February 8, 2011

From the Hood to the Hill

capI never expected to become a United States Navy admiral. But the phone rang, and my wife, Brenda, whispered, “Honey, it’s the chief of chaplains.” Rarely did the top Navy chaplain, an admiral, ever call anyone at home, so I thought it must be an emergency. As frantic thoughts raced through my mind, I lifted the phone with apprehension.

“Barry,” I heard Admiral Byron Holderby say, “I guess we can now make it official. Congratulations. You’ve been selected as our next admiral, the deputy chief of chaplains for the United States Navy.”
“Thank you, sir,” I responded with relief, surprised at my apparent calmness. “This is a great honor. Sir, let me also thank you for whatever part you played in making this dream come true.” Putting down the phone, I greeted Brenda’s furrowed brow with a smile. “I’m the new admiral!” I shouted. “Can you believe it?” We danced for joy.
2007 1502 50 coverFinding solitude in a quiet room, I mused about this milestone. No African-American had ever been promoted to admiral in the United States Navy Chaplain Corps, an organization more than two hundred years old. Moreover, I had not aspired to obtain this honor; it was beyond anything I could have asked or imagined. I thought about my Seventh-day Adventist denominational roots. No one from this oft-maligned religious tradition had ever been so elevated. I had matri­culated at a small, parochial, African-American college in Huntsville, Alabama, and then studied at an obscure seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Some Navy chaplains possessed Ivy League diplomas, yet I had been chosen. My mind flashed back to my inner-city beginnings and my family’s poverty. Ruminating about the environmental pathology that characterized my childhood, I concluded that God Himself had ordered my steps, surrounding me with unmerited favor. “God indeed has a sense of humor,” I whispered to myself.
God must have smiled as He guided me from the public housing projects of Baltimore, Maryland. Crime, drugs, and poverty infected this environment. Most sociologists analyzing my family of origin would have made ominous predictions about my future. Many of my childhood friends’ final destinations were incarceration, addiction, or death. But my siblings and I escaped such fates, each of us making an unlikely pilgrimage from poverty to responsible citizenship. What made the difference?
My journey from the hood to the Hill seemed most improbable. Making admiral was miraculous enough, but does lightning strike twice? Some of my colleague detractors talked about the “miracle” of my becoming chief of chaplains. When they learned that I was also interviewing for the Senate chaplain’s job, a few thought that I had a better chance of winning the lottery.
Early in my military career, a colleague approached me with an unusual suggestion. “Barry,” he said, “you’re probably headed for great things in the Navy. But if you really want to reach the top, change your denomination.”
“I don’t choose my church like an ice cream flavor,” I responded.
“You don’t understand what I’m saying,” he continued. “You can continue to embrace the same denominational theology; I’m talking about administrative leverage. You’ll be more competitive with a mainline church designation.”
“Thanks for the tip,” I said, “but I think not.”
Before the military selection board met and selected me for admiral, this same minister friend called me and said, “You’ll never be selected for admiral. If you had only followed my advice and changed denominations years ago, you would now be competitive. But you wouldn’t listen to me.” He chuckled smugly, certain of the inevitability of his prophecy.
“You just don’t know my God,” I fired back at this naysayer.
“Of course I know your God,” he rejoined.
“I don’t think so. Not if you think a few minor obstacles can stop Him,” I argued. “If He wants me to be an admiral, it will happen.”
After the announcement of my promotion to rear admiral, I received a message on my voice mail from this friend: “Barry, when you get a chance, would you please introduce me to your God?”
Later, this same friend would lay odds that the Senate would not soon select a Black man for its chaplain.
I thought he had a point. After all, since 1789, when the first Senate chaplain was selected, no African-American had ever served in that position. But in spite of its improbability, God’s plans and purposes prevailed.
