriage Act, the (Terri) Schiavo case, or health care, war or the budget for the Department of Defense, all of those questions.
Sen. Ted Kennedy, known as the Lion of the Senate and whose politics elicited much admiration and contempt, died this year. Politics aside, what was he like as a person?
He was very down to earth, an outgoing individual who tried to make people feel very comfortable and at ease. I remember he was at a conference the Democrats were having — the beauty of my job is it's nonpolitical so I attend both Democratic and Republican conferences. I was at a table. I heard someone say, "Do you mind if I join you, chaplain?" We just had a delightful conversation. My son was with me. He was a high school senior trying to decide which college to go to. Later on that day when I was leaving one of the conference rooms I saw my son and Sen. Kennedy (talking) in one of the corridors.
For someone with his power and experience and prestige to just reach out to people like that was just very exemplary and just demonstrates the kind of person he was. He truly saw himself as a servant of people. His family instilled in him the belief that to whom much is given, much is expected.
I understand your wife is from St. Petersburg. How did the two of you meet?
I met her at Oakwood University in Huntsville (Ala.). She had a scholarship to Radcliffe but decided to go to a Christian school instead.
I was an upperclassman returning as the school's first student missionary to Peru, and I had to make a presentation in a building named Moran Hall. As I walked toward Moran Hall and was going over my talking points, she was standing on the steps. I was immediately smitten with her. It was like Faustus seeing Helen of Troy.
What do you like best about the Tampa Bay area?
I get to Tampa/St. Petersburg two or three times a year. When I'm there, I stay at MacDill (Air Force Base). The weather is absolutely amazing. I also like being around older people. It makes me feel younger. They have a great chess club in St. Petersburg with a lot of really strong older players. Some have played some of the great players in chess history. I love the water and love the beach. I proposed to my wife on a beach in St. Petersburg.
Describe your own spiritual practices.
I begin the day by praying the scriptures. I open the Bible and read and have a set format that I use. I read until I find some verse that really strikes me. I just talk to God about it … and then throughout the day (it involves) listening to Christian music, the Bible on CD. I meditate on the Bible with an acrostic or mnemonic tool, reflecting on what I have read or prayed about all day. I try to do the work of Christ in my work. He came to bring deliverance to captives, sight to the ethically and morally blind, to set at liberty those who are bruised. I try to have a special concern for the marginalized.
So what's today's verse?
Proverbs 17:27-28. It's about the importance of controlling your tongue. It says a person of knowledge uses conservative speech; you spare your words. Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent.
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.