Meet the Prayerful Rock Star of the Government Shutdown

barry c blackA rock star has emerged clad in colorful bow ties and speaking truth to power through prayer. This is what “rocking” looks like in the uncoolest of uncool places: the Senate floor amid a government shutdown. Barry C. Black, the Senate chaplain, has become the voice of reason for a government body so inept that Americans finds a colonoscopy more favorable than holding an elected position in Washington, though my Broad Side colleague Chris Trejbal disagrees.

Here’s a taste of Black’s morning truth sermon (otherwise known as a prayer):

“We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness and our pride. Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.”

Ohh, that one should sting, Senators.

But if Black has had an effect, you can’t see it: we’re now in week two of the government shutdown. But like the caped crusader of a comic book, I feel better knowing Black’s out there with his prayer book and polite directives that hit where it should hurt: in the gut. The fact that an unelected, non-senator — a man of faith no less (and currently unpaid) — is my unsung hero of the shutdown is completely surprising to a borderline atheist like me, but then again I also think the new Pope may be a game-changer. Not for my lack of faith (that would take something truly divine), but more so because I like people who are unafraid to be reasonable and speak for the masses. We have so few examples these days of voices and leaders that are not lifted by corporations or ego. Or greed. Black appears to break the mold of everyone inside the D.C. Beltway and I find it welcomingly refreshing.

He’s also a groundbreaker as noted by a recent profile in the New York Times: 65-year-old Black is the first African-American to hold the position of Senate Chaplain. He was selected by Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and wrote about his experience of rising from the projects in his autobiography, From Hood to the Hill.

Do I find it uncomfortable that both the Senate and the House open their days with a morning prayer by a chaplain? Slightly; especially given the fact that the Supreme Court is due to hear arguments about a case similar in topic.  But I do recognize that while progress has been made by the questioning and faithless among us, civil rights and abolition were successful because of a form of Christianity that became a kind-of yin and yang of faith and social justice. There was no one more powerful and faithful than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., though his image and words have been co-opted by folks he would most likely work against. And what a disservice it would have been if most of us had cut off our ears because he was a preacher man.

Then again, he never pontificated on the Senate floor.

I don’t know exactly if “pontificate’ is the correct word for a chaplain like Black. By definition, a chaplain does prayer, but I wouldn’t exactly call “talking truth to the misguided and self-righteously egotistical” a kind of prayer. I would however call him it right.

And in that vein, let’s go ahead and turn him up to an eleven.

Liz Henry can be found here and is a contributor to the forthcoming anthology The Myth of the Good Mother. She lives in Atlanta. Tweet her @_LizHenry

photo credit: Wycliffe Media

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