Strolling through a cemetery, Melissa Kimiadi stops and notices a chapel building behind towering trees. She's armed with her pen and notebook, pulls off her backpack to dig out her camera and takes a snapshot of the near-vacant building.
Kimiadi has been doing this all morning and afternoon: riding in a car, navigating the way through Jamaica, Queens, and marking the route. When a religious site comes into view, Kimiadi hops out of the car to evaluate the site.
"Could you get a survey from the car?" Kimiadi asks her partner, Tony Carnes, the editor and publisher of A Journey through NYC Religions.
Kimiadi, 25 years old, works for A Journey logging the places of worship in New York City. At each stop, the team distributes a survey to the religious leaders with a stamped form to return in the mail. If no one is there, the survey is left in the mailbox or in the door. Regardless, the team snaps photographs of the site and fills out basic contact and location information. This is data-driven journalism in the trenches.
There are 6,374.9 miles of city streets. The team has covered about 70 percent of the city after starting A Journey in July, 2010. More than 60,000 names and numbers are in the database.
The team says that there's more to the project than just numbers. Carnes set it in motion.
"Then, Tony started to train me to do interviews," Kimiadi said. "I realized how much I enjoyed doing interviews and sought to do better." The team started to pump out articles, graphics, videos and podcasts.
The web magazine soon became a popular reporting hub for people to see and learn the personal stories of members and leaders of religious sites. More than 1.3 million viewers have visited the Journey web site.
Carnes said on average they cover about 27 locations each day. In Brooklyn one day last year, they stopped at close to 100 sites.
"There's no such thing as a typical day," Kimiadi said. "I'm absolutely in love with the fact that we're constantly in motion."
The interviews give depth to the statistics. When a knock on the door is answered, the team asks four standard questions about the personal and community impact the congregation has.
Kimiadi smiles when she asks one church leader, "Put on your big picture hat for me. If you were mayor of New York City, what would you change?"
These questions sometimes lead to stories written up as articles featured on the web magazine. Kimiadi says she also enjoys writing reflective pieces about her experiences.
Kimiadi has had a journey of her own. A Chinese-Indonesian from New York City, she grew up in a Roman Catholic family with Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian influences in her extended family. Kimiadi recalls that family gatherings had "good intentions" but the time would usually end in a dispute over religious differences.
Since working on the project, she says her past and own judgments have been the biggest obstacle to overcome in order to "connect with people I'm interviewing."
"The hardest part about this is getting through my own stereotypes, getting through my own experiences with religion," Kimiadi said. "There was tension in my family, you could cut it with a knife and I associated the tension with religion across the spectrum."
She defines her beliefs as non-Christian, but says she has become "more spiritual" after participating in the project.
When the field work in NYC is finished, the team still have their documentation to process and more follow-up stories to prepare. Their journeys have also left an indelible impressions.
"It's going to take us years to really process the journeys that we, our team, have been through – all the interviews that meant something to us," Kimiadi said.
"The people we interview tell us their life stories," she said. "[This project] has revitalized my understanding of the human spirit … a desire to share, grow, learn, and understand each other, to create unity in that diversity."
For articles by Melissa Kimiadi see: