Barry C. Black: Dialogue with an Adventist chaplain in the U.S. Navy

In October 2000, when the USS Cole was crippled by a terrorist attack in Yemen, Rear Admiral Barry Black traveled to the Cole’s home port in Norfolk, Virginia, to participate in the memorial service for the 17 victims of the blast. U.S. President Bill Clinton was the featured speaker at the service.

In July 1999, when the remains of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette, were buried at sea off the coast of Massachusetts, Chaplain Black was on hand to help the deceaseds’ families cope with their grief.

That Black would be ministering to famous and powerful people would have seemed a distant fantasy when he was growing up in essentially a single-parent home in a low-income section of Baltimore, Maryland, in the 1950s and 60s.

Yet Barry Black’s life is not so much a story of good fortune as one of Christian commitment, family and church support, mentoring, and providential openings. God nudged Black into situations where he would develop physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually; where he could break down prejudice and take a stand for Christianity in general and Adventism in particular.

Today Barry Black is the Chief of Naval Chaplains. An Adventist and the highest- ranking chaplain in the U.S. Navy, Black oversees the chaplaincy ministries of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Jewish faiths in the U.S. Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine—about 1,400 individuals in all. He lives in the historic Washington Navy Yard and has his office in the Navy Annex, just a stone’s throw from the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Black and his wife Brenda have three sons: Barry II, Brendan, and Bradford.

Black attended Oakwood College, Andrews University, North Carolina Central University, Eastern Baptist Seminary, Salve University, and the United States International University. He has earned Master’s degrees in divinity, counseling, and management, and doctorates in ministry and psychology.

When did you begin feeling God’s call to the ministry?

I have always known—though I have not always been excited about it—that I was called to preach. My mother said I was trying to preach before I could talk. It has really never had a rival in my affection. But I knew that preachers didn’t make much money, and, as a result, I ran from it, like Jonah, trying to head in the opposite direction. I changed my major many times at Oakwood College, trying to run from this calling.

What other options did you consider?

Medicine, law, or something where I thought I could make some money. But Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven” caught up with me, and finally in my junior year I threw up my hands and said, “I yield.” It was the best decision I could have possibly made. It has been for me a blessed opportunity and a most fulfilled vocation.

Henry David Thoreau once said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I feel so fortunate to look forward to getting out of bed in the morning, and for the past 24 years of being able to go to a job that I am genuinely excited about, to perform a wonderful ministry that I never dreamed possible.

What events put you on the path toward military chaplaincy?

The thing that sparked my interest in the military ministry was, I loved working with young people. About five sailors, Seventh-day Adventists, who were stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, would drive five hours, one way, 10 hours round trip, each weekend to hear me preach. And many times they would be in uniform. That was my first link: I wanted to work with young people.

I said to those young men, “Why are you guys driving 10 hours on the weekends to attend church?”

They said, “We want to be faithful in our worship.”

I said, “Why don’t you attend one of the chapels? Or one of the churches in the Norfolk area?”

They said, “Well, in the chapel we’ve never seen an African-American chaplain.” That piqued my interest—my second link.

Around that time, Clark Smith, who was head of what was then called the National Service Organization of the General Conference, sent out a letter saying that the church was interested in pastors who would be willing to serve in the military. I read the letter and my interest, with the other two components, came together.

What did you experience as a military chaplain that you couldn’t have experienced as a parish pastor?

When I went to chaplains’ school, the pluralistic context of the training and the ministry exhilarated me. I had never had an opportunity to interact with a rabbi. I had never met a Roman Catholic priest or associated with pastors from the various Protestant traditions. I found that exciting: iron sharpening iron, sharing ideas, demythologizing some of the notions they had about what we believe.

They called the rabbis and me “the four rabbis” because we always had special dietary considerations. That was wonderful bonding that occurred between me and my three Jewish friends.

Talk about witnessing opportunities!

I’m preaching to a roomful of non-Adventists. They know who I am, and they’re listening to me preach. Three years into my military ministry I was selected to be a chaplain at the United States Naval Academy. I was the second person of color to serve in that capacity. I was the first Adventist. Imagine 2,500 midshipmen packing a chapel Sunday after Sunday and having the opportunity to speak to these very bright young people about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

How specific can you be in terms of our distinct Adventist doctrines in a setting like that?

We have an awful lot in common with other traditions. If you look at the Apostolic Creed, we could give assent to every aspect of that. There’s an awful lot to be declared that is vivifying, without getting into the more distinctive doctrines. Moreover, the pulpit provided a springboard for questions, for Bible studies.

During one deployment, we had a Bible study every day when we were underway, and I simply used Bible Readings for the Home. I would publicize the title and men would say, “How do you have the time to come up with all these different titles and all these studies?” (I never told them my secret, of course.)

When I got to the more testing truths, because they already knew I was a Seventh-day Adventist, I would say, “You all are not ready for this. You can’t handle it.”

By the time they were threatening to throw me overboard if I didn’t tell them, I would get into the more distinctive Bible truths regarding the state of the dead, the Sabbath, etc. Interesting enough, I often found the state of the dead to be a greater hurdle than the Sabbath. At the end of one six-month deployment, we baptized 40 members of our Bible study group who had basically, for six months, been exposed to the doctrines of the Adventist Church.

We don’t generally encourage young people to volunteer for military service. How do you view your overall experience as a military chaplain?

Military service provides a model of pluralism, a model for pluralistic ministry. Before entering the military, I never pastored or baptized anyone who was not African-American, and I never participated in the ordinance of humility with anyone who was not African-American. I probably would not have gotten that opportunity in pluralistic ministry in other contexts. I think it’s a model in pluralism. The civilian sector could learn an a lot from “cooperation without compromise,” which is the motto of so many of the chaplains of the services.

Yet the military, as an institution, uses violence and force to accomplish its purposes. How have you personally come to understand this issue?

In Romans 13 we have the biblical principle of God using worldly powers to do His will on earth. There is a role for governmental authority, and God can use the military in many ways to fulfill His ultimate purposes.

We have to admit that warfare is an anomaly to the human experience, as is the taking of life. Yet I have to ask myself as a clergy person, Where do I want to be? My choice is to be in a situation where I can help people prepare to meet their God. Ellen White has written that Satan incites nations to war to divert people from the work of preparation to stand in the day of God. I want to be in a position to steal back a few of those souls.

How do you stay focused and balance the demands of service for God and service for country?

What I bring to this position is a genuine hunger after God. When I was a child, I would go into the church by myself and kneel in prayer. I don’t know too many children who would do something like that. God honors that.

I have a thirst for knowledge and learning. Servant leadership involves listening—because before you can serve, you have to hear the needs, and then serve to meet those needs. I have that capacity. I’ve been a lifelong learner, and I think God honored that and said, “This is an instrument that I can use to truly serve the chaplain corps right now.”

I also think God has blessed me with a special ability to communicate. The chief chaplain’s office is to some extent what Theodore Roosevelt described the presidency to be: It is a bully pulpit. The ability to communicate a vision and to get people excited about it is critical.

Then I’ve been blessed to have the kinds of experiences in terms of where I’ve been assigned. As I’ve already hinted, God has been preparing this all along, so that I bring the kind of knowledge base that’s required for making the tough decisions and for not being intimidated by these very senior people whom I’m called to advise.

Interview by Stephen Chavez. Stephen Chavez is an assistant editor of the Adventist Review. His e-mail address: chavezs@gc.adventist.org