Journeying is one of the primary ways of understanding and growing a spiritual life. Almost all great religions are rooted in consequential journeys, sometimes planned, sometimes unexpected. Our journeys put us into the motions of faith history past and present.
Adam and Eve got kicked out of the garden of Eden and began humanity’s journey to the rest of the world. While not a planned exodus, the journey certainly involved a spiritual learning.
The Bible is full of other consequential journeys, including the Exodus, exile and return, Jesus’ and Paul’s peripatetic ministry and finally the journey to heaven.
One form of journey is pilgrimage to places considered sacred or pivotal to a faith. There are Catholic pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Rome, symbolic processions through the stations of the cross and Mexican posadas that symbolically duplicate Joseph and Mary looking for a place to stay. Muslims look forward to the at least one time that they are able to visit and worship at Mecca. If a Muslim is able to make the journey, even their name will change with the addition, “Hajji” for the man or Hajjah” for the woman, meaning Pilgrim.
Ennin, a Japanese Buddhist in the 8th Century AD wrote about his pilgrimage to Buddhist sacred sites in China while Wu Cheng'en celebrated in his novel Journey to the West a similar trip to India by the 7th Century Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s trip in order to gain better copies of the Buddhist scriptures. Wu’s book has been popularized on stage and movies around the magical monkey that accompanies Xuanzang. There is some doubt about whether Wu wrote the book, but little doubt about the joy it has given as one of the four great classical Chinese novels. The trips to gather better copies of the sacred works of Buddhism led to more accurate literal translations into Chinese which accelerated the spread of Buddhism in China.
We have discovered that many immigrants and migrants recall their journeys to the city as spiritually consequential. In her book Jacqueline Hagan recounts how religious faith has come to define the migration from Central America as a move from death to life provided by God.
Pedro and Lucinda moved to New Jersey from Mexico. Before the trip, they went to Catholic mass about once a month. Pedro’s background was agnostic until he married. During their trip to America, however, their Catholic-lite faith rose up as a survival factor in their rough trip through the mountainous region on the Mexico-California border. In his new book Immigrant Faith Phillip Connor recounts how it happened. Lying motionless and exhausted as the border patrol passed by, Lucinda grabbed Pedro’s hand to pray. At this low point their faith pulled them through.
Personally, too, the journeys are spiritually meaningful to Journey staff and volunteers. Sometimes, journeying is a moment of suspension from real angers and tensions so that one is prepared to reconcile with parents, friends or acquaintances or a faith tradition. For other journeyers, our trips force them to appreciate the strengths of other peoples and faiths.
I didn’t anticipate how much spiritual impact that A Journey through NYC religions would have on me and our reporters. I thought of it as a journalism entrepreneurial effort, not as a spiritual one. I was mistaken.
The impact on me has been great. I have had to learn to listen more and tamp down my quick opinionated reactions. One pastor even advised me during an interview, “We Christians need people who disagree with us. We are not always right and need to hear the criticism.” My inner reactions was curiously one of relief, a release to listen.
Journey is about learning to listen to the deepest beliefs of other people and to let them inform our inner dialogue.
I have also discovered that people appreciate a safe space in which they can explore different faiths, even their own, without feeling that they must reject, accept or judge what they are being told. Assuming the role as an appreciative listener means that they can hear religious “pitches” and controversial views without feeling so defensive, nor secretly contemptuous. The role of reporter has provided enough distance to be open-minded; and the role of a journeyer allows religious questioning to naturally take place without a prescribed destination.
Maria Karlya, one of our reporters wrote about the spiritual impact of doing journeys on her:
Going to church, for me, is like dating again after a long, bad break-up. It is something I want to do, really. It even gets me excited thinking about it. But when Sunday rolls around, I panic. Sorry, I don’t have any serious trauma to report. I’m just a reformed child-evangelist-Jesus-freak who reached her faith crisis quota a few years back and is still on a spiritual hiatus.
So when I got a chance to tag along with A Journey through NYC religions, I jumped at the opportunity to get another perspective on religion. I thought going from church to church and pastor to pastor in Jamaica, Queens would be like dipping my toes in the pool to decide if it was worth jumping back in. Talking with pastors about their impact on their communities was just far-removed enough from my church-going childhood for me to be comfortable.
