Among All Faiths There are Ministries for a Crisis

October 10, 2008 at 2:50 pm Leave a comment

Several weeks ago, before the earth cracked open on Wall Street, Imam Khalid Latif had a chat with one of his regular worshipers at the Muslim center at New York University.

This young man, a business student, had a theological complaint to register. Why did Islam make such a big deal about the principle of mutual benefit? What was the matter with just taking care of yourself?

About 10 days later, with the landscape marked by the bankruptcy, emergency sale and federal bailout of some of the nation’s most venerable financial companies, a more abashed version of that same student returned. “Now I know why I can’t define security by the number of zeroes on my paycheck,” Imam Latif, N.Y.U.’s Muslim chaplain, recalled the man saying.

Presented with the spiritual equivalent of what educators call a “teachable moment,” Imam Latif spoke to the student about the humility, perseverance and especially the Islamic concept of sabr, meaning “patience.” He offered a hadith from the Muslim tradition: “Patience comes at the first sign of calamity.”

Variations of the imam’s conversation have been proceeding in virtually every faith these last few weeks, especially for clergy members who have a following among the investors, executives and employees of the shaken financial industry. They are practicing ministry for a meltdown.

“There is no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole,” goes the wartime cliché. As if to make the truism even truer, the recent financial troubles have coincided with two religious periods devoted to soul-searching — the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish “days of awe” culminating in Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

“The High Holy Days are a time people take stock of their life,” said Rabbi Joshua Metzger of the Chabad Lubavitch center in Midtown Manhattan. “And the confluence of the financial crisis and this period of penitence is surely in sync with the message of self-appraisal, repentance, re-examination and the need to make good decisions.”

As the United States staggers from its credit binge to a straitened future, the religious holidays demand their own form of self-denial. Jews fast on Yom Kippur and, for the most observant, the Fast of Gedalia, which comes the day after Rosh Hashana. Devout Muslims did not take food or drink during daylight hours for the entire month of Ramadan, which ended this week.

“The purpose of the fast goes beyond a physical one,” Imam Latif said. “It puts into perspective a lot. When you have that drink of water at sundown, when you eat that date to break the fast, you have a deeper appreciation of what you have.”

The Rev. George W. Rutler, pastor of the Roman Catholic Church of Our Saviour in Midtown Manhattan, has been giving a similar message to the younger of his parishioners. Unlike the older generation, which lived through the Great Depression, these men and women had known nothing except exuberant days for investment banks, hedge funds and the stock market.

“They’re just astonished; they have no historical reference,” said Father Rutler, the former national chaplain of Legatus, a group of prominent Catholic executives. “I’ve said to them: ‘You’re part of history now. And in the future, you will learn to be more practical about value.’ This was a necessary purge, painful in many ways.”

The weekday Mass on Sept. 24 supplied Father Rutler with texts to underscore his lessons in prudence and frugality. One of the readings, Proverbs 30, included the admonition to “give me neither poverty nor riches; provide me only with the food I need.” The Gospel reading, from Luke 9, had Jesus dispatching his disciples to travel among the people to heal the sick and tame demons. “Take nothing for the journey,” he instructs them, “neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money.”

The Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook has turned more often to biblical passages of solace. She has made a clerical specialty of ministering to the black and Latino middle- and upper-middle classes, both as pastor of the Bronx Christian Fellowship and as leader for a worship service every Wednesday at noon at the John Street United Methodist Church amid the canyons of Lower Manhattan. For her flock, relatively new arrivals to lucrative jobs in finance, the economic tremors have threatened to undo generations of struggling progress.

“The stress level is just high,” Ms. Cook said. “It’s a feeling of not knowing what your last day will be. These are people with a family to support, with kids in college. They feel like: ‘It took so long to make it. We played by the rules. And now look what happened. How am I going to make it?’ “

At a pragmatic level, Ms. Cook has referred congregants to career counselors, particularly those who charge on a sliding scale. In both sermons and pastoral sessions, she has turned to Psalms 26 and 61, verses that ask for mercy and compassion from a God who “hast been a shelter for me and a strong tower from the enemy.”

At Chabad in Midtown, Rabbi Metzger has also emphasized the need for trust in the Almighty.

He has frequently quoted from a talk that the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, gave shortly after the stock market crash in October 1987. The rebbe gave a blessing that “it should be revealed that there is only descent for the purpose of ascent.”

And just in case any listener might misconstrue, Rabbi Metzger adds: “This is not a matter of financial advice. This isn’t Jim Cramer.”

Source: NY Times

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