Senate Chaplain's Velvet Voice Cuts Through Impeachment Fray - Word&Way

Senate Chaplain’s Velvet Voice Cuts Through Impeachment Fray

Barry Black gives opening prayer
Barry Black gives opening prayer

Senate chaplain and retired Navy Adm. Barry Black gives the opening prayer as presiding officer and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts listens during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Since the trial began, Black’s prayers have at times sought to guide senators through the political turbulence of the moment. (Senate Television via AP, File)

The impeachment trial of President Donald Trump doesn’t lack for strong speakers. But only one voice at the trial speaks to senators-turned-jurors about the values behind their actions — and keeps his focus on God.

Senate Chaplain Barry Black, 71, regularly opens the chamber’s proceedings with prayer and has done the same during the impeachment trial, giving a broader audience to the velvet-voiced Seventh-day Adventist and retired Navy rear admiral. Since the trial began, Black’s prayers have at times sought to guide senators through the political turbulence of the moment.

Barry Black

Barry Black, a retired rear admiral and chaplain of the U.S. Senate, delivers the homily during the funeral services of the late Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, at Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss. on June 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

“In spite of disagreements, may they strive for civility and respect,” Black said of senators last week, on the final day of Democratic arguments against Trump. “May they respect the right of the opposing side to differ regarding convictions and conclusions. Give them the wisdom to distinguish between facts and opinions without lambasting the messengers.”

A day earlier, Black opened the trial with a prayer that seemed to acknowledge rising tension on Capitol Hill, asking that “our senators not permit fatigue or cynicism to jeopardize friendships that have existed for years.”

Black, a Baltimore native who often sports a signature bow tie , became the Senate’s chaplain in 2003 after nearly three decades of military service that saw him become the chief of the Navy’s chaplains. His Senate post, which dates to 1789, includes “counseling and spiritual care” for members, their families and their aides, the chamber’s website states.

In keeping with Black’s role as a respected nonpartisan fixture in the Senate, some of his past prayers during moments of crisis have drawn pointed attention to the price of partisan impasse.

“Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable,” Black said in one prayer opening the Senate during a government shutdown in October 2013. He followed by asking God to “remove the burdens of those who are the collateral damage of” the shuttered federal government.

Black, through a spokeswoman, declined an interview request.

He told C-SPAN in 2009 that he has seen lawmakers struggle to combat cynicism, which he described as a sin.

During “times when the legislative process is laborious and predictable … and it appears that the parties go into polarized lockstep, where there’s almost an attitude, ‘don’t confuse me with the facts,’ that can many times engender a spirit of cynicism,” Black said.

Seventh-day Adventists have a diverse membership and comprise less than 1% of the U.S. population, according to a 2014 study by the independent Pew Research Center. Their Protestant church, which observes the Sabbath on Saturdays, claims a global membership greater than 21 million as of 2018.

Within the Senate, Black has maintained the nonsectarian mission by reminding the chamber of higher ideals amid the storm of impeachment.

“Lord, grant that this impeachment trial will make our nation stronger, wiser and better,” Black said before Tuesday’s session began.

One day after a helicopter crash killed professional basketball star Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others, Black’s opening prayer observed that the tragedy recalled “life’s brevity, uncertainty and legacy.” He then urged God to guide senators “along the path of honesty.”

And injecting a note of humanity, Black also acknowledged the birthday of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. The justice, who has stood beside Black for opening prayers before presiding over the trial, could be seen cracking a smile.