By Amanda Comak
It was just before noon one Sunday this summer when many Washington Nationals found their way into a nondescript room a few steps from the visitors' clubhouse at Turner Field. They shuffled in wearing shorts and T-shirts. Some had barely wiped the sleep from their eyes after a long game the night before.
They came for chapel, and for a brief interlude between one baseball game and the next.
The room itself was not set up for this purpose. It was an auxiliary room, intended mostly for news conferences, and the dropping of weights from the gym next door reverberated through the thin walls. A banner on a small podium featured the Atlanta Braves' logo. All the room held otherwise was a bunch of plastic chairs.
They talked that day about the idea that bad things can happen to good people. They talked about the devastation caused by the vicious tornadoes that ripped through Moore, Okla., and how God could let something like that happen to those people. People who lost everything — some, even their lives.
The Nationals were in the midst of a particularly poor stretch of the season. That week alone, they lost four times in a six-game span and they wouldn't play consistently the way they had expected until late August. During their time in chapel, their on-field pursuits were not mentioned once.
Some shared their thoughts; others only listened. The chaplain, a former ballplayer himself, interspersed applicable verses of the Bible with stories about his own life, perhaps as an example of how the players could relate them to theirs.
It was as far from the bright lights under which they are usually seen as they could be without leaving the stadium.
"The way this life can be structured, that reminder on Sunday is beneficial. It's calming," said manager Davey Johnson. "We're trying to make normalcy out of something — a schedule, a lifestyle — that isn't normal."
Baseball chapel services are available to players on every team, and many, the Nationals included, also hold Catholic Mass.
"It gives you a broader perspective of what's going on," said relief pitcher Craig Stammen. "Because when you get locked into the season, it's like you have tunnel vision and you're in a whole different universe from the rest of the world."
It's not part of everyone's schedule, though.
Baseball's daily rhythm is distinct, so it's sometimes easy to forget that for eight months all these men of different backgrounds and beliefs are thrown together. Some are Catholic, or Mormon, or from Protestant denominations. Some are indifferent, or apathetic. Some are Jews, or Jehovah's Witnesses, or those who have more scientific beliefs.
But this year, perhaps more than in years past, religion has become a frequent topic inside the Nationals' clubhouse. Players of differing beliefs discuss them, sometimes turning into hotly contested debates. Multiple players, regardless of whether they were actively religious or not, said they never had been on a team that talks about religion as much as this one.
"People always say, 'When you're with strangers you don't talk about politics, you don't talk about religion,'" Stammen said. "But we've all become good enough friends that I don't think we judge each other too much. We can talk about it a little bit. And there's guys who are very interested and inquisitive, because they don't know much about it."
Finding a purpose
Adam LaRoche was raised a Christian. He went to Bible study on Wednesday nights, and Sunday school, and church. But he eventually found himself doing those things out of obligation, and not desire. About five years ago, the even-tempered first baseman had an epiphany of sorts.
"I asked myself: 'Why are we here?'" LaRoche said. "I've asked a few people that over the years. 'What is our purpose on this earth?' My opinion is that it's to spread God's word and that's it. And when that finally hit me, it put baseball and all that other stuff in perspective.
"I heard one chaplain put it this way: What do you want written on your tombstone? Do you want 'Adam LaRoche: Gold Glove, batting average, hit so many homers, and has a million dollars in his bank account,' or do you want 'Adam LaRoche: Man of God, integrity, raised a great family, loving.' Let's be honest: I don't know anybody who wants their stats."
LaRoche calls himself a non-denominational Christian and tells those who ask about his church, "I am a follower of Jesus." He is probably the most vocally religious member of the Nationals. If the team is on the road and can't find a chaplain on Sunday, LaRoche could lead the group. If a teammate knocks on his door at 2 a.m. wanting to talk about "walking in the light," he's happy to oblige.
LaRoche spearheaded the team's effort to host Faith Night at Nationals Park this season. The event featured a concert by Third Day, a Christian rock band, and a handful of Nationals sharing a few thoughts with several thousand fans. Ian Desmond, Anthony Rendon, Denard Span and Stammen participated, but it was LaRoche who delivered a sermon of sorts.
He is most comfortable, though, with smaller conversations, quiet moments when teammates come to him with questions.
"What I'm very careful to do is not do it in a judgmental way, ever," LaRoche said. "Because I've had guys in the past who have come up and tried to beat the Bible over my head and tell me what I shouldn't be doing: 'You keep doing this, you're going to hell.' And that is absolutely not the way to preach. Period."
When religion emerges on the athletic stage, it sometimes can lead to an eye-roll reaction. But within the Nationals' clubhouse, LaRoche has found his beliefs allied with many peers.
"Some of the skeptics are probably those who have a misinterpretation of what a big-league ballplayer is all about," Desmond said. "I guarantee if you ask 100 people on the street, 90 percent of them think all baseball players run around and cheat on their wives, they're out late, howling at the moon. I think that's a little bit of a misconception. This is a great platform, but you have to be willing to live the life you witness."
