Drawing from the tradition of black preaching that has inspired generations, U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black fired up a crowd of about 1,200 people Monday as keynote speaker at the 28th Annual Alpha Phi Alpha MLK Unity Award Breakfast.
In his speech, “Keeping the Dream Alive,” Black stressed the importance of unity, service and a commitment to the principles of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He said the election of President Barack Obama is a sign of progress, but there’s much work to be done.
“The dream has been kept alive,” he said. “But we must work to keep this dream alive going forward. Progress does not just happen. Laudable goals are not just achieved automatically. There is an ineluctable law of sowing and reaping in God’s universe.”
The event was held at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center, where people of various racial and socioeconomic backgrounds gathered to observe the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Among those on the platform were Phenix City Mayor Eddie Lowe and Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who both called for the communities to work together.
Columbus Tax Commissioner Lula Huff was awarded this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Award. It was presented by retired Fort Benning Commander Lt. General Carmen Cavezza, who was last year’s recipient. In his introduction, he said the person receiving this year’s award has “demonstrated a record of fostering good human relations in Columbus and surrounding areas.
“The person promotes the philosophy of non-violence, upward mobility and goodwill to all mankind,” he said. “Our recipient promotes political, social and economic empowerment.”
Huff, in her acceptance speech, said she was shocked by the selection.
“Lord give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” she said. “I’ve lived my entire life with that serenity prayer, knowing truly that I was put here to serve wherever I could, whenever I could.”
Huff said she is the third oldest of 10 children and learned the importance of service from her parents, Walter and Sally Lunsford, and from her grandparents, Lizzie and Watson Lunsford. All were successful entrepreneurs and community leaders when the Liberty District was a thriving center for black businesses and culture.
“To be here today to receive this award is for them,” she said. “It’s for the community I serve. It’s for the joy that I have in my heart each and every day of my life to serve 180,000 people here in the county of Muscogee. That’s what it’s all about.”
Past winners of the unity award include Aflac CEO Dan Amos, former Mayor Bob Poydasheff and Judge John D. Allen.
Before making his speech, Black was introduced by U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who referred to him as “my pastor.”
“The senate first elected a chaplain in 1789,” Chambliss said. “We needed a chaplain then, and Lord knows we sure need a chaplain today.”
Black, who has two doctoral and three master’s degrees, was nominated and inducted as Senate chaplain in 2003, becoming the first black and the first Seventh-day Adventist minister to hold the position. Prior to that, he served 27 years in the U.S. Navy, where he served as chief of Navy chaplains. As Senate chaplain, Black opens the Senate each day with prayer. He also provides counseling and spiritual care to 100 senators, their families and staff. On Wednesdays, he leads a Senate prayer breakfast on Capitol Hill.
“Chaplain Black has a flock that he shepherds that’s literally thousands of people in Washington, D.C.,” Chambliss said.
In his book, “From the Hood to the Hill,” Black tells the story of his rise from inner-city Baltimore to the halls of Congress, crediting his Christian upbringing for his success.
In October, he received media attention for the pointed prayers he offered during the course of the government shutdown, and was spoofed on Saturday Night Live.
On Monday, he accented parts of the speech with words from some of King’s sermons, including “The Drum Major Instinct,” which was one of the last sermons the civil rights leader preached before his assassination on April 4, 1968.
“Martin use to say that Sunday morning worship is the most segregated hour of the week,” Black said. “We should not make a Martin Luther King Unity Breakfast the only time we worship with someone who doesn’t look like us. We should not make Martin Luther King Community Unity Breakfast (the only) time when we worship with someone who is not of the same denomination as us.”
He also told the crowd to reach out to the marginalized, such as the homeless and imprisoned.
“God is not impressed with your go-to-meeting suits. God is not impressed with your theological orthodoxy,” he said to the shouts and applause of the audience. “He doesn’t care if you sprinkle or dip. He doesn’t care which day you’re worshiping on.”
He said in the parable about judgment in Matthew 25 there are only six questions asked by the “Sovereign God of the Universe” who separates the sheep from the goats.
“He wanted to know did you feed the hungry?” he said. “Did you clothe the naked. Did you give water to the thirsty? Are you visiting the sick?” Black said he recently visited a prison in Florida and was overcome with emotion.
“I’m not a weeper,” he said. “But tears rolled down my face because I thought I was at Morehouse. Hundreds of beautiful African-American, mostly, young people. I thought: ‘I know where the wealth of America is. It’s behind bars.’”