The Rev. James H Cooper, rector of Trinity Church on Wall Street
Trinity Church Wall Street has ministered to the people of New York City in joy and sorrow, terror and triumph since its founding by charter of King William III of England in 1697, which specified an annual rent of one peppercorn payable to the Crown.
Located on Wall Street and Broadway in the heart of Manhattan's Financial District, and believed to be the wealthiest parish in the United States due to its large landholdings of prime Manhattan real estate, Trinity has served as the spiritual home of the city's rich and poor for centuries.
Church buildings were used as hostels and soup kitchens during the Great Depression. On 9/11 people fled to the church, which is located just four blocks from where the towers once stood, to escape the pandemonium on the streets. They received spiritual comfort but shelter was short-lived, as they sang hymns, the first tower collapsed and the church was filled with the choking dust that blanketed much of lower Manhattan, forcing the evacuation of the church and its nearby preschool.
Trinity is now trying to help people who have been affected by the brewing financial crisis, offering free spiritual and psychological counselling, stress management tips and assistance with job searches. I spoke with the Rev. Dr. James H. Cooper, 17th rector of the Parish of Trinity Church, about what he and his parish have learned about getting through difficult times.
You told me that more people have been showing up at church lately because of the financial crisis. How would you characterize their mood?
I'd call it reflective - anxious and reflective.
In your experience, do people suddenly discover or rediscover religion during difficult times like these?
I think, generally speaking, religion is either part of your life or it isn't. What often happens during a crisis like this is that people come to a temple or a mosque or a church looking to identify with that part of themselves, rather than suddenly finding it in the midst. But clearly there will be some for whom this is the moment when that spiritual part awakens for the first time.
Many people are confronting their worst fears about their vanishing financial security and livelihood. I imagine you must be hearing about these concerns in your pastoral role. How do you comfort someone who is facing the loss of a job or life savings?
I think you try to be there with the person - physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually - that's the first step. And then, out of that conversation, perhaps you try to give some encouragement and direct them toward services that can explicitly help with job transitions, outplacement, that sort of thing.
From a spiritual perspective, what comfort can you offer?
The basic comfort of the Christian tradition is that God is with us. That doesn't mean that you won't lose your job. It doesn't mean that the hurricane is not going to hit your town or that a plane isn't going to hit the buildings at the World Trade Center. What it means is that God is in the midst of all that, whatever's happening.
The 23rd Psalm provides the essence of that: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." Why not? Not because it's all going well in the valley of the shadow of death. The promise is, "I will be with you" to the end of time and through all of this. The theology in the Christian tradition and other traditions as well is that the loving presence of God is always in our lives.
Of course, there is also the hope and the understanding that every crisis does not end in death. Many crises are opportunities for a fresh start, a new look, a re-evaluation. It could be a job change or a geographical change. With radical change, all sorts of possibilities can emerge.
There is an opportunity for something better, you mean.
There has to be. That isn't why you have the crisis, to look for new opportunities, but when you find yourself in the midst of one you look for fresh approaches. I try to remind people to focus on what they can control, because in any crisis there is a tendency to feel like: "I can't control the economy. I can't control my boss. I can't control the stock market." So what can I control? I can control myself and, to some extent, my primary relationships and my relationship with God. Many people who walk into a church are looking for a sense of stability and continuity in their lives. Even if your church isn't as old as Trinity, having been on Wall Street for 311 years, it still speaks to that. There was something there before you got there and will be after you leave, both metaphorically and literally.
I wonder if you have seen people turn away from religion during hard times - people who get mad at God?
Absolutely. Who wouldn't be angry in response to calamity in the world? The Bible is full of people shaking their fist at God over this, that and the other thing. I mean, sometimes I think to myself, "If I were God, a lot of this stuff wouldn't be happening [laughs]." I think one pastoral approach is to say [to people who are angry] that "God is big enough to handle your anger, so speak to God about it." That in itself may be an opportunity for reconnecting with God, just as it is with a partner or spouse when you're upset with that person. If you go to that person and open the communications, even in anger, you've still got a relationship.
You know, theologically, sin is turning away from God, going in the other direction, being separated or off the mark, whereas reconciliation is about saying, "God. I am angry with you." That acknowledges the relationship.
How do you handle the theological question of why God would let bad things happen?