Desmond and Stammen went through a similar process to LaRoche. Both attended Catholic school, Desmond in Florida and Stammen in Ohio, largely following the leads of their parents and doing it mostly out of habit more than any deep connection. For both, their faith grew as they matured.
Baseball, despite the view from the outside of its fast lifestyle, has helped foster that, they said.
"It's not easy to just say, 'Hey, I'm a Christian, I'm a believer in God. I need to steer myself away from the sin of this world,'" Desmond said. "But when you have a group of guys that you're basically brothers with and one of them says it, it's easier for everyone else to feel like, 'Hey, yeah, I'm a Christian, too.' You're not that lone duck out there. It's a support group."
"I think it's given me an open mind," Stammen said. "When you play baseball, you meet people from Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Florida, California, Texas, and you get all different kinds of perspectives on the same thing. You learn to appreciate everybody — how they grew up and their beliefs — and not be so closed-minded on 'What I believe is exactly right.'"
Speaking their minds
Dan Haren was raised Catholic. He went to Catholic school and then Pepperdine University. He has attended many Sunday morning chapel sessions during his 11 years in the major leagues. But it wasn't until recently that the 33-year-old pitcher began to really study religion. It is the history of human beings that interests him.
"When I've gone to chapel in the past it's for all the wrong reasons," he said. "It's probably because I've had three bad games in a row. I think when you believe in a higher power, most of the time you're always asking for something. So I stopped going because I felt like I was just going there to ask for things, or to go through the motions."
Haren spent many days in Washington exploring the National Museum of Natural History, studying the science and history of the world. He read a Time magazine poll that posed the question: If science found a fact that contradicted the tenets of your faith, what would you believe? Sixty-four percent of Americans said they would continue to hold on to their religious beliefs. He mentioned the poll to LaRoche one day this year.
"Adam is one of the more open-minded people on the team," Haren said. "A lot of people just close themselves off. You believe one way or the other, and when you hear something else you just completely block it off. [The results of that poll], I think, bother me a little bit. I don't know why, but it just does. I don't want to seem like I'm testing their faith or anything, but I like to understand it from an intellectual standpoint.
"I like to hear what they have to say and then I kind of take it all in and give a rebuttal. Then they take it all in and come back to me. If it ever gets to the point of them or me becoming upset, it stops right there because I think there's certain things that are good to talk about, but this is really a workplace."
Still, Haren and others have challenged the more ardent believers in the Nationals' clubhouse this season, bringing different viewpoints to the table. Haren is inquisitive and studious, asking outfielder Bryce Harper about his Mormon faith or engaging LaRoche and Desmond with questions about the Bible. All are willing to talk with him, even if the conversation gets loud.
"I'm sitting on the bus and I'll just [put my head in my hands] because, of course, Haren has his views and Scott Hairston has his views and Desmond and Span and [LaRoche]," said Harper, the only Mormon on the team. "But I try to stay away from it as much as I can. I just sit there and laugh and listen. It's pretty fun to hear what they have to say because they all get so heated about it."
Harper, who attended seminary classes at 5 a.m. on weekdays in high school, writes "Luke 1:37" on every autograph he signs. "For with God, nothing shall be impossible." It's his way own of spreading the Gospel.
Harper decided not to go on a Mormon mission because of his career, though he considered it. That fits for him because proselytizing isn't his style. "If somebody asks me about it, I'll tell them about it, but I'm not going to be Mr. Tim Tebow," he said, clarifying that he does not mean that in a derogatory way.
"My mom always told me, 'You can touch a lot more lives playing baseball and doing good things than you would on a mission,'" Harper said. "It's very true. Shoot, I'll tweet about God and get 1,500 retweets and it's like, that just went to 1,500 people or more.
"I'm going to try to be the best person I can off the field [and promote my faith that way]. What I say is, 'I try to be the best walking Book of Mormon as I can.'"
Diverse beliefs, mutual goal
Within the melting pot that is the Nationals clubhouse, most of those interviewed for this story agreed on a few things.
First, that the exchange of ideas and open-mindedness to listen to other opinions was important and, overall, positive.
"I'll have a debate with anybody," LaRoche said. "They may get mad, but we're still great friends an hour later. I've found, the majority of the time, if we're willing to open up about it, guys are incredibly receptive."
Second, part of why they're able to do that is because there isn't a lot of unsolicited preaching. Those who hold fervent religious beliefs stressed that timing is important, and some said they mostly avoid the topic unless approached.
"You don't ever want to push it on somebody because I've had teammates in the past, before I was walking in the light, that would," Desmond said. "It was just too much, and that pushed me away."
Setting aside each individual's religious beliefs, they agree that the common ground is where they can retreat to living their lives in a good, moral way.
"Religion or not, I'm all about being a good human being, treating people like you want to be treated," Haren said. "I'm definitely not perfect by any means. But I try my best to live by that rule: trying to be the best person I can possibly be — a good role model for your kids, a good husband for your wife."
The debates will continue to rage, and the goal is not for one to tell another, "You're right and I'm wrong." Between the scouting reports, the relentless schedule and all the rest, the exchanges of ideas will go on.