The Road Less Traveled
A number of critical factors contributed to making the improbable possible. Some of these factors can be subsumed under the umbrella theme of expecting the unexpected. The people in my life did not expect to stay in poverty. They believed that interior strength is more important than exterior vicissitudes. My mother and an extended church family imparted to my siblings and me the belief that God had great plans for our lives. They backed this optimism with their cheerful diligence and used Scripture to reinforce a positive outlook. These wonderful people encouraged and mentored me. They would quote Ephesians 3:20, reminding me that God can do more than we can ask or think. “Expect the unexpected,” many would say. They supported me financially and exposed me to good books and music. Those possessing college degrees shared their insights until association produced assimilation, enabling me to walk with confidence down an unfamiliar road to excellence.
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Another reason I began to expect the unexpected was that God provided me with tools. One important tool was an exceptional memory. I discovered that most of what I heard, I remembered. This enabled me to quickly absorb many valuable principles in Christian schools, from first grade through seminary. It increased the expectations of my friends and mentors, who refused to let me settle for less than my best. “God has given you too much for you not to maximize your potential,” they would tell me. I buckled down and, in a degree-conscious society, eventually earned three master’s degrees and two doctorates. My excellent recall enabled me to navigate the challenging academic waters and survive. But it was the faith that others expressed in my future that became my horizon stretcher. I became a lifelong learner, working assiduously to build on my strengths and to compensate for my weaknesses.

Expecting the unexpected led me to give God my life at the age of ten. This, my most important decision, energized me constantly. I pursued God as a suitor for the object of His affection. And finding Him, I discovered an unspeakable joy. This may sound ethereal and esoteric, but friendship with the Divine provided me with a sense of certitude and peace in the midst of life’s frenetic pace. I could deal with critics and even enemies without losing confidence in myself or my future. I could sleep at night knowing that God surrounded me with the shield of His favor. I became a Bible student and permitted sacred Scriptures to inform my decision making. My trust in God destroyed anxieties and brought peace. My life became God-directed. I depended more on revelation than empiricism, for Pascal was right: “The heart has reasons that the mind can’t understand.” I saw things that were not and asked, why not? I continued to expect the unexpected.
Expecting the unexpected led me to embrace diligence. I was told that the dictionary was one of the few places where success came before work. Someone else challenged me with the assertion that we often miss opportunities because they come disguised as work. I began to feel that the most diligent worker, not necessarily the most gifted, eventually won the prize. This attitude was articulated and modeled by many of the people who influenced my life. I watched my mother succeed against great odds because of her willingness to work. As a domestic, she was unafraid of lowly tasks because she believed Proverbs 14:23: “All hard work brings a profit.” She insisted that her children make a commitment to earning their way in life, to cast aside notions of entitlement. She taught us that God helps those who help themselves and that our reach should exceed our grasp.
Believing the Unimaginable
This inclination to expect the unexpected fueled my faith and prepared me for an uncharted career path. I expected to find fulfillment in the United States Navy, even though ministerial colleagues discouraged me from volunteering for military service. Though warned that entering the military chaplaincy meant burning bridges and perhaps permanently alienating people who could help me, I expected God to supply what I needed to succeed. I didn’t expect to reach the top. I did, however, expect to get close to the summit, for when one aims high, even when he misses the mark, he’s still on higher ground. I expected God to bless me in my going out and coming in, in my rising up and lying down. I claimed the biblical promises that supernatural allies would enable me to ride upon high places (Isa. 58:14), and that no weapon formed against me would prosper (Isa. 54:17).
Expecting the unexpected can ignite a faith that God honors. As I studied the book of James, I encountered a verse that stated, “Ye have not, because ye ask not” (4:2 kjv). I felt my faith challenged, stretching me to go beyond pedestrian belief to a realization that one can aim for the impossible. Although this happened ten years before I was selected for admiral, it was then that the possibility of doing the improbable began maturing in my heart.
