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Inside the newsroom: A nickel saved his life and now he walks the halls of Congress

SHARE Inside the newsroom: A nickel saved his life and now he walks the halls of Congress

NEW YORK CITY — Chaplain Barry Black doesn't shy away from sharing one of his favorite scriptures: "Jesus Lives," the shortest in the Bible, and good for 5 cents.

Luke 17:32 also stands as a favorite: "Remember Lot's wife." Good for another 5 cents.

And then there are the Proverbs from the Old Testament, a rich source of spiritual wisdom, but also a gold mine for a young boy seeking short verses after receiving a challenge from his mother: For every scripture you learn, Barry, I'll give you a nickel.

Senate Chaplain Barry Black poses for a portrait in his office on Capital Hill in Washington Friday, July 9, 2010.

Senate Chaplain Barry Black poses for a portrait in his office on Capital Hill in Washington Friday, July 9, 2010.

Drew Angerer, Associated Press

A nickel might not seem like much, but to a young child growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s it was enough for "the big Snickers," he says. He got so good at it that his mother had to cap him at 25 cents a week.

The mother's wisdom in that moral training came sharply into focus when two young friends knocked on his door one day and invited him to come with them "to get back at someone."

His was a decision that would change his life and, in his words, bring him "true freedom." He declined their invitation.

He had previously memorized Proverbs 1:10: "My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not." He said that scripture clearly echoed in his mind. He saw later on the news the killing that occurred that day and the following arrests of those two same friends. He followed the trial that came and the lifelong incarceration that would be their sentence, keenly aware of the freedom the scripture had earned him.

He carried the wisdom of his mother and scripture into the Navy, where he would rise to rear admiral and become the Chief of Navy Chaplains. And since 2003, into the halls of Congress where he serves as the U.S. Senate Chaplain, a champion of religious freedom and this year's recipient of the Canterbury Medal for that distinguished service.

He is the first African-American and first Seventh-day Adventist to hold the position of Senate Chaplain, and he had a simple message for the guests dressed in black tie and gowns who came to the Pierre Hotel in New York City Thursday to pay tribute to him and hear his words:

"The Supreme Court declared that history and tradition make it clear that the framers (of the Constitution), while maybe wanting a separation of church and state, did not intend a separation of God and state. We need the spiritual."

Lawmakers in Congress respect him on that. It is his charge to open each Senate session with a prayer, and to serve as a spiritual advisor for those senators who seek him out for his wisdom — wisdom gained not just from his military and seminary experiences, but from those quiet moments memorizing verses for "the big Snickers."

Separation of church and state is invoked regularly as society moves further toward secularization. But such comes at great risk as this aim fails to acknowledge something greater than oneself. Benjamin Franklin knew this, and he was cited by Chaplain Black as he received the Canterbury Medal.

On June 28, 1787 the Constitutional Convention was at an impasse, but Franklin believed he had a solution:

“I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: that God Governs in the affairs of men.

And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that ‘except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it.’

I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel. … I therefore beg leave to move— that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that Service."

Since they first met in 1789, a prayer has opened each session of the House of Representatives and the Senate, including (notes Chaplain Black) on the day that the establishment clause was written, promising that Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The Canterbury Medal is named for the cathedral in Canterbury, England, where Thomas Becket was martyred by King Henry II for defending religious freedom. Last year's recipient was Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, director of Yeshiva University’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, who noted that the gathering in New York put away the lie that we are all divided.

Chaplain Black went right to scripture to instruct that "righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people." He then called religious liberty "a national security issue,” an effort to protect against the consequences of sin, which is a destroyer of nations.

It is not often that one attends such a gathering as this, with scripture freely quoted and the focus placed on God and an individual's right to bring their faith into the public square.

"I literally owe my life to the freedom that came from those nickels that motivated my siblings and me to get supernatural power inside of us," Chaplain Black said that night, recounting his journey and the key decision to not walk with his friends toward destruction.

The wish of freedom for all is a wish he carries every day in Washington. And he carries it as he opens the Senate with prayer.