I don't know. There is a mystery to that. There is a paradox. Either God is in control of everything or God is not. Somehow, if you are a person of faith, you have to say that God has to have some responsibility for the bad things that happen. Most of the theological answers to that [paradox] have to do with a belief that humans have some freedom or free will. I think it just takes me back to the idea that "I'll be with you through the crisis of joy and through the crisis of sorrow." When all is said and done, that's what's important to me and in my human relationships that's what I think about.
What practical support, for lack of a better term, does the church offer people who are struggling financially?
Twice a week we have a workshop called "Coping with Stress in Uncertain Times" and another one called "Navigating Career Transitions." And we're partnering with the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute to offer additional help. Then there's the general pastoral support that is ongoing.
But I think the biggest piece of what we offer is that our doors are always open. It's a place of prayer, respite and recovery - and a place to re-evaluate your life -- no matter what your tradition. Sometimes that happens explicitly and sometimes it happens in a quiet way. When you see two people walk up Wall Street and into our church, and you watch them sit down together for maybe three or four minutes, you don't even need to talk to them. You can just watch them catch their breaths and sigh as they collect themselves before going back or maybe back to looking for a job. That relationship is more important than almost anything else we do.
Were you at the church on 9/11, and if so, what got you through that day?
What did you learn bout coping?
No, I was working at another church in Florida, although that church was one of the many that came up to New York and volunteered for some of the rotations at St. Paul's Chapel, (St. Paul's is part of the Parish of Trinity Church) right across from the World Trade Center site. So because of its proximity we provided a resting place initially for the recovery workers. People offered hospitality. It was a place where you could come in, catch your breath. There were chiropractors, people giving shoes.
There was candy and counseling. That was our focus. And like every church, you figure out what is needed within your specific geographical area and try to address that.
What did you learn from the events of 9/11, and what happened afterwards that might apply to other kinds of crises like what we're having now?
I learned that a community will come together during the most difficult times and people will volunteer to help those in need, whether it's 9/11 or Katrina or the tsunami. Your heart goes out, and you send resources and people. There's a generosity among people in the United States.
Let me turn to a personal question for a second, and ask you when and how did you discover you had a vocation as a pastor?
The simplest answer is that my father was a priest, and I grew up in that atmosphere. I didn't choose this path because of him, but it showed me that I could go in that direction, sort of like a doctor's son knows what being a doctor is all about even if he doesn't end up becoming one.
Initially, when I was in college, I thought I wanted to combine coaching, teaching and chaplaincy by working at an Episcopal school. But after I came out of seminary I changed my mind and went into direct parish work. I think that had a lot to with the people I met along the way who inspired me, other clergy and lay people who had a spiritual influence on me.
You've been at Trinity four and a half years. What do you like about working there?
I was ordained at an urban church in Albany, New York, and I love the vitality and diversity of cities, particularly New York. After spending 32 years at a church in Florida in a tiny little town, it was like coming home. I grew up in New Jersey.
Going back to the financial crisis, I wonder if you think this is an opportunity to rethink our priorities, particularly in terms of money.
I would say so, both individually and collectively. Just look at the salaries that some people are making, whether you are talking about football quarterbacks or movie stars or CEOs of banks. Are those the kinds of jobs we most value most in society?
Are you hearing any anger about that inequity from people in church?
It's a natural thing to be angry. I'm losing my job, and someone else is earning millions.
People in the U.S., politicians too, are talking a lot about the greed on Wall Street.
There's an awkward thing happening. There is a redistribution of poverty, homelessness. It's moving up the system. That's unhealthy, but I think that the system will move naturally to greater equity over time. For their very survival, companies and their leadership need to focus on something other than just maximizing return at all costs.
Do you think this economic crisis offers a chance for people to get back into balance?
I think any crisis creates the opportunity for a reordering of life systems. You know, when I arrived in New York, the saying was, "New York will never be the same after 9/11." There were some subtle changes. People were giving each other more eye contact on the subway, that sort of thing.
There was a stronger sense of community and a reverence for life. Those kinds of things come out in a crisis. The deepest part of us, the humanity that sometimes gets buried, has a chance to rise to the surface.
The part of us that reaches out to other people or...?
The part that realizes we are here to serve, that the world doesn't just revolve around us as individuals and that there is somebody who is hurting so we should help them. Or, if I am hurting, that the community will nurture me, respond to me in some way, both individually and collectively.
Finding My Religion wants to hear from you. Send comments on stories and suggestions for interview subjects to email@example.com.
By David Ian Miller
During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.