One Saturday evening a few weeks ago, a dozen parishioners filed into the Hellenic Orthodox Church of Saint Nectarios, a tiny house of worship located in the backyard of an East Phoenix home. Once inside the stucco structure, the devout bowed their heads in preparation for a special prayer ritual.

Fasten your seat belts--it's going to be a bumpy night.
Indeed, the hourlong rite on July 20 was no ordinary prayer session. Forget ailing relatives. Never mind sins or trespasses or divinely inspired lottery numbers.

For as sure as God is their co-pilot, the members of Saint Nectarios had come to ask the Almighty to save America West Airlines from financial ruin.

Coffee, tea or He? Isn't prayer generally reserved for more life-or-death worries than, say, a quandary over what will happen to thousands of packets of honey-roasted almonds?

Not in the eyes of Hellenic Orthodox Church honchos in Astoria, New York. "If a company the size of America West, for example, collapses, it spells suffering for many," says the Very Reverend Father Paul Strategeas, chancellor of the New York diocese. Apparently a firm believer in the "pray now, fly later" school of commercial theology, Strategeas ordered priests in cities served by America West to perform the "Paraklesis," a service of supplication usually done for the special needs of individuals. According to the chancellor, the prayers were to be directed to the well-being of the airline, its directors and employees.

But why America West? Airline chieftain Ed Beauvais is not a member of this church, although Father Bessarion does point out that among the Phoenix church's forty members are a handful of low-level America West workers.

"Obviously," says Bessarion, "these people have a need."
But it turns out the Hellenic church has a need of its own. America West is one of the primary reasons his church established a Phoenix branch three years ago, says Bessarion. Today the church-office complex on North 27th Street serves as western regional headquarters for the diocese, and also houses the national church's publishing holdings. Prior to the church's moving to Phoenix, these functions had operated out of a monastery south of Alamogordo, New Mexico.

"It was very difficult to function from there," says Bessarion, explaining that the monastery was "way off the beaten track." Attracted to America West's Phoenix hub (a real boon to shipping church publications throughout the Southwest), the church relocated its headquarters to the Valley in the late Eighties.

Clearly the airline has been a blessing to the church, which proudly issued a press release about the special prayer service.

"This airline is our chief transportation link between our churches in the Southwest," explains the abbot of the diocese's New Mexico monastery. "All our monastery's publishing materials move between El Paso and Phoenix on this airline, and from there to most of the parishes in the country. There are, of course, other airlines, but many of our faithful are employed by America West."

"Our priest is always emphasizing the fact that the concepts of Christianity are very refined," one member of the Phoenix sect is quoted as saying, "and that it is important to create a lifestyle wherein kindness, consideration, dignity and respect . . . can be the environment in which our faith grows."

The church's official position is that "America West's policy of `More Care' and the `go-the-extra-mile' attitude of most of its employees is exactly the approach that our faith encourages, and something which the rest of society really needs more of these days." Not to mention the horrifying numbers game that would result if the airline is permanently grounded. This is the way Father Strategeas sees it: "Fifteen thousand employees means 15,000 house payments, 15,000 grocery tabs, 15,000 utility bills, school taxes, car purchases, restaurant customers and clothing shoppers. If the company collapses, this will burden the rest of society with 15,000 unemployment checks, or even welfare."

Will the prayer session help America West straighten up and fly right? Like Jewish penicillin, it couldn't hoit.

Coffee, tea or He? Isn't prayer generally reserved for more life-or-death worries?

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Dewey Webb