Stephen Chernin/AP
With Trinity Church in the background, people walk on Wall Street.

Wall Street Crisis Sends Financiers to Religion

September 25, 2008 12:52 PM
by Anne Szustek
The market volatility of the past two weeks has led the eyes of some Wall Street workers away from tanking share prices toward a higher authority.

New York Financiers Make a Lunch Date with God

As pensions go by the wayside, share prices plummet and investment banks become extinct as a species, more Wall Street bankers are spending the noon hour schmoozing with the boss upstairs. No, not the CEO with the top-floor office: God.

Clergy at Wall Street area houses of worship have seen a sharp uptick in the number of congregants attending daytime services since last week, when news broke of investment bank Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy and Merrill Lynch’s takeover by Bank of America.

Father Peter Madigan, a priest at Financial District Catholic church St. Peter’s, told Reuters that he has seen a recent increase in attendees dressed in business attire. And starting this week, the Wall Street Synagogue—founded in 1929, the same year as the market crash that set off the Great Depression—will open its doors in the evenings to welcome neighborhood financiers. But rather than noting an increase in the number of congregants, Rabbi Meyer Hager has noticed a somber mood among his regular flock. He told Reuters, “I can see it on the faces of certain people who come here who are regular people—some work for AIG and other large banking houses.”
Trinity Church Wall Street, an Episcopal parish that opened in 1698, has seen its share of American tribulations. The church welcomed a newly inaugurated President George Washington for Thanksgiving services in 1798, used its buildings as hostels for the homeless during the Great Depression, and saw its grounds hit by debris from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Over the past couple of weeks, more men and women dressed in business suits have been seen in Trinity’s pews during its weekday noon services. The Rev. Mark Bozzuti-Jones, a priest at the church, said in his Sept. 19 lunchtime sermon as quoted by Reuters, “The economic financial crisis is a reminder that we cannot put our faith in riches, that we cannot put our faith in money.”

Some financiers are putting stock in faith, however. Religious groups are providing seminars and counseling sessions for New Yorkers worried for their futures. Rabbi Henry Harris, who works with Jewish outreach agency Aish, told Religion News Service that many attending a recent emergency counseling session for those working in the financial sector were entry-level employees fearing job cuts. “People came and expressed the feeling of stress that goes along with uncertainty,” Harris said.

Trinity Church Wall Street is also providing space to job-training and career counseling sessions organized by New York’s Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute. “People who still have their jobs are asking, ‘Am I next?’ They are much less certain of their place in their company and in the world,” Mary Ragan, a psychologist for the institute, told Religion News Service.

Historical Context: Religion during the Great Depression

Overall church attendance had been on the decline for several decades before the Great Depression. In fact, some clergy members saw the economic crisis that characterized the 1930s as divine retribution for falling away from faith. According to a Web site hosted by the University of Virginia’s American studies department, many major denominations did see a 5 percent increase in membership during the decade; however, many of those attending may have been less devout than earlier generations. Middle-aged women constituted the bulk of congregations, with few young adults going to church on their own accord.

Reference: Web Guides to Finance and Religion


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