When I asked Margaret Grun Kibben how she felt when she was sworn at the U.S. Capitol, she answered, “Oh my God!” Anything else would have been an understatement.
And this was not someone who lacked honors in her lifetime.
Rear Admiral Kibben, also known as the Rev. Dr. Kibben, retired from the U.S. Navy, was taking on a new role – chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives. Born and raised in Bucks County, she is the 65th chaplain to serve and, not a surprise, the first woman. The first chaplain, the Rev. William Linn, born in Shippensburg, Pa., served from 1789 to 1791.
The chaplain, a House officer elected at the beginning of the 117th Congress, was sworn in on Jan. 3, along with the other house officers – the chief administrative officer, the clerk of the House, and the sergeant at arms.
On her third day in office, Jan. 6, Kibben was at the House for the certification of the Electoral College votes. A joint session of Congress was meeting to confirm Joe Biden as president.
“As she walked through the Capitol, Kibben, 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,” a reporter from the Religious News Service (RNS) later wrote. “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.’”
About an hour later, she observed a “flurry of activity” around House leadership as members, separated from their Senate colleagues into their chambers, debated the election results. Kibben saw Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others whisked away. The rest were told to fall to the floor.
Kibben’s work as chaplain had begun in earnest. The crowd outside had turned into a violent mob. Extremists had overpowered police and were storming the Capitol. As the evacuation began, a clerk asked Kibben if she could offer a prayer. “I was praying all along,” she thought. She was glad she wore a clerical collar that day since few people recognized her.
Kibben knew what to do. As she approached the microphone an aide handed her an “escape hood.” There was a sense of terror in the room as legislators and staffs scrambled to escape.
Was she afraid? “No,” she said. “I’ve served in combat.” She set the mask aside and prayed.
“It was a matter of asking for God’s covering and a hedge of protection around us,” she said. “And that in the chaos, the spirit would descend in the room to offer us peace and order. That we would look to care for each other, even as we are under stress.”
As Capitol police moved people out, Kibben walked among them, helping and consoling. Some had health conditions, some were struggling, some more frightened than others. She tried to comfort them when she saw problems.
By the time the group reached a secure location, tensions ran high. “As security personnel offered status updates, those sequestered with Kibben were increasingly aware of the chaos swarming outside the door,” RNS reported.
Asked to pray again, Kibben read from the Bible’s Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.”
In another secure location on the Senate side, Barry C. Black, the Senate chaplain, led senators in prayer. Also a newcomer, Black, a retired Navy rear admiral and former chief of Navy chaplains is the first Seventh-day Adventist and the first African-American to hold the position.
After law enforcement cleared the area, around 6 p.m., Kibben was able to go to her office. The joint session of Congress reconvened at 8 p.m. to do the business of government. The session ended with Black’s closing prayer early in the morning of Jan. 7.
Kibben was back in her office the next day ready to help. She was especially cognizant of the Capitol police, who had lost one of their own.
The experience, she said, confirmed why there are chaplains in Congress. “It’s not related to a particular faith tradition, it’s that there is somebody here who comes alongside in this moment.”
Margaret Grun knew at 14 that she wanted to be a minister. She grew up in a house her father built on Bristol Road in Warrington. Her father, a World War II veteran, William A. Grun, her father, taught industrial arts at Abington High School. The family was active in Neshaminy Warwick Presbyterian Church in Hartsville, where Margaret was inspired to follow a religious path. She attended Titus Elementary School, Tamanend Middle School and Central Bucks East High School.
Kibben earned a B.A. degree from Goucher College in Towson, Md. in 1982 and entered active duty in the U.S. Navy in 1986. She received her Master of Divinity (1986) and Doctor of Ministry (2002) degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary. She also earned an M.A. degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the Naval War College in 1996. Kibben was a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.
She served as the Navy’s 26th chief of chaplains from 2014 to 2018; she was the 18th chaplain of the United States Marine Corps (CHMC).
Kibben’s Marine Corps assignments have included Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., where she served with Headquarters and Service Battalion, Security Battalion, the Brig, Marine Corps Air Facility and the president’s Helicopter Squadron, HMX-1. She also served with the Marines of Camp Lejeune, N.C., making deployments to both Turkey and Norway. Later she was assigned to the Marine Corps Combat Development Command in Quantico as the doctrine writer for Religious Ministry.
Kibben’s Navy assignments included the U.S. Naval Academy as the first female chaplain.
After retirement from the Navy, Kibben became a lecturer in Leadership and Ethics at the School of Engineering of the Catholic University of America.
From 3 to 4 p.m. March 24, Rear Admiral Kibben will join a virtual conversation You’re invited to join a virtual conversation to celebrate Women’s History Month, hosted by Bucks County Community College. Her topic, “Leadership in the Public and Private Sector, Dr. Kibben’s Journey” will provide a personal perspective.
As an indication of Dr. Kibben’s thoughts on leadership, she’s been recently quoted, “Throughout my experience in the military and now in government, I have been made keenly aware that when people acknowledge their innate skills, ground their actions in moral purpose, and use their God-given voice, their leadership can’t help but make a difference.”
As a founding member of AI and Faith, she has engaged herself in the emerging debate on the ethical development of artificial intelligence and related technologies, researching and speaking on the ethics of artificial intelligence.
There is no charge to participate in the Zoom presentation, but preregistration is required: http://bit.ly/zoombccc.