Barry C. Black Biography
Studied Bible and Oratory, Heeded His Calling, Found His Place and Mission, Appointed to Top Posts
U.S. Senate Chaplain, Chief Navy Chaplain
In June of 2003 Rear Admiral Barry C. Black was appointed the 62nd Chaplain to the United States Senate. His nomination by then-President Bill Clinton and the Secretary of the Navy during Black's tenure as Chief of Navy Chaplains was acknowledgement of a long and illustrious military career and indeed a special relationship with God. The appointment makes Black the first military chaplain, the first Seventh-day Adventist, and the first African American to fill the position, ministering to a flock of 6,000, comprising senators, spouses, Chiefs of Staff, and Capitol Hill employees. Black is advisor to the most powerful people in the United States government on moral, spiritual, and ethical issues that affect the lives of millions in the United Sates and abroad.
Studied Bible and Oratory
Chaplain Barry C. Black was born on November 1, 1948, in the inner city of Baltimore, Maryland, to Pearline and Lester Black. "My mother was a beautiful person who connected with all her children and made each of us feel special," Chaplain Black said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). "She was a storyteller with the ability to find allies and build networks, and she was athletic. I inherited these skills from my mother." Sensing his destiny, Pearline told her son, "You will have a special destination in life and a life with God." This she believed because when she was baptized and pregnant with the chaplain she had asked God to do something special with his life.
Pearline taught her eight children the importance of God and education as the way to a better life without poverty. Raising a large family alone, Pearline, a Seventh-day Adventist, found church to be the supportive environment she needed to accomplish this. At Berea Temple and its Baltimore Junior Academy her children found a thriving community of helping hands, a quality education, and much needed tuition assistance. Black's mother found friends like Albertha Brown, who shared her home with young Barry after school, providing him a haven from the mean streets of Baltimore.
During church services Black heard the best preachers in the community and began to develop his language skills. "Mother supplemented this by giving us a nickel for scriptures we memorized. She had to put me on a flat rate; I was breaking the bank," Black remembered. At school young Barry would study the prose of Longfellow, Emerson, Milton, and Thoreau. "I entered poetry readings and oratorical contests. I had a love for the music of language," explained Black. Hearing his oratory skills, the congregation and school provided affirmation that oratory was also his gift.
Heeded His Calling
Black felt from an early age that he wanted to be a minister and knew he had a "special feeling for God," but he resisted. "I wanted to pursue God, but most ministers in the inner city seemed poor. In my junior year of college I decided to go with the desire of my heart and pursue the ministry even if it meant poverty."
First Black received his bachelor of theology degree in 1970, from Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama. He entered Andrews Theological Seminary at Berrien Springs, Michigan, earning a master of divinity degree in 1973. There he enjoyed the focus on theology. Next Black moved to Durham, North Carolina, to pastor seven churches in South Carolina and North Carolina. Preaching two or three times each week allowed Black to learn quickly; within two years he was sent to pastor three other churches in North Carolina.
By this time Black had married Brenda Pearsall, who he met during his junior year at Oakwood College, and he began work on a master's degree in counseling, completing it in 1978. Brenda was an English major; her skills would become a valuable asset as Black developed his language skills. In 1982 Black completed a doctorate in theology, and received a master's degree in management in 1989. In 1996 he was awarded a doctorate in psychology.
One day in North Carolina, while speaking with three young servicemen from Norfolk, Virginia, Black wondered why they did not worship back on base. When asked, they said they had never heard of a black Navy Chaplain. "It planted a seed," says Black. The Navy needed African-American chaplains, and Black wanted to work with young people. "Also I didn't want to minister to just people from my own race," he told CBB. "I wanted a broader challenge."
Found His Place and Mission
Black was just 25 years old and, citing his young age, church leaders would not grant Black approval to minister to the young people of his church. Subsequently he did find what he was searching for with the United States Navy in 1976. At the time his church was seeking individuals interested in providing ministry in the military, so Black joined the Navy. Intending initially to stay three years, Black knew after his first day he had found his niche. "The variety of denominations, the improved salary, the appreciation on the part of a diverse group of people for my particular talents and gifts, the additional challenge of being physically fit, the joy of working with young people, all those factors I recognized very quickly and thought this is too good to be true. The experience was a protracted honeymoon for 27 years that went by very quickly," said Black.
Black found that his own skill set was exactly what the Navy sought. He had always been athletic, excelling in sports in college, and many years of counseling, preaching, and Bible studies had made him an effective communicator. "Also, I enjoyed leading, setting goals, establishing objectives. I enjoyed achieving these shared objectives and teaching people in areas that relate to how to be ethically fit." Black also welcomed the structure and having others being accountable to him.
Black knew if he worked hard he could count on the Navy to compensate him for his abilities. "I felt it was a level playing field and I would not be a victim of discrimination," he said. "I could compete like an athlete and if I'm good enough and that is documented on paper then I knew I could go to the top. I sought to excel."
The Chaplain knew that traveling with the Navy and meeting new people would excite his passion for diverse cultures and languages. Here was a way to "spread my wings in many directions," the Chaplain said. With his love of language he would develop a practical familiarity with Spanish, German, Italian, French, Japanese, and Korean.
Appointed to Top Posts
Black held several posts during his 27-year career in the Navy, eventually becoming Deputy Chief of Chaplains in 1997, and in 2000 he became Chief of Navy Chaplains. As chief he held responsibility for the spiritual care of servicemen from 190 religious traditions. He advised and provided ministry to the Chief of Naval Operations, the Secretaries of the Navy and Defense, and the Commandants of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
Black's Naval career prepared him well for his appointment in 2003 to Chaplain of the United States Senate. Once again he would advise and minister to very powerful people. He opens each Senate session with prayer and provides ministry to all levels of personnel on Capitol Hill. Senators and spouses, Chiefs of Staff, chefs, janitors, and the police officers all look to the Chaplain for guidance. "You must have a comfort level working with people from a broad variety of traditions," says the Chaplain. "You have to be comfortable meeting the press and discussing issues such as the nature of church and state relations and the ethical dimensions of various issues that come before the Senate, such as stem cell research and the Defense of Marriage Act."
Chaplain Black spends his days visiting the Senate chamber and cloakrooms, advising on ethical matters, conducting Bible studies, and counseling staff. He interacts with various groups regarding their concerns, prepares speeches and sermons, and officiates at funerals and memorial services. Often he represents the Senate in matters away from Capitol Hill and occasionally speaks at Camp David, the President's retreat.
Through the years Chaplain Black's dedication as a spiritual leader has earned him a position of influence at the top levels of government and the military. Black heeded his calling and advises others to do the same. He said we should each "discover the purpose for which we were created. Ask 'Who am I and why am I here?' If you don't ask yourself these questions of identity and mission you will probably lead a life, as Thoreau says, 'of quiet desperation.'"
Adventist News Network, June 17, 2003, p. 1.
"Rear Admiral Barry Black Appointed U.S. Senate Chaplain U.S. Dream Academy Board Member," U.S. Dream Academy, www.usdreamacademy.com (July 16, 2004).
"Chaplain Office," U.S. Senate, www.senate.gov/reference/office/chaplain (July 15, 2004).
"Senate Chaplain Pays a Visit," FreeRepublic.com, www.freerepublic.com (July 17, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Chaplain Barry C. Black on August 31, 2004.
—Sharon Melson Fletcher
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