And so I prayed an unusual prayer, characterized by faith comingled with doubt. It happened during my morning devotions while serving as a chaplain in Pensacola, Florida. “Lord,” I implored, “no Black man has ever been the chief of Navy chaplains. If you decide to do this, I’d like to be the first.” I wrote this prayer request in the back of my Bible alongside several more petitions and left it in God’s hands. I knew that God can do anything, but I never really expected this long-shot request to be granted. In retrospect, I believe God honored the faith He had placed in my heart and enabled me to exceed my expectations.
story1 2Expecting the unexpected produced in me optimism for trying times. At one point in my career, I experienced a vocational setback. I had been selected for a job that mysteriously disappeared. The apparent embarrassment of those who informed me of this abrupt change of circumstances led me to believe that racial discrimination was at the root of the decision. I later learned that my intuition was correct. Someone had expressed opposition to my being placed in the position, articulating his racism, of course, with polite political correctness. But my confidence in a divine ordering of my steps enabled me to hold on to my belief that God still choreographed destinies. I enthusiastically requested and accepted a far less prestigious position, believing that apparent setbacks can actually be God’s way of setting a person up for a more significant opportunity. In less than four years, I was placed in a position of much greater prestige and significance than the one that had disappeared. I continued expecting the unexpected.
Expecting the unexpected helped me to try the unconventional, to think beyond the predictable in ministering to sea-services people, those serving in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. While stationed aboard a helicopter aircraft carrier, I began daily radio and television programs and initiated seminars with catchy titles that increased sailor and marine attendance. I organized chess tournaments to provide wholesome alternatives for spending one’s free time. I became the ship’s tour director and negotiated opportunities for our personnel to visit world cultural centers. Refusing to accept the status quo, I learned that expecting the unexpected fueled my ministry outreach with freshness.
This optimism would later make a critical difference in my coping with the challenges of higher responsibility. It trained me for what would come. As chief of chaplains, I encountered a few who expressed envy and grief at my supposed succession of career-enhancing assignments. Some, through anonymous e-mails, even communicated their desire for my unsuccessful tenure, though they used less civil language. One such e-mail, which began with the “N-word,” read, “Do you really think you made it to chief of chaplains on your merits? All Black people are inept and incompetent and you’re no exception. You may have been lucky enough to get one star, but you’ll never get two. They will discover you for who you are before that happens, you fake, you imposter!”
I tried to ignore this negativity and strengthened myself with prayer. I prayed that God would enable me to persevere in the face of these obstacles. I asked Him to be with me and to keep me optimistic and constructive. I prayed that He would provide me with loyal friends and fellow workers, people interested in glorifying His name. Believing that God can bring unexpected bright tomorrows from dark yesterdays helped me to hold on to my faith.
A few years later, I spoke at a United Negro College Fund gala. The president of Oakwood College, my alma mater, was to introduce me to the audience. In preparing his introduction, he questioned me about how I managed, by God’s grace, to go from the projects to become one of the Pentagon elite. As I reflected on what really made the substantive differences in my life, I quickly examined many factors. A godly mother and a supportive extended family were important factors, as was being blessed with some intellectual muscles and a desire to know God. I couldn’t forget the friends and mentors who encouraged me and modeled an exemplary work ethic. But the critical factor was my commitment to never underestimate the unfolding of God’s loving providence, and to expect the unexpected. This meant seeking God’s will, pursuing His purposes.
Dr. Baker stood and began his introduction as I looked on, preparing to speak. “Dr. Black has many fine qualities,” I heard him say. “But perhaps his most important attribute is that he is a seeker of God’s heart. From a child, he has sought to find and follow God’s will. He is the kind of true worshipper whom God seeks, one who pursues the transcendent.”
I smiled at his kind words, grateful that he had managed to embellish my small input in such an eloquent way. But he was right about one thing: I am a seeker of God’s heart.
A quest for fellowship with God enables you to overcome the challenges that come with the unfavorable cards you may have been dealt at birth. It enables you to believe that God will bless all that you attempt for His glory, to believe that you will have success. And success means staying within the concentric circle of God’s will. When you begin to expect the unexpected, God can make your life a smorgasbord of positive surprises.
Lessons Learned
We first begin to achieve our potential when we give God an undivided heart. At best, the human heart is fickle, frail, deceptive, and wicked. But when we give our hearts in total trust to God, He awakens in us a faith that will expect the unexpected. We no longer have to settle for second best and marginal living. Giving God an undivided heart means trusting Him completely, relying on His goodness, and believing His promises. It means making obedience a priority.