WASHINGTON (RNS) — As Rear Adm. Margaret Grun Kibben, the chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives, made her way through the echoing halls of the U.S. Capitol Wednesday (Jan. 6), she could feel a charge of anticipation in the air. It was an auspicious day: Lawmakers were meeting in joint session to formally approve President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, a historic moment — and, thanks to the outgoing president’s refusal to concede, an atypically contentious one.
But Kibben had her own reason for feeling an unaccustomed excitement: It was her third day on the job.
As she walked through the Capitol, Kibben, 60, a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister who had been sworn in Sunday, peeked out a window and saw a swelling crowd of Trump supporters massing at the East front of the building. She thought little more about it than what she’d said in her prayer before the House that morning: America is enduring a time of “great discord, uncertainty and unrest.”
She hurried on to the House Chamber for the joint session, where she found a seat on the right side of the main aisle.
Her placement didn’t represent any particular political leaning. “When I go to church, that’s where I usually sit,” she told Religion News Service on Friday (Jan. 8). She wasn’t even supposed to be sitting there: She was so new, no one had told her that she and her Senate counterpart, the Rev. Barry Black, have designated seats during joint sessions of Congress.
It was from there, about an hour later, she observed a “flurry of activity” around House leadership as House members, now separated from their Senate colleagues into their respective chambers, debated the election results. Within seconds, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others on the dais were whisked away.
Then, word came: The crowds outside had turned into a violent mob. The Trump-supporting extremists had overpowered police and were storming into the U.S. Capitol. It was time to evacuate.
As the work of lawmakers ground to a halt, Kibben’s began in earnest: A House clerk 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 chief chaplain before becoming 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 RNS she doesn’t remember the exact details of her initial prayer. The room, she said, was buzzing with a “great sense of alarm” as lawmakers scrambled in preparation to leave.