Wall Street: Face Reality and Work Honestly

Looking down Wall Street to Trinity Church
Wall Street facing Trinity in the 1920s

Off and on, in the past year or so, I’ve been reading about Wall Street and a couple times came across images of the gothic cathedral at the head of Wall Street on Broadway, a half a block from the New York Stock Exchange. The captions read, “Trinity Wall Street” and I thought, “That’s a beautiful church—I wonder if it’s connected in any way to the Trinity I went to with Don and Sue on a regular basis when I was attending the academy? Maybe they’re part of the same diocese?” I attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York from 1987 to 1991. I had no family in the immediate area, so I often visited Don and Sue Jenner (a friend of my mom’s when Sue lived in Erie, Pennsylvania) who were like a kindly uncle and aunt. I didn’t care much for being at the academy—I managed to escape to various places on the east coast with the sailing team on some weekends, but my favorite time was in New York with the Jenners. It was about a half hour train ride from Kings Point to Penn Station and from there a brief subway ride downtown to Tribeca where they lived.

Front of Trinity Church viewed down Wall Street
More recently (NYSE on right)

In the new year, when chatting with Don on the phone, I mentioned the photographs of Trinity and asked, “Was that Trinity connected to the church we went to?” Don then informed me, incredulously, “That is the church we went to.” Then it was explained—we never approached it from Wall Street or entered from Broadway. We walked down Greenwich Street, cut across to Trinity Place and entered from a rear entrance, so I never saw it from the angle that it is most often photographed. And those photographs tend to cut off large portions of adjoining areas and buildings that I associate with Trinity, so from my viewpoint, it looked completely different. I do have a dim memory of standing outside the church once and looking up and seeing a street sign that read “Wall Street” and thinking, “We’re on Wall Street?” but I’m sure that thought was soon replaced by a vision of dim sum. It was not unusual for us to eat in Chinatown after church which I always looked forward to when zoning out during the service. I was not a Christian at the time so hardly considered my time there real church attendance. I was basically a jellyfish floating along in the current of Don and Sue’s Sunday routine. I did enjoy my time in church—or rather I enjoyed the theater of it—the choir, pipe organ, candles, stained glass, clouds of incense blown about by people in robes waving censers—your basic Anglican high church experience which in my mind, was more relaxing than being at the academy.

Brandy Walker in the Jenner's apartment (about 1992)
Me in the Jenner's apartment (about 1992)

I very much appreciated the time we had together in New York. It was always a pleasure to spend time with Don and Sue and in hindsight, I am especially grateful to Don for giving me my first real introduction to Christianity. On our frequent outings in lower Manhattan, we walked everywhere or took the subway. (Like most people who live in New York, they didn’t own a car—Don taught management and business ethics among other things at CUNY-Borough of Manhattan Community College which was just footsteps away from their apartment.) Wherever we went, if we passed a homeless person who asked for something, Don gave that person something, even if all he had was some change. I was pretty broke at the time so wasn’t inclined to give usually so once I said to him, “That’s really nice you give like that,” to which he replied casually something along the lines of, “You never know if you’re giving to or feeding Christ himself.” That comment blew my mind. Don was of course being faithful to Matthew 25:37-40. “‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” I did not know this scripture at the time but intuitively grasped the meaning from Don’s comment and behavior. Until then, it never occurred to me that Christianity could be radically different from what I thought it was. Six years of unpleasant Catholic school and an atheist father had prejudiced me completely to “organized religion.” It would be a number of years before I actually converted to Christianity, but I now recognize that experience with Don and his comment as an important early seed.

It was only in the past few months in finishing up transcribing and editing my project with Julian Moody that I have been musing and reflecting on all this. I met Julian in 2007 in Santa Barbara and our friendship grew through the course of the financial meltdown in 2008. Born in 1917, he had lived through the Great Depression. With him I had discussed both financial crises of 1929 and 2008—the truly miserable worldwide consequences of reckless activity on Wall Street. Now it seems strange and funny to think that both financial meltdowns had occurred just down the street from where I was sitting in church. And ground zero of the economic meltdowns is just blocks from ground zero of 9/11. I remember when arriving at the Jenner’s apartment building for the first time, I gasped at the sheer mass and scale of the 110-story World Trade Center which stood six to seven blocks away from their apartment. Sometimes when a ship I was on as a midshipman was docked at Port Newark or Elizabeth in New Jersey, I would visit the Jenners. The train station I got off at was at World Trade Center, in the bowels just below the twin towers and then I walked up to their apartment sometimes against a tidal wave of business suits during rush hour. I’ve also eaten with the Jenners and Rev. Lloyd Casson of Trinity in the cafeteria off the 44th floor sky lobby in South Tower. The sky lobby was gorgeous with stunning views of the city. To think that is all gone now, destroyed by Muslim jihadists angered by what’s vaguely referred to as our “freedom,” but perhaps also rightfully enraged by the crass materialism and lack of morals of our times and culture (but obviously expressing their anger in a completely misguided and immoral way.) I never really thought about it much since 9/11. I spent quite a bit of time in lower Manhattan during those important formative years, and off and on I would think of that time in my life but never dwelled on it too much, but lately it has been on my mind and heart a lot. Crossing an ocean on a ship, the world seems so huge, but yet it is also so small and interconnected.

