Saturday, February 17, 2007

Cooperation Without Compromise.


The Chief of Champlains for the United States Navy wears two stars on his shoulder and keeps the Sabbath.

Depending on the traffic, the drive from southern Baltimore, Maryland, to the Navy Annex in Arlington, Virginia, takes about an hour, more or less. But for Rear Admiral Barry C. Black, his journey from being a child in subsidized public housing to the U.S. Navy’s chief of chaplains has spanned several decades; covered hundreds of thousands of miles by land, air, and sea; and led him to assume a variety of roles: student, missionary, district pastor, evangelist, counselor, husband, and father.

Seated in his office on the main floor of the Navy Annex, Chaplain Black reflects almost casually, “God has been preparing this all along.”

Indeed, after spending the better part of a morning tracing the significant events of Black’s personal and professional careers, it’s easy to recognize the accuracy of his statement: “There was one series of miracles after another that brought this about.”

Surrounded by Witnesses
Barry Black was born in the Cherry Hill neighborhood of southern Baltimore on November 1, 1948, the fourth of eight children. Oddly, it was because of some of the social programs of the time that were designed to alleviate poverty that Black and his siblings were raised mostly in a single-parent home. Although his father was often present, “the regulations at that time mandated that there be no adult male present in the home,” he observes. “I remember social workers coming by and looking in the closets to ensure that there was not.” Beyond that, Black’s mother was limited by the policies of the day in terms of how much she could earn as a “domestic.”

When Black’s mother was pregnant with Barry, she noticed an evangelistic handbill advertising meetings at the Berea Temple Seventh-day Adventist Church in Baltimore. Mrs. Black (who passed away in 1987) liked to recall that as she was being baptized, she prayed that the Holy Spirit would do something special for her first son.

“My earliest memories are those of being picked up and kissed and held in the air like a trophy,” Black says. “It was a tremendous blessing for me, because a lot of psychologists believe that how your self-esteem reservoir is filled, particularly in the early years, is critical to your ability to handle vicissitudes and setbacks and challenges. My reservoir was overflowing.”

In addition to the familial attention Black received as the first male child of the family, he was also mentored and encouraged by the members of the Berea Temple. “We attended church for early [Sabbath] morning prayer service, and we stayed for the entire day,” he says.

Through the generosity of members of the Berea Temple, Black and his siblings were able to attend Pine Forge Academy. And it was at Pine Forge that he was exposed to some of the premier practitioners of Adventist preaching. “Elder Luther Palmer, who is a pastor in the Washington, D.C., area, was principal of the school then. He did some special mentoring of teenagers who indicated an interest in the ministry,” Black recalls. “When people like Calvin Rock, or [Charles] Brooks, or [Charles] Bradford would come to the campus, he would invite us to his home, and there these giants of the church would talk to us about preaching. I first learned a very simple topical approach to preaching from Calvin Rock.”

Throughout his formative years the conviction that God was calling him to the pastoral ministry nagged Black, a conviction that he resisted until his sophomore year at Oakwood College. That was when Black was chosen to be Oakwood’s first student missionary.

Black’s assignment was to travel to the Unini Mission Station in the forests of Peru, to work with Siegfried and Evelyn Neuendorff. “While I was there I had a lot of baggage,” Black confesses. “I was a disciple of Malcolm X, and I really had a chip on my shoulder. [But] in spite of my often bellicose and vitriolic rhetoric, they [the Neuendorffs] loved me into the arena of racial reconciliation.” Black’s experience in Peru included evangelistic and Bible work, construction, even pulling teeth.

When he returned to Oakwood College, Black was ready to make some life choices. “Francis Thomp-son’s ‘Hound of Heaven’ caught up with me,” admits Black, “and I finally, in my junior year, threw up my hands and said, ‘I yield.’ And it was the best decision I could have possibly made.” It was at Oakwood that Black met Brenda Pearsall, whom he would eventually marry.

For God and Country
Chaplain Black’s entry into the world of military chaplaincy came about, in part, because of five Adventist sailors who were stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. When Black was pastoring the Raleigh, Durham, and Rocky Mount churches in North Carolina, these five sailors would drive five hours (one way) to listen to Black preach at the Durham church. When he asked them why they didn’t attend services at the base chapel, they replied, “We’ve never seen an African-American chaplain.”

About that time Black received a letter from the National Service Organization (NSO) of the General Conference, encouraging Adventist pastors to consider careers as military chaplains. Black’s burden for ministering to young adults, combined with his interest in travel, led him to enlist in the Navy. He began chaplains’ school in Newport, Rhode Island, in the summer of 1976.

“When I went to chaplains’ school I was exhilarated by the pluralistic context of the training and the ministry,” he says. “I had never had an opportunity to interact with a rabbi. I had never met a Roman Catholic priest. I had never 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.”

Three years into his military ministry Black was assigned to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the second person of color to serve in that capacity, the first Seventh-day Adventist. “Imagine 2,500 midshipmen packing a chapel Sunday after Sunday and you having the opportunity to speak to these very bright young people about the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he enthuses.

Throughout his career as a chaplain Black has used his pulpit skills to provide a springboard for questions, spiritual discussions, and Bible studies with the military men and women with whom he served. “During one [shipboard] deployment we had a Bible study every day when we were under way. I simply used Bible Readings for the Home. I would publicize the title, and the men would say, ‘How do you have the time to come up with all these different titles and all of these studies?’ (I never told them my secret, of course.)

“When I got to the more testing truths (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 basically get into the more distinctive truths [of the Bible]. 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 church.”

Chaplain to the Chaplains
Admiral Black lives with his wife, Brenda, and their three sons at the historic Washington Navy Yard in southeast Washington, D.C., at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. In addition to his passion for running, Black enjoys reading (he describes himself as a “lifelong learner”) and writing. He has earned three master’s degrees and two doctorates.

Black lists among his hobbies preaching and worship. “I know it’s not supposed to be a hobby, but worship is a hobby for me,” he says. “I find places, many times non-Adventist worship experiences. If there’s a revival in town, I’ll sneak in and listen to the evangelist and enter into the praise of the Lord wherever I find the opportunity to do that.

“When you develop a love for the Word of God, you live in another world. There’s a cloud of witnesses who inform you and guide you,” Black says about the heroes of the Bible: David, Solomon, Moses, Paul. Then he talks about the many who have served as mentors and role models over the years. He remembers his first year in the Navy Chaplain Corps, when he worked with Admiral John O’Connor (later John Cardinal O’Connor of the New York Archdiocese). “I’m thinking to myself, What is God up to?”

Pointing to a photograph on his desk, Black says, “In this picture I’m still in my 20s, and here I am chatting with the chief of naval operations, the highest ranking person [in the Navy]. So I was in many ways like David, playing a harp in the palace. Though I grew up in the meadow, taking care of sheep, God exposed me very early to the palace, to the protocol of the palace, to the vocabulary of the palace, in order to prepare me for this day.”

Stephen Chavez is an assistant editor of the Adventist Review.



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