One of the best-known faces of religious political activism on the left, he is one of several Black clergy selected to bless and speak at inaugural week events for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris.
His role is especially prominent because the Thursday service at the cathedral has by far the longest religious content during inaugural week, traditionally more than an hour long and rich with faith leaders from many backgrounds.
While powerfully symbolic, other events are brief. They begin Tuesday when D.C. Archbishop Wilton Gregory, the first Black U.S. cardinal, will give the invocation at a covid-19 memorial at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool with Biden and Harris. That service, which is scheduled to take place at 5:30 p.m., will feature 400 lights around the Reflecting Pool in D.C. to commemorate the nearly 400,000 who have died in the country of the coronavirus. Other cities and towns around the country are expected to participate with various kinds of light memorials.
At the memorial service, gospel singer Yolanda Adams will sing “Hallelujah,” and Michigan singer Lori Marie Key will perform “Amazing Grace.”
At Wednesday’s inauguration, the invocation will be delivered by the Rev. Leo O’Donovan, a longtime Biden family friend and former president of Georgetown University. O’Donovan performed the funeral for Biden’s eldest son, Beau Biden. Delaware Rev. Silvester Beaman, from an African Methodist Episcopal church in Wilmington, will deliver the benediction.
An invocation is usually said at the start of an event, asking for holy intercession, a divine request for help and support. A benediction is a closing prayer at the end of a public event.
Finally, on Thursday, the interfaith service at Washington National Cathedral, which will be virtual this year, is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., and will be live-streamed. The tradition of an interfaith service goes back to the inauguration of George Washington.
In addition to Barber’s homily, the service is also scheduled to include remarks from a who’s who of faith leaders associated with liberal causes. Additional participants in the service include: the Rev. Jim Wallis, evangelical and founder of the social justice group Sojourners; Sister Carol Keehan, former president and chief executive of the massive Catholic Health Association and an ally of the Obama-Biden White House on passing the Affordable Care Act; the Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago; as well as officials from Union Theological Seminary and Claremont School of Theology.
Also participating will be the Rev. Robert Wright Lee IV, a North Carolina pastor who is a descendant of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and popular evangelical writer Jen Hatmaker.
Barber said he has been joining in prayer with confidants and reflecting on the scripture in preparation for his homily, which will take place only weeks after a mob of Trump-supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an effort to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s victory.
“The lead to those actions even predate the things that the current administration has done,” he said. Barber is more focused on how the country can reunite and begin to heal. “The hope is in the mourning, that if we address the pain and the mourning of people in our public policy, that is how hope and healing comes to a nation in its time of crisis.”
Biden also emphasized in his campaign that if elected president, he would focus on working to bridge the fierce partisan divides that expanded during the presidency of Donald Trump.
Biden’s choices of faith leaders such as Barber reflect his religious beliefs and his politics. A churchgoing liberal, he attends Mass every Sunday — plus feast days — and speaks often of scripture and the way the Catholic faith was presented in his upbringing: as centered on dignity and care for those who have less than you.
Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, also offer an unprecedented interfaith mix in the second family: She was raised a mix of Hindu and Christian and now considers herself Baptist; he is Jewish.
Brittany Renee Mayes contributed to this report.