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Barry Black: A Public Adventist Pastor

Occasionally, the Spectrum Blog has hosted some pretty heated debates on U. S. Senate chaplain Barry Black and the morality of military chaplaincy, church/state separation and conscientious objection.

Today the Baltimore Sun features a long article on him, noting the pretty hot career of their hometown son: “the first person of color, the first Seventh-day Adventist and the first retired military officer to serve as Senate chaplain, a position that dates to 1789.”

It also notes that he grew up on welfare (oh no, big government at work?) and he mentions the pivotal nurturing role of his local church and Adventist education, including at Baltimore Junior Academy. The Sun notes that Adventist schools were segregated in Baltimore and Black recalls never shaking the hand of a white person until he was 16 years old.

Some good paragraphs:

As chaplain, Black’s days include advising senators on the ethical aspects of legislation, counseling individuals and running seven Bible study groups, whose participants range from senators to cafeteria workers – as well as an extensive schedule of speaking engagements.

It is amazing all that they do out of this small office,” says Aaron Jenkins, a member of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s staff who attends a weekly Bible study. “He really makes people feel comfortable with their faith in this setting.”

Though religion is often a political fault line in America, Kyl says Black has made it just the opposite in the Capitol. “Before he became Senate chaplain, he was head of the chaplain services for the Navy,” Kyl says. “There he learned how to deal with people of all faiths, to bring them together.”

Black, who demonstrated for civil rights while attending college in Alabama, offered a prayer when the body of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks lay in honor in the Capitol rotunda. He did the same when former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald R. Ford lay in state there.

Rather than rehash an old debate (not that we don’t like rehashing), I found it interesting to read the role that the church plays in Pastor Black’s formation. Considering the truncated but clear narrative of his life, it’s clear that Barry was literally born into Adventism and the institutions of the church — the congregation, schools, and the members who interested him in chaplaincy work — contributed significantly to who he is. I raise this point contra folks who emphasize doctrinal belief as the primary definition of Seventh-day Adventist. As Richard Rice and others point out, wholesome religious experience involves belonging and behaving as well. And in this interview — from his beliefs about the Adventist diet to his schooling (belonging) and active support for the Civil Rights movement (behaving) — Black provides a telling view of whole-hearted faith.

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