Early evening on the first Sunday of 2021, the Rev. Dr. Sylvester Beaman, already dressed in his pajamas, received a phone call from President-elect Joe Biden. It was not unusual for the pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Delaware, to hear from Biden. They developed a friendship over the last 28 years. But this call was different.
The former vice president to Barack Obama, who will take over the presidency from Donald Trump on Wednesday, was not seeking spiritual counsel. Rather, he caught Beaman just before bed with an opportunity: Biden asked if Beaman would provide the country with an uplifting benediction to close out his inauguration on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
“I told him, ‘Sure.’ I was honored,” he told NBC News. And then he went to bed.
Biden’s choice of the Black clergyman to wrap an inspirational bow around the event speaks to the incoming commander in chief’s connection to Black Americans and his trust in Beaman.
They met in 1993, when Beaman took over at Bethel AME. He held an event in the community. Biden attended and introduced himself to the pastor, initiating a relationship that extended to the entire Biden family. In particular, Beaman, who traveled on a few occasions with Biden during previous campaigns for president, formed a tight bond with Biden’s late son, Beau.
When Beau Biden ran for attorney general of Delaware, his father suggested he contact Beaman. The son did, and “Beau and I became kindred spirits,” Beaman said. “We became good friends in the trenches dealing with social issues in Wilmington and the state.”
Beaman participated in the services after Beau Biden died of cancer in 2015. He said the tragedy of Biden's son's death and other life trials — including losing his first wife and daughter in a car accident and personal health concerns — make Biden the ideal person to take over a bruised nation.
"Joe Biden is a man whose life experiences have taught him to seek the face of God," Beaman said. "He’s had some dark times in his life. And he’s someone who is naturally a person of faith. He prays and listens to God."
"We need a president who is after the heart of God," Beaman continued. "In these terrible times, if anybody can bring healing and reconciliation to a divided country, if we give him room to work, Joe Biden can be that person."
For Wilmington natives, Beaman is considered a logical person to deliver the benediction for Biden, considering their past and especially the reverend’s standing in the town that the president-elect calls home.
“It’s not a big surprise that Rev. Beaman was picked to do the benediction,” Wilmington resident David Coker, 60, said. “He has always been a pivotal part of the community and so has Joe Biden. The pastor’s Power Hour, where people would come to church during their lunch hour to pray everyday, is one example of how he connects with the people.”
The work with the community extends to Beaman’s wife, too. Renée Beaman is a director at the state’s Division of Health and Social Services, where she helps citizens with housing and financial concerns and aids people experiencing homelessness, among other needs-based services.
“The Beamans have been there for Wilmington,” Coker said. "His church sits in the center of town. It’s an important church. And Joe Biden has always been invested in the community.”
In his November victory speech, Biden acknowledged that Black people — in Delaware and nationally — “have my back,” both during the campaign and throughout his career, and that as president, he will have theirs. Beaman said the African American community at large can trust Biden to fulfill his commitment.
“As an example, when George Floyd protests occurred,” Beaman said, “Joe Biden called and asked: 'Can I come to your church and hold a meeting with community leaders and clergy? I just want to hear what people think.' Contrast that with President Trump bypassing protesters and having them cleared out to go stand in front of a church to pose for photos with a Bible."
Through Beaman’s participation in the inauguration, the people of a state that’s often ridiculed for being diminutive swells up with pride.
“I feel deeply honored that my pastor will deliver the spiritual message to the country,” said church member Ron Hall, who described himself as being “born and raised” at Bethel AME. When he tells people he attends Bethel, he said they immediately start talking about its pastor. “He is known for his good works. His show of integrity and leadership is needed in our country today.”
As for his message, Beaman said he had not finished writing it but that he watched past inaugural benedictions of the late Rev. Joseph Lowery and others for inspiration.
"I am preparing to do a prayer that will be timely, not lengthy," he said. "It will embrace the spirit of this moment. I believe as I was taught — that the benediction is a very important piece to the function of worship. It is the pronouncing of God’s final grace upon the congregation. So I will approach it from that perspective."
"I will be standing in front of a building that slaves built and I will be standing at a podium that a mob desecrated," he added. "The last word that day will be the voice of God. I’m asking God to use me to channel his final grace upon the occasion and speak to the moment. And it’s an honor to do so."