The journeying start and stop motions down the street open up multiple occasions to meet the widest swath of the peoples of the city. Further, we get to know the ethnic religious networks that leads us to understand who works with whom. Indeed, religious leaders are quite interested that we don’t miss anyone in their network of influence. Sometimes, they call on the spot to let their religious fellow travelers to know that we are coming. Because we linger at some places longer than others, we are then greeted with, “What took you so long? I was expecting you.”
New York City has more immigrants than any other city in the world and also welcomes a huge number of migrants from other parts of the United States. About two-thirds of the city are immigrants and their children, speaking over 170 languages. (We run across a lot of them! Our statistical questionnaire is only in seven languages; our reporters share nine languages; and we make up the rest with local translators.) Up to 600,000 immigrants are without official papers.
Our journeys start right from the doorsteps of our homes. When I step out of my door in Elmhurst, Queens, I am immediately enveloped by the 156 nationalities that live in the area, the most anywhere in the planet according to the U.S. Census. Recently, after saying good-bye to my neighbor, an Italian immigrant who is an admirer of Padre Pio-- popular with Italian immigrants from the Naples area (and elsewhere too), I heard a startling new sound on the block, the sweet elegance of a Chinese pi-pa. Walking down the street, I shout out a hello to my Chinese-American neighbor who established a community garden down the street with the help of a local church.
Gingerly making my way past the pet pit bull at the auto shop of a couple of Puerto Rican entrepreneurs, I go down the street toward the subway, saying hello to Koreans coming from their Bible study at the McDonald’s, glancing at the shop whose proprietor prints Korans, and watch the Russians talking about last night while they order breakfast from an Ecuadorian.
I pass by a church with seventy-three nationalities in the congregation, past a Chinese bakery celebrating ten years in existence with lucky banners, a magic store, a Nepalese Chinese restaurant, another church with thirty-four nations represented, a Central American bakery, another Chinese pastry place run by the younger generation, pick up a paper from the Pakistani newsdealer who goes to a mosque in Jamaica, Queens, and skip down the steps to the subway.
Occasionally, I see one of the saffron robed Buddhist monks from the nearby monastery or the Thai temple. Jehovah Witnesses also often stand with their Awake! magazines to give away. Now, they have a little portable stand with more offerings. Today, as usual, the subway is a UN on wheels, but not many languages are being spoken as most people are zoning everyone out while they catching the news, listening to music or taking their last rest before work. One is reading a Bible, two others seem to be reading some sort of religious literature. My journey for the day has begun.
Learning about religion in New York City is traveling through the world’s peoples and faiths. It keeps you on your toes, always being surprised by some new people and faith or twist of faith, and humbled by how much we don’t know about this city.
Journey journalism works best when there is a massive disruption to the social and intellectual status quo. Catastrophes, migrations, political, religious, and scientific revolutions create the conditions in which a substantial number of people start to search for some way to make sense of their life. Any city that has a large number of immigrants and migrants are going to have many new religious groups, innovations and sites. It takes a nimble and open-minded reporter to establish the new relationships so as to report the new “news.”
You learn a lot about how interactions are governed by the sensibilities, values and religious worldviews of the people whom you meet on a journey. You have to learn to skillfully fit yourself into others’ ethnic and religious sentiments and projects. The sociologist and philosopher Martin Buber said that the best social interactions are based on an “I-Thou” relationship, meaning that you hold the other person sacred. Pretty good advice for a journey! We would add one thing.
The sense of "we" grows fastest when a journeyer places himself or herself as the learner in the partnership. Then, one becomes, for a brief moment, an insider at the invitation of someone else.
A journey forces us into empathy and sympathy with the strangers that we encounter on the roads of New York. We couldn’t survive by being apprehensive all the time, and certainly wouldn’t be able to quickly join communities for a short time without an intense meeting of the hearts and minds.
Our editorial approach is that we talk to everyone we can and that our reporters are committed to finding the best story that they can discover from each religious site. As long as it is well done, the editor says, yes, do it.
A journey is the occasion for some breaches of etiquette that are painful to experience. One time in Jamaica, Queens, we broke for lunch toward a Halal buffeteria, only to discover that there was a sign for a mosque upstairs. The sign was pretty small, about eight inches by 10 inches, so we had missed while driving past the food place. Besides, we were too interested in marking the place as a likely good place for lunch. So, as we got our food, we asked the proprietor about the mosque, which he described to us. As we sat down to eat, he told a mosque leader, who was picking up the food, about our interest. The leader bought a tray of desserts and sent them over to us. So far, it was a journey of discovery and joy. Then, I went over to shake his hand.
In my enthusiasm I just didn’t think that the mosque leader might have ritually cleansed himself for the worship services. Conservative Muslims don’t touch an uncleansed people before leading worship. I saw a pained expression flash briefly over his face followed by a smile. But I knew that I just dunked him into a dilemma: should he go back and ritually cleanse himself again? His family was waiting, too. Disaster! He didn’t say anything, but I haven’t forgotten how he covered for my mistake.
Let’s recap the incident on this typical Journey: we discovered a new mosque, one that wasn’t marked in any map or directory; we learned about the mosque’s schedule, ethnic origins, and history; we met a Muslim restaurant owner and a leader of his mosque; we learned about this restaurant’s halal practices; we created an “Intercultural” faux pas, covered over by a man’s politeness, learning something about religious peace and interaction; and had a delicious meal with sweet desserts. Pretty intense for a lunch break. Now, we were ready to negotiate the high sensitivities and pride of the cooks for an African American church bakery fundraiser at our next stop.
One limitation of our journeys is that we come across so many stories about the faiths among so many groups. We can never write all of them. We freely share these story ideas with other reporters in the hopes that what we can’t humanly do will be covered collectively. However, even our colleagues can’t produce or get published enough. So, journeying has caused us to think more about new ways to get out news about NYC faith.