"I really think there's something inside of us that feels good to accept a higher power," Haren said. "When people say, 'God will show me the way,' or 'Things happen for a reason,' I think that feels good for people to let themselves feel like they're being guided. That's comforting for people of any religion.
"That does appeal to me too, but I just like to focus more on the reason and really understand it. What exactly does this mean?"
By JEREMY W. PETERS
WASHINGTON — The disapproval comes from angry constituents, baffled party elders and colleagues on the other side of the Capitol. But nowhere have senators found criticism more personal or immediate than right inside their own chamber every morning when the chaplain delivers the opening prayer.
“Save us from the madness,” the chaplain, a Seventh-day Adventist, former Navy rear admiral and collector of brightly colored bow ties named Barry C. Black, said one day late last week as he warmed up into what became an epic ministerial scolding.
“We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness and our pride,” he went on, his baritone voice filling the room. “Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.”
So it has gone every day for the last week when Mr. Black, who has been the Senate’s official man of the cloth for 10 years, has taken one of the more rote rituals on Capitol Hill — the morning invocation — and turned it into a daily conscience check for the 100 men and women of the United States Senate.
Inside the tempestuous Senate chamber, where debate has degenerated into daily name-calling — the Tea Party as a band of nihilists and extortionists, and Democrats as socialists who want to force their will on the American people — Mr. Black’s words manage to cut through as powerful and persuasive.
During his prayer on Friday, the day after officers from the United States Capitol Police shot and killed a woman who had used her car as a battering ram, Mr. Black noted that the officers were not being paid because of the government shutdown.
Then he turned his attention back to the senators. “Remove from them that stubborn pride which imagines itself to be above and beyond criticism,” he said. “Forgive them the blunders they have committed.”
Senator Harry Reid, the pugnacious majority leader who has called his Republican adversaries anarchists, rumps and hostage takers, took note. As Mr. Black spoke, Mr. Reid, whose head was bowed low in prayer, broke his concentration and looked straight up at the chaplain.
“Following the suggestion in the prayer of Admiral Black,” the majority leader said after the invocation, seeming genuinely contrite, “I think we’ve all here in the Senate kind of lost the aura of Robert Byrd,” one of the historical giants of the Senate, who prized gentility and compromise.
In many ways, Mr. Black, 65, is like any other employee of the federal government who is fed up with lawmakers’ inability to resolve the political crisis that has kept the government closed for almost a week. He is not being paid. His Bible study classes, which he holds for senators and their staff members four times a week, have been canceled until further notice.
His is a nonpartisan position, one of just a few in the Senate, and he prefers to leave his political leanings vague. He was chosen in 2003 by Senator Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican who was the majority leader at the time, from a group of finalists selected by a bipartisan committee. Before that he ministered in the Navy for nearly 30 years.
“I use a biblical perspective to decide my beliefs about various issues,” Mr. Black said in an interview in his office suite on the third floor of the Capitol. “Let’s just say I’m liberal on some and conservative on others. But it’s obvious the Bible condemns some things in a very forceful and overt way, and I would go along with that condemnation.”
Last year, he participated in the Hoodies on the Hill rally to draw attention to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. In 2007, after objections from groups that did not like the idea of a Senate chaplain appearing alongside political figures, he canceled a speech he was scheduled to give at an evangelical event featuring, among others, Tony Perkins of the conservative Focus on the Family and the columnist and author Ann Coulter.
Mr. Black, who is the first black Senate chaplain as well as its first Seventh-day Adventist, grew up in public housing in Baltimore, an experience he draws on in his sermons and writings, including a 2006 autobiography, “From the Hood to the Hill.”
In his role as chaplain, a position that has existed since 1789, he acts as a sounding board, spiritual adviser and ethical counselor to members of the Senate. When he prays each day, he said, he recites the names of all 100 senators and their spouses, reading them from a laminated index card.
It is not uncommon for him to have 125 people at his Bible study gatherings or 20 to 30 senators at his weekly prayer breakfast. He officiates weddings for Senate staff members. He performs hospital visitations. And he has been at the side of senators when they have died, most recently Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii in December.
He tries to use his proximity to the senators — and the fact that for at least one minute every morning, his is the only voice they hear — to break through on issues that he feels are especially urgent. Lately, he said, they seem to be paying attention.
“I remember once talking about self-inflicted wounds — that captured the imagination of some of our lawmakers,” he said. “Remember, my prayer is the first thing they hear every day. I have the opportunity, really, to frame the day in a special way.”
His words lately may be pointed, but his tone is always steady and calm.
“May they remember that all that is necessary for unintended catastrophic consequences is for good people to do nothing,” he said the day of the shutdown deadline.
“Unless you empower our lawmakers,” he prayed another day, “they can comprehend their duty but not perform it.”
The House, which has its own chaplain, liked what it heard from Mr. Black so much that it invited him to give the invocation on Friday.
“I see us playing a very dangerous game,” Mr. Black said as he sat in his office the other day. “It’s like the showdown at the O.K. Corral. Who’s going to blink first? So I can’t help but have some of this spill over into my prayer. Because you’re hoping that something will get through and that cooler heads will prevail.”
Chris Stevenson investigates the indispensability of faith to the American experiment in self-governance.