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Chaplain Barry Black chides Senate during shutdown

By Jeremy W. Peters
New York Times

WASHINGTON The disapproval comes from angry constituents, baffled party elders and colleagues on the other side of the Capitol. But nowhere have senators found criticism more personal or immediate than right inside their own chamber every morning when the chaplain delivers the opening prayer.

“Save us from the madness,” the chaplain, Barry C. Black, said one day late last week as he warmed up into what became an epic ministerial scolding.

He’s a Seventh-day Adventist, former Navy rear admiral and collector of brightly colored bow ties.

“We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness and our pride,” he went on, his baritone voice filling the room.

“Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.”

So it has gone every day when Black, the Senate’s official man of the cloth for 10 years, has taken one of the more rote rituals on Capitol Hill – the morning invocation – and turned it into a daily conscience check for the 100 men and women of the U.S. Senate.

Inside the tempestuous Senate chamber, where debate has degenerated into daily name-calling – the tea party as a band of nihilists and extortionists, and Democrats as socialists who want to force their will on the American people – Black’s words manage to cut through as powerful and persuasive.

During his prayer Oct. 4, the day after officers from the U.S. Capitol Police shot and killed a woman who had used her car as a battering ram, Black noted that the officers were not being paid because of the government shutdown.

Then he turned his attention back to the senators. “Remove from them that stubborn pride which imagines itself to be above and beyond criticism,” he said. “Forgive them the blunders they have committed.”

Black, 65, is like any other employee of the federal government. He is not being paid. His Bible study classes, which he holds for senators and their staff four times a week, are on hold.

He tries to use his proximity to the senators – and the fact that for at least one minute every morning, his is the only voice they hear –to break through on issues that he feels are especially urgent. Lately, he said, they seem to be paying attention.

“Following the suggestion in the prayer of Admiral Black,” majority leader Harry Reid said later, “I think we’ve all here in the Senate kind of lost the aura of Robert Byrd,” a senator who prized gentility and compromise.

The House, which has its own chaplain, liked what it heard from Black and invited him to give the invocation.

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