February 15, 1981 Business prayer groups spread in NYC

Photo illustration by Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions. Scene is blurred for confidentiality.

In the 1970s, there were very few evangelical churches in Manhattan Center City that catered to professionals, maybe as few as eight. In fact, the city was deteriorating so fast that thousands of religious groups had closed or left. But in 1978, there was the beginning of increased evangelical growth, mainly in the boroughs, but also some early signs of growth in Manhattan. One of those signs was the spread of businessmen and women prayer groups. This rivulet that would become a river two decades later, was picked up by New York Times reporter Nathaniel C, Nash, perhaps the only evangelical reporter on the newspaper’s staff. He was being mentored by the Times‘ legendary retired newsman John McCandlish Phillips.

In his February 15, 1981 article “Businessmen who pray together,” Nathaniel Nash of The New York Times recounted some of the histories of New York City business and faith groups (excerpted).

“The New York Stock Exchange fellowship group is now about two years old. It is one of the hundreds of weekly gatherings nationwide and one of more than 30 in the New York area where businessmen of many levels seek to confront the pressures of the corporate world in a biblical context. The meetings are nondenominational, nonecclesiastical, nonliturgical, and nonpartisan. Most of the time is devoted to discussion, and the participants are always close with extemporaneous prayer.

It’s a growing ‘movement with a lower-case m,’’ says Ken White, a former Conoco executive and founder of the businessmen’s fellowship movement. But its growth has purposely been kept quiet and unobtrusive.

While Tuesday is the day for the Big Board, on Thursday morning, at One Chase Manhattan Plaza, a similar meeting takes place at the offices of M.A. Shapiro & Company, the brokerage firm. Sixteen men and one woman were present recently.

The meeting, held in the conference room on the 58th floor overlooking the hazy mouth of the Hudson River, begins with prayer – ‘Lord, help us to apply the truths in Your word to our business lives.’ A New Testament verse is read, which leads to some candid remarks: ‘Everybody blows it from time to time, but if you look for Christ in your life, you’ll find Him,’ and ‘This place is a refueling station for me. If I weren’t able to come here, I don’t know what I’d do.’

Most of the meetings are open to the business public, but some are more intimate gatherings. One of these occurs about twice a month, when William S. Kanaga, chairman of the accounting firm of Arthur Young & Company, Donald V. Siebert, chairman of the J.C. Penney Company, and Howard C. Kauffmann, president of the Exxon Corporation, meet in one of their offices for an hour of Bible study and prayer.

In his comfortable office on the 43d floor in the J.C.Penney building, Mr. Siebert carefully measures his words. He has been an evangelical Christian for almost three decades and he is following in the footsteps of the giant retailer’s founder, James Cash Penney, who also was an evangelical Christian.

‘I believe it is essential to a complete and balanced life to recognize the sovereignty of God and to establish a personal relationship with Him,’ Mr. Seibert said.

The prayer breakfast movement began more than a decade ago when Mr. Ken White, who was then a division marketing manager for Conoco, was troubled by a pervasive loneliness he observed among business associates. In 1968 he attended a Governor’s prayer breakfast in Nebraska and made the connection.

‘Hey, that’s the answer to my dilemma,’ Mr. White said he told himself at the time.

He took his idea to John E. Kircher, then an executive vice president and currently Conoco’s deputy chairman, in New York. Mr. Kircher liked the idea, flew to Washington to speak with Senator Mark Hatfield and others involved in the weekly Senate and House prayer breakfasts, and ended up backing Mr. White’s request.

Mr. Kircher, at Mr. White’s request, was chairman of the first such gathering in New York City, at the offices of Conoco, a meeting that continues to the present.

John Flanagan is one who says he’s ”born-again.” A trader on the floor of the American Stock Exchange and at 31 a member of the board at Josephthal & Company, Mr. Flanagan said the change came when he was a student at Cornell Business School. ‘I met my future wife, and she happened to be a born-again Christian,’ he recalled. ‘She told me I had to personally accept Jesus Christ to really know Him, but I said That’s good for you, but not for me.’ But I began to read the Gospel of John one night, and I found it really spoke to me. I could feel God’s presence, and that night my life changed.’ A 1987 Christianity Today article said that 31 small Bible study groups came from this one study.

“Retro Flashes” are Journey’s quick takes on moments of history that have made New York City what it is, what New Yorkers are, and, maybe, what it will be.

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