Senate Chaplain Barry Black has spent the last nine days praying for Congress to save themselves from themselves, but news that families of soldiers recently killed in Afghanistan were not receiving death benefits provoked a different message.
“It’s time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough,” he said Wednesday morning from behind the Senate lectern. “Forgive us, reform us, and make us whole.”
Speaking in his Senate office that afternoon, Black said he had initially written a different prayer, but the plight of these families put a “new burden on the heart" of the former naval chaplain and rear admiral.
Black has been at the intersection of politics and prayer for a decade as the Senate chaplain. He was initially appointed by former Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in 2003. But the balance between the two, he says, is not as difficult as some people may think.
“As long as I’m not telling lawmakers what to do, as long as I am not saying things that would only apply to one side, then the prayer may contain the political because that’s the milieu in which I operate, but it’s not partisan,” he said.
The prayers he delivers to open each Senate session are drawn from his personal experience as well as conversations with lawmakers, staff and the environment around him.
The recent result has been prayers that chided Congress members for arguing with each other while their staff, the Capitol Police and other furloughed federal workers have gone without pay and those dependent on government services have had to go without the services.
“I’ve said that my responsibility in intercession is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable,” he said.
His office has not been immune to the shutdown, like all essential Senate staff, he is not being paid and his prayer groups have been canceled until the government restarts.
“I miss that,” he said. “Most of the folks who would come to them have been furloughed.”
Black is practical about the current state of the legislative process and said that to expect “continuous kumbaya moments” is unrealistic but at certain times they are necessary to “avoid a reckless path.”
“There’s some lines that we should not cross and there are some stakes that are too high for us to be gambling with,” he said. “That’s my concern and that is why many times a fervency in my prayers that some people wouldn’t expect.”