- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 25, 2009

These are excerpts from an interview that religion editor Julia Duin had with the Rev. Barry Black, the 62nd chaplain to the U.S. Senate at his office in the U.S. Capitol. Mr. Black, the first Seventh-day Adventist and first black man to hold the chaplain’s post, discusses his role in the Senate, his workload and his understanding of prayer.

Question: Do you know President Obama?

Answer: Actually, when he came to Senate, yes. I’ve known him now for a few years. There was no African-African senator when I came here. When he came and I’m invited in the for the orientation of the new senator. …

Q: You are?

A: And so I had an opportunity to get to know him and the first lady, at that time, and develop a friendship.

Q: Why do you do the orientation? I’m curious.

A: Well, there is a general orientation for new senators anyway, they come to Capitol Hill - the different things they need to know about what’s available, what’s expected. And, of course, the sergeant-at-arms will talk to them, the secretary will talk to them. And I’m an officer of the Senate, like the sergeant-at-arms and the secretary. So I talk to them about what we do at the Chaplain’s Department and what they can expect from us. I have an advisory function to them anyway, where I talk to them about the ethical dimensions of the issues that they are debating in the chamber. I provide counseling for staffers, so they need to know that they have the resource of this office that they can turn to.

Q: Do you get many questions on the ethics of [public issues]. Do you get that many people showing up here?

A: Well, every issue that is debated has the ethical issue of what is the right decision we should make. So although my job is nonpartisan and not sectarian, obviously I can give some pros and cons regarding various decisions that are being debated in the chamber, whether you’re talking about definition of marriage, stem-cell research. Certainly my military background provides me with an opportunity to give quite a bit of advice regarding war. The establishment clause of the First Amendment - when is a piece of legislation potentially breaching the establishment clause of the First Amendment and a variety of other things.

Q: How many senators per month would you say contact you in one way or another to ask you?

A: Well I’d say probably - because I interact with senators at a prayer breakfast every week, I conduct a Bible study for senators every week, and then I’m on the floor usually during roll call votes and I see them in informal settings around Capitol Hill, I’d say probably at least 45-50 senators a week have some type of conversation with me.

Q: How many come to the prayer breakfast?

A: Oh, we can get as many as 20 or 30.

Q: And the Bible study?

A: We can get nine or 10.

Q: These are early morning ones?

A: Well, the prayer breakfast is in the morning; the Bible study is in the - well, actually in the afternoon, at noon.

Q: You do a lot.

A: Well, I’m a pastor for 7,000 people on the Senate side of Capitol Hill.

Q: That’s what I was reading in the interview you did with PBS: 7,000 people, you’re a - you’re certainly - you’re a megachurch.

A: In a sense, yes.

Q: One reason I have never interviewed you in the six years you’ve been here - you’re 60, right?

A: Mmm-hmm.

Q: And you’ll be 61 in November - All Saints’ Day.

A: That’s right.

Q: Have you - I’m taking this from interviews you’ve done before - the spiritual mentoring class that you do. You were talking about fasting and meditation. Are these just the spiritual mentoring, is this for elected officials, or is this sort of any one of the 7,000?

A: It’s for anyone who wants to go through the class. The class is a 10-session seminar in mastering the spiritual disciplines, and so many people are told pray, study your Bible, fast, benefit from solitude, benefit from silence, a variety of things. And yet they’re never taught how to pray, they’re never taught how to study the Bible, they’re never taught how to fast, they’re never taught how to benefit from solitude. So mastering the spiritual disciplines gets into a practical methodology in how to do those things. And most of the people who end up attending the classes are folk who come to the Bible study, one of the plenary Bible studies. We have five Bible studies a week, and two are plenary - anyone who desires to come. And the largest one is on Friday at Dirksen. And we can get as many as 200 people to attend that Bible study … this is just a small section that you can see. This is a Friday Bible study and there are probably 150 people in the room, you can see.

Q: OK, 200 people? Because everyone has said really good things about your Bible [study] - your teaching. They really think you’re a good teacher. Although you call yourself an intercessor in the PBS interview. Are you more a teacher or an intercessor?

A: Well, I think I’m both. I think that the intercession comes from praying for the senators, for the people whom I seek to serve. And it comes from praying for the nation. One of my most visible public responsibilities is to open each Senate session with a prayer. So that’s a form of intercession. And it’s a byproduct of my pastoral contact with people and my devotional life. So you’re praying out of the overflow of your devotional life and your pastoral contact.

Q: What time each morning do you do that?

A: Depends on when the Senate opens. Sometimes it opens at 9:30, other times at 10.

Q: And you have a different prayer each day

A: Oh, yeah.

Q: How much time do you personally spend in prayer per day?

A: Well, 1 Thessalonians 5 says “pray without ceasing.” So if one views prayer not as simply the words that you speak but as an awareness that God is with you and an awareness of his presence, then I probably pray 60 to 70 percent of my waking moments. I could take a trip with my wife from Washington, D.C., to New York - say, it’s a five-hour drive. There will be few moments during that drive when I am not aware of her presence in her car. I might not be saying anything to her, but I am still aware of her presence. And I think prayer ideally is an awareness of the presence of God.

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