In our recent reminiscence regarding Trinity Wall Street, Don spoke of the historic pipe organ being permanently damaged by the dust cloud fallout of the tower collapses. He also mentioned that the main entrance of Trinity used to face the Hudson River instead of Wall Street. Trinity, which is older than the United States, has had three churches on that site since 1697 when first granted a charter by the British monarchy. The first church burned down in the great fire of 1776. It sat in ruins for some years and when rebuilt (it was completed in 1790), the entrance was mysteriously changed to face Wall Street, the reason never documented so we can only speculate why. The roof of the second church collapsed after an especially severe snow storm in 1838-39, forcing another rebuild. The church as it now stands was completed in 1846.

Washington's inauguration in 1789, Trinity Church in background with scaffolding.

The coincidence of attending Trinity with Don and Sue, my friendship with Julian, and recently reading about Wall Street had set me musing much about the financial crises of 2008 and 1929. The main culprit of the 2008 meltdown were derivatives known as credit default swaps (or CDS.) Ironically, CDS were created to make loan instruments safer and thereby the financial system safer. In a CDS, the risk is separated from loans and viewed and sold as a commodity (in the form of an unregulated insurance policy against loan default) with the hope that the risk is now somehow eliminated or at least reduced. But as former derivatives trader and author Satyajit Das points out, the reality is that the risk is never eliminated, it is just being moved around in a complex shell game in an interconnected global financial system. Firms believed they were unloading the risk associated with bad loans to other firms in other countries, only to unwittingly buy them back via credit derivatives so complex they are barely understood by the people trading and dealing in them. And more troubling, irresponsible and predatory lending became more prevalent after the creation of CDS with the belief that the risk was now avoided. This fueled an epidemic of bad loans whose risk had now, through the proliferation of CDS, become systemic, infecting the entire financial system. This sickly house of cards collapsed, beginning with the Bear Stearns collapse in 2008, leading to a severe global recession and also prompting government bailout of banks to prevent a worldwide financial crisis akin to another Great Depression.

The traditional view of mental illness is a split or break from reality. The well-meaning attempt to split out and eliminate risk via credit default swaps has turned out to be a sad delusion. And the lie and cancer at the center of this delusion, the belief that you can get rid of risk, in other words, consequences. We would all love to believe that there is no such thing as consequences (especially in regard to our own poor choices) but, just as you can’t avoid gravity, the consequences come. And consequences to poor choices was at the heart of the 1929 financial crisis. The 1920’s was one big party based on fast wealth, and the era in which consumer credit was first conceived and practiced on a mass scale. “Buy now, pay later” and buying stock on margin became the norm, and everyone believed, “The sky’s the limit.” This materialistic delusion reached its heady heights as the decade progressed and then came crashing down to hard reality in the stock market crash of 1929.

My friend Julian, who credits his mother for his family’s survival through the Great Depression, described his mother as stalwart, a kind woman with a very high sense of responsibility. He said his mother taught him to “face reality and work honestly.” How I wish she were still alive to say this to some who are working on Wall Street. But as Satyajit Das pointed out, Wall Street has the power that it has because we now believe that finance drives everything. In his words, “In the modern age our god is finance except it’s turned out to be a very cruel and destructive god.” And I would add the adjective “insane” to describe this god.

When Trinity’s main entrance was changed to face Wall Street instead of the Hudson River, by then, Wall Street was already a center of financial activity. The real reason for the change in orientation is lost in time so we can only surmise. Maybe some would cynically say the entrance was strategically placed to draw in the cash flow. But perhaps the planners, builders, and clergy (or at least some of them) sincerely hoped to entice the people on Wall Street to enter the church and worship Christ instead of the cruel, insane god of finance. And to also come to know Christ and God’s concern for the poor, marginalized “nobodies” and “the little man on the street” (who may be Christ without one even realizing it.) Proverbs 14:31 “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.” How funny that Christ can be so close and yet so far away. And this is a choice we make all the time, just as the choice to face reality and work honestly is a choice we make all the time. But many of us, along with Wall Street, if we’re really honest with ourselves, care more about money and materialism than Christ and the things that concern God. As Jesus said, "You cannot serve God and money at the same time.” It seems we’re repeatedly and collectively learning the consequences of this truth the hard way.

Washington's statue and Trinity Church from Wall Street, c1928

(On a side note, management consultant and executive coaching pioneer Julian Moody and I discuss GreedEgo, and Sustainability. These topics are part of our project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things.)

(Posted 5/29/15)