How the native chaplain calmed the tense hours within the beleaguered Capitol with prayers for “God’s cowl”

WASHINGTON (RNS) – As counteradministrator Margaret Grun Kibben, the US House of Representatives chaplain, walked the echoing halls of the US Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, she felt an accusation of anticipation in the air. It was a happy day: lawmakers met in a joint session to officially approve President-elect Joe Biden’s victory – a historic moment – and an atypically controversial one, thanks to the outgoing president’s refusal to admit.

But Kibben had her own reason for unfamiliar excitement: it was her third day at work.

As she walked through the Capitol, 60-year-old Kibben, a minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA) sworn in on Sunday, peeked out a window and saw a growing crowd of Trump supporters on the east front of the building. She thought little more about it than what she had said in her prayer outside the house that morning: America is going through a time of “great discord, uncertainty and unrest”.

She hurried to the chamber of the house for a joint meeting, where she found a seat on the right side of the main corridor.

CONNECTED: Rear Adm. Margaret Grun Kibben named as the first woman to be the local chaplain

Their placement was not a particular political bias. “When I go to church, that’s where I usually sit,” she told the Religion News Service on Friday, January 9th. She wasn’t even supposed to sit there: she was so new that no one had told her that she and her Senate counterpart, Rev. Barry Black, nominated seats during joint congressional sessions.

From there, about an hour later, she observed a “flurry of activity” around the leadership of the House as the members of the House, now separated from their Senate colleagues in their respective chambers, discussed the election results. Within seconds, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others were taken away from the podium.

Then the news came: the crowd outside had turned into a violent mob. The Trump-supporting extremists overwhelmed the police and stormed into the US Capitol. It was time to evacuate.

When the work of the legislature came to a standstill, Kibbens began in earnest: a domestic worker looked over at the chaplain and asked if she could offer a prayer.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’ve been praying all along,'” she said.

For Kibben, who previously served as the U.S. Navy’s senior chaplain before she was the first female chaplain to serve the house, it was an opportunity to do what she does best: offer comfort to those in crisis.

Kibben told RNA that she did not remember the exact details of her first prayer. The room, she said, was “full of grave concern” as lawmakers prepared to leave.

As she approached the microphone, she was made aware of the impending danger: An adjutant handed her an “escape hood” – a protective mask that was developed as a precautionary measure after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Kibben, who served in battle, was not shaken. Instead, she put the mask aside, gathered herself, and prayed.

“It was about asking for God’s cover and security around us,” she said, remembering the house clerk diligently documenting her words as she prayed. “And that in the chaos the spirit would descend into the room to offer us peace and order. That we want to take care of each other even when we are under stress. “

The Capitol Police Department quickly began evacuating lawmakers and domestic workers from the room shortly thereafter. While others focused on getting out, Kibben focused on her: she started working the evacuation column, offering as much comfort as possible to anyone who needed her.

“There were people with different skills, health conditions, and emotional states,” she said. “My concern was to keep an eye on who was afraid, who was fighting, so that I could be by their side – and there were some who were under duress.”

Rear Adm. Margaret Grun Kibben preaches at Washington National Cathedral on November 10, 2019. Video screengrab via

The group eventually reached a safe location, but tensions remained high. When security staff offered status updates, those confiscated with kibben became increasingly aware of the chaos that swarmed outside the door. Insurgents broke into lawmakers’ offices and led violent clashes with law enforcement agencies, in which at least five people – including a police officer – died.

Kibben was asked to pray again. She began reading from Psalm 46 of the Bible, the same passage she had included in her scheduled prayer outside the house that morning. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present aid in trouble. Therefore, although the earth should change, although the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, we will not be afraid. “

She then prayed for a “cover of peace and protection,” and raised prayers for those who searched the Capitol – so that those who “felt so strongly against us” would understand the lawmakers who are deciphering them, ultimately wanting exactly what the attackers insist were denied: “That our legislative process is appropriate and legal and representative.”

When she finished the room was quiet.

Kibben then became involved in what is known as a “Ministry of Walking” and spoke to members of Congress, staff and Capitol police who appeared to be in need. She said wearing an office collar helped her: after she had not finished her first week, she met many in the room for the first time.

In another safe place on the Senate side, Black is said to have led senators who had gathered for prayer. He was assisted by South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who called it a “calming moment”.

Throughout all of this, Kibben said she was little worried about her own safety. Instead, she felt something she hadn’t experienced since her time in battle: a kind of spiritual “covering” that allowed her to be present to others.

“It’s a feeling of ‘God has this’ and I’m just an instrument to bring God into this moment,” she said. “The ministry in the crisis was nothing new to me. This idea of ​​getting people involved at a level where you just get them where they are and what they’re ready to share right now – I mean, we do. “

After police finally cleared the mob from the building around 6 p.m., Kibben returned to her office, where she reunited with her management assistant. Two hours later, when Congress convened again to continue its work, she rejoined them.

“I’ll tell you the tenor in the room has changed a lot,” she said. “There was a clear feeling, ‘Our life is important. Our business is important. The well-being of the country is important. ‘”

When the meeting ended at around 4 a.m., it was Black who offered the closing prayer.

“Lord of our lives and ruler of our beloved nation, we deplore the desecration of the United States’ Capitol, the shedding of innocent blood, the loss of life, the swamp of dysfunction that threatens our democracy,” he said. “These tragedies reminded us that words matter and that the power of life and death resides in language. We have been warned that eternal vigilance remains the price of freedom. “

Despite the crisis, Kibben said her work was going on. After taking a day to rest, she returned to the Capitol to be available to residents of the building – something she noted is offered regardless of her beliefs, provided they claim some tradition.

Emotional and spiritual wounds from the attack take time to heal and many are in grief. She has been particularly attentive to the Capitol Police Department, who have lost one of their own, and has “represented” those who insist they are “fine” looking for others who have problems.

“I feel very privileged to be here at this time and that this is my first week,” she said. “It doesn’t put me in phase, it actually confirms why there is a chaplain here in the house and why this is so important. It has nothing to do with any particular belief tradition, it is that there is someone here who is by your side at this moment. “

For Kibben, this Wednesday’s experience only strengthens her belief in the value of pastoral care.

“It’s important because … our daily lives are not separated from God’s involvement in them,” she said. “God is very present and a great deal has come next to each of us as we work in the vineyard. And when this work is tedious, God understands boredom. When the work is besieged, God understands the crisis and walks beside us in still waters – as well as in the shadow of danger. “

She added, “Faith is important. It was important on Wednesday, it is important today, and it will be important tomorrow. “

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