In Crisis, Wall Street Turns to Prayer

by Tony Carnes
posted 9/19/2008 11:53AM

Financial meltdown triggers prayer sessions citywide

Starting early last Sunday morning, the turmoil in New York ‘s financial markets triggered a spiritual response among Christian leaders reminiscent of the response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Cell phone text messages quickly spread calls to prayer. “Barclay has pulled out of Lehman deal,” one announced. Wall Street giant Lehman Brothers was finalizing bankruptcy papers; Merrill Lynch was clinching its deal to sell itself to Bank of America. Monday would be devastating.

Many Wall Streeters realized that the crisis could be earthshaking. A. J. Rice, well-respected CEO of the hedge-fund firm Pomeroy Capital, says, “Most people think this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. In 1987 we had a dramatic shock, but the other shoe didn’t drop.” This year, a whole lot of shoes have dropped. Wall Streeters have lived with a constant sense of foreboding.

First there was the January sub-prime market crash and its ongoing problems; then the collapses of Bear Stearns and, most recently, Lehman Brothers; and now Merrill Lynch’s loss of independence. More than 350 banks are on a watch list circulating on the street. “I was surprised and unsettled when Bear Stearns went under,” says Rice. “I worked for them at one time. I knew we were in untested waters.”

How Christians respond to the crisis will be a test of their wisdom, courage, integrity, and compassion for the mighty as well as for the humble. One executive told CT, “Our response will answer the question, ‘Who is Jesus on Wall Street?’ “

Bishop Roderick Caesar of New York City ‘s Bethel Gospel Tabernacle, which has a number of members from Wall Street, says that the crisis is so fundamental to our world that “the church has to be poised for the moment and be prepared to work together.”

Last Sunday night many Wall Streeters could not get to sleep. After midnight, an executive at one of Wall Street’s leading investment banks, who requested that his name and his company’s not be used, lay in bed watching CNBC report that his competitors were going by the wayside. “I was surprised how quickly it had come. By 8 P.M. we knew how Monday would open. I prayed, very selfishly, that my company would not be on the list.” He worried “about my family, the economic environment, my church, and community.”

His wife rolled over and asked, “Are you really worried?”

“No,” he told her. “I am just interested in the news. I work for a really good company.”

She asked again, “Are you stressed?”

He weighed what was important to them and answered, “Even if the worst happens, we will still be together as a family and have Christ who loves and cares for us.” Reassured, his wife turned back over; 30 minutes later her husband turned off the television. He needed to be at work very early the next morning.

On Monday, Christians on Wall Street set up special prayer meetings for the week. First came the special prayer conference calls on Monday and Tuesday nights. Then, starting Wednesday, extraordinary prayer meetings were scheduled at Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Deloitte, and elsewhere. Pastors began planning to gather for a sidewalk prayer meeting outside of the stock exchange.

Mac Pier of the New York Leadership Center started getting calls from friends who were losing their jobs. “Of course, I prayed with them that God would give them the spiritual and financial resources they need.” Pier says that the Wall Streeters who called him were stunned. “It was unnerving to them because of the speed [at which] it happened.”

Rice received a lot of calls, several from friends at Lehman who were distressed by the devastation of their colleagues. One told him, “I have never seen grown men cry like that.” A consultant to several financial companies relates that one friend called to say, “I need to see you to talk me off the ledge.”

NYC-area pastors also began calling their members who work on the street. Rice got a call from his pastor, Jeff Ebert, of New Providence Presbyterian Church in New Jersey . Fred Provencher at Cornerstone Christian Church, also in New Jersey , asked his team to keep tabs on anyone who might need help. This Sunday he will preach that “things get worse before they get better. Amid the people’s groanings, God will be revealed.”

New York City is the center of the world for most members of the financial community. One chief operating officer of a multinational firm that services Wall Street banks told CT, “It’s like the old Sinatra song: ‘If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.’ So you go around with a little swagger.”

Rice says the emotional impact of the current crisis on Wall Streeters is amplified by attitudes like those described by the chief operating officer. “There is an element of, ‘I am master of my fate. I put in 18-hour days and am making it.’ Then, this crisis pulls the rug out from under them. This may be the first dislocation of their lives. Their savings have disappeared in 15 minutes.”

Churches and ministries in NYC also face tests as their funding may drop. Many ministries already report that the year’s funding has been flat. Over the summer, Shiloh Bible Camp in New Jersey received cancellations of most of their reservations due to the cost of travel and economic uncertainty, though they were able to find other campers to fill their schedule.

Ministries in particular are facing big gaps in funding. Wilson Goode, former mayor of Philadelphia , thinks that “in the longer term there will be less money going to congregations, religious institutions, and social programs.” One ministry reported that one donor this week had to cancel his $150,000 gift. Churches’ funding is more stable because they rely more on weekly tithing than year-end gifts. Cornerstone’s Provencher says, “Our weekly giving is steady. You might say our base is flat with no gravy.”

Some Christians in NYC hope that God can use the crisis for good. Pier says, “God can use this situation as he did in the 1857 Layman’s Prayer Revival that started on Wall Street to draw people to a fresh recognition of our absolute dependence on his grace and love.”

Mike Faulkner, pastor of New Horizon Church , says, “Honestly, I am praying God will bring healing and revival.” He recalls how during the 1930s Wall Street crash, Central Baptist Church on Manhattan housed people who had lost their homes. “The church should be available in every way for people on Wall Street who maybe didn’t think much about God before.”

Bethel’s Caesar hopes that “the two-hour-per-week Christians will get faith in their bones” so that it will last. “When you are in a fox hole, people make crazy promises. Afterward, they ask God, ‘Can we renegotiate?’ ” Harry Tucker, a longtime strategic adviser to Wall Street executives, believes that God has put “us in crisis to grow our courage.”

Goode brought an optimism based on his ministry to children of prisoners in NYC: “By faith we know that tomorrow will always be better. One should be comforted that righteousness will prevail. Those Christians on Wall Street can go back tomorrow and simply wait on the Lord. I have investments and if these don’t turn out the way I think they should, it is still God’s will.”

Tucker says the tough times return people to foundational principles: “On the street these principles don’t resonate when the gravy train is running.” The vice chair of a Wall Street investment firm observes the struggle within himself: “You come into this environment and it sucks it out of you. You know, I am often repentant because I realize, man, I just ” ¦ I never say and do stuff like this outside this environment on Wall Street.” For him, the crisis is also a cleansing.

Other Christian money people also refer to working on Wall Street as working on “the dark side,” with an environment that is “absurdly secular,” “out of balance,” and “egoistic.” One trader says, “Some of the times when I get on the train, it’s like I go to the dark side.” Nowadays the trips are especially bleak. One chief operating officer says that maybe Christian faith can stand out as a light of compassion and truth. “We should not be intimidated by the magnitude of the darkness of the times, but [should] realize how quickly the light stands out in all that darkness. We need to turn around and realize that one match lights up all of Shea Stadium when it is pitch black. If Christians walk like Christians, we can do it. Prayer, first of all. So before any general ledger closes, we should pray over the books.”

Tony Carnes, based in New York City , is a senior writer for Christianity Today.

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