One day, I was in and out of a conversation with Pastor William Armstead of First Church of God in Christ on Baisley Avenue in St. Albans, Queens. As another reporter took notes, I snapped pictures of bananas from the food pantry and nodded as he threw in one mantra after the other.
“When the heart and head connect- now that’s heaven.”
“We live full and die empty.”
“If the place that you’re in doesn’t challenge you, you’ll never change.”
A quirky fellow that marched to the beat of his own drum, he had more proverbs about life than the Bible. But he gave us an honest account of his journey as a man of God, and the ups and downs of ministering in a community on Baisley Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens.
As we were wrapping up he left us with another gold nugget. “Life is tough. Dying is easy, living is hard, but Jesus will never leave us comfortless.” Again I nodded. I jotted it down, even though it rubbed me the wrong way on a very deep level.
“That’s funny, didn’t we talk about something like that this morning?,” the other reporter said, spurring me on to step out of my quietude (where I felt very comfortable–thank you).
“Well”, I said, careful not to disagree. And then I blurted out my disagreement. “What about when he does leave us…comfortless?” ...
“What happens when God is there one day, and he is real as these walls, or anything in life that you can feel, and then he is gone? What happens when you do all the right things, all the things you are supposed to do, and suddenly you don’t feel God anymore? And no matter how much you pray, there just isn’t anything there anymore.”
“You mean when God moves and doesn’t leave a forwarding address?” he said.
Ok, this was unpredictable. After telling me all the beautiful things he had done in his community, all the trials and triumphs, the whole bit, he now told me that he had gone through a long dry spell that lasted for months – a void of God’s presence. He told me it was hard to go to church, to pray, to worship and to love God when it very much felt like he was talking to a black hole. Then one day, God came back into his life. He was there, and then he was gone, and, oh!, there he was again.
“He’ll come back,” Pastor Armstead said. But I think as a man of God, Pastor Armstead had to tell me, promise me, and assure me that God would, in fact, come back. ...
Then, he tenderly brought me to disbelieve in my own sense of abandonment when he said that he and his congregation would be praying for me.
After several years of doing a journey, our reporter Melissa Kimiadi set down some of her reflections on how her heart had deepened and opened up:
Tony and I had worked together for three years, reporting and collecting information on NYC's vibrant religious communities. We navigated the city's streets in slippery snowy blizzards and unbearably hot summer days (treating ourselves to lemon ices as rewards after a long day of work!). It was spontaneous fun and never a dull moment. The synergy of our team often reflected the energy of a think-tank; we were free to express our ideas and come up with courses of action.
We drop in on people who are unlike ourselves in conditions that are sometimes challenging. We must try to pry open up our hearts and minds within each encounter to experience what we feel. Some days are harder than others to bear, but we enjoy every second of it. We accept that the only thing certain is our inability to control where the day’s adventures will take us.
As we travel, we witness the churches, mosques, and temples with grand openings and tearful failures, the roads that get diligently paved and built within the span of a week's time, the homes that tragically catch fire and the brave men that put them out, and the blossoming of sidewalk memorials and park monuments. Surprising friendships between people morph in front of our very eyes like the one we observed at a Hindu temple on our first day at Jamaica, Queens. As we took pictures and made our notes, a Christian evangelist came to visit his old friend the Hindu priest. They engaged in an apparently good-natured debate between two old friends about how to live with Muslims.
In the process, our travels transform us deeply. Through the continual reminder that life is happening before our very eyes, we open our hearts and minds as the folks we meet share their memories, food, songs, and families. Each memory is new, fresh, and unexpected. The religious platoons are deploying ever greater numbers. They are mixing our city culture with their faith traditions in never before seen ways. We see a moment in time that will never be replicated.
Our journey has no destination except a large understanding of the presence and role of religion in New York City. However, at each place we stop, there is a spiritual door offered to a spiritual end. In fact we often report on how the religious believers try to invite us through this door. Sometimes, they are a little insistent or manipulative, but not often. A reporter might go through the door; we just hope that he or she will report to us on what they found on the other side.
A Journey journalism is about identifying with our audience and our respondents on the road. We are all on journeys of discovery. Let’s share them together.