A Journey through NYC religion has been honored with one of the highest national prizes for religion journalism. At a Saturday banquet of the Religion Newswriters Association, A Journey was given the Gerald A. Renner Enterprise Religion Report of the Year for its 12,000-word multimedia series on “The Making of the Postsecular City. The Manhattan Evangelicals” published last December.
The Renner Award is given for religion reporting in a series, package or enterprise story. It awards religion reporting that is original, multimedia, and takes enormous effort. Other finalists in the multimedia category honored at the ceremony in Durham, North Carolina included The New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Times, Associated Press, Reuters, and PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. The Religion Newswriters Association was founded in 1949 to advance the professional standards of religion reporting. The prize is named after the late Gerald A. Renner, who won numerous accolades for religion and investigative journalism for the Hartford Courant in Connecticut.
The judges for the Religion Newswriters Association said about A Journey, "This is what enterprise reporting is all about: a brilliantly informative series about religion in New York City."
Tony Carnes, editor and publisher of A Journey through NYC religions, said, “The honor is an encouragement to all who are pioneering online journalism. We deeply appreciate the Renner Award, but not as a goal in itself. We view awards as a sign that our nonprofit, nonsectarian, nonpartisan model can make a meaningful contribution to New York City and journalism in an era marked by high religious growth with its social benefits as well as by religious conflict. We hope we can continue to earn the trust and support of New Yorkers—people of faith, people of nonfaith, liberals and conservatives—for our efforts to create a public square for the postsecular city.”
The online magazine launched on July 9, 2010 on a shoestring budget and a small staff of four people and freelancers, supported by an energetic and talented group of volunteers with a rainbow of beliefs and ideologies. A Journey has received cumulatively 1,155,979 unique visitors. It is number 1 in all or most search engines for “NYC religion.”
A Journey covers religion by traveling down every block of the 6,374.9 miles of street as well as every alleyway and many hallways. At each religious site A Journey interviews, maps, photographs, and videotapes. For some sites A Journey returns to report in-depth stories. In a year’s time A Journey has filed 120 stories and produced or obtained 49 videos about religion in all five boroughs of the city.
The award-winning stories in A Journey through NYC religions tell how New York City has changed from a “Sodom & Gomorrah” or “The Secular City” into “The Postsecular City.” If it is not quite the new Jerusalem or the new Mecca, New York City is certainly the site of a fast growing religious presence. Religious voices are becoming more commonplace and acceptable in public discourse.
The story of the rise of Postsecular New York City is told through one example, the evangelicals in central Manhattan. In 1975 there were only a handful—10 or so—evangelical churches that professional, English-speaking residents would normally consider attending. Today, there are over 197 evangelical churches in central Manhattan. Over half of these churches cater to English-speaking professionals.
The planning started in early 2009. Tony Carnes, A Journey’s publisher and editor, worked some with Sheri Fink on her Pulitzer Prize-winning story for ProPublica and The New York Times on the Memorial Hospital deaths during Hurricane Katrina (he provided photos and some reporting for Dr. Fink). He saw how ProPublica organized their work through partnerships and filled a gap left by the decreased resources being devoted to investigative reporting. Out of that experience, A Journey developed an understanding on how to design its web site and reporting strategy to increase news coverage of religion in New York City. Many media organizations around the country have cut costs by drastically reducing resources devoted to religion reporting.
For the series A Journey visited 729 religious sites, 295 Protestant sites, and 197 evangelical churches. Its reporters interviewed over 112 people, photographed or recorded video at most sites, and collected archival material.
Evangelical churches in Manhattan Center City are continuing to multiply. Almost 40% of these churches were begun in 2000 or later. Within the last two years in some months, a new evangelical church opened its doors every Sunday in central Manhattan. A Journey covered intensively one such plant, Hillsong NYC, which started in the Fall 2010.
On the Sunday that A Journey attended, there was a block and a half line of people waiting to get into the services. Hillsong ended up adding another service and still turned people away. This new church was attracting over 2100-2400 attenders at its second Sunday of worship services.
Hillsong NYC illustrates the reasons for the growth and dynamism of the evangelicals in central Manhattan. The leaders of Hillsong are migrants from within the United States or immigrants. It is typical of most of the new evangelical churches to be led and attended by many “outsiders” to the city. For example, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, the evangelical mega-church, was founded in 1989 by Rev. Tim Keller who moved here from Philadelphia. It is about 80% migrants, immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants. 20% are converts or church transfers of long-time New Yorkers.
Major findings and impact of A Journey’s series on The Making of the Postsecular City
A Journey’s reports contradict a common belief among some intellectuals, politicians and religious leaders that fundamental cultural change only comes from elite insiders. The corollary belief would seem to be that lower, working and middle class people don’t count. Actually, the story is really the old story of the underdogs trying to make good. Historically, the dynamism, innovations and successes of the New York City have depended upon the migrants and immigrants who bring different perspectives and a determination to succeed.
The comments, emails and phone calls from religious, governmental and intellectual leaders in New York City indicate that A Journey’s stories have had two major impacts: a change of perception (at least by outsiders) of New York City as a Sodom & Gomorrah or The Secular City; and a new appreciation of the dynamic role of outsiders like immigrants and migrants. One Cuban American business owner in the 47th Street diamond district of Manhattan emailed, “You have hit it right on the head.” The headline of the Washington Post On Faith Blog on A Journey (January 19, 2010) summed up our possible impact on people’s perception of New York City: “New Yorkers not so godless.”
In a highly publicized speech last year on religious tolerance Mayor Bloomberg also identified a view on the important role of religion in the city that was not previously articulated by city leaders. He said, “Political controversies come and go, but our values and traditions endure -- and there is no neighborhood in this City that is off limits to God's love and mercy…”
Another impact is the great encouragement that A Journey has given to religious leaders and faith-based social service providers. Its reporters continually get comments and emails of thanks. The interviews seemed to act as a catharsis in which tensions are let out and encouragement is brought inside. This is a common occurrence for reporters, and it is one of the most valuable contributions that they can give to community life, what the philosopher Hegel called the value of “recognition.”
Finally, by introducing the evangelical leaders to other New Yorkers, A Journey may have increased the possibility of community unity and an enlarged public square. These central Manhattan evangelicals are still relatively unknown to other New Yorkers. The magazine hopes that the stories will lead people of different faiths to learn to take into account each other and to come together into common projects. A Journey follows in the footsteps of perhaps the greatest reporter in New York City’s history, Jacob Riis. This reporter and photojournalist, who was also an evangelical Christian, worked closely with Protestants, Catholics, Jews and seculars to reveal the problems of the poor and options for solving those problems. Indeed, since A Journey started reporting, evangelical Protestant and Jewish leaders have started meeting regularly with one of our reporters observing.
A Journey has also covered many other religions in the city. Its series on Muslims came during the Ground Zero mosque controversy and continues to receive praise from Muslims around the world. While most other media reported that there were about 99 mosques in the city, A Journey noted their visits and interviews at 175 mosques.
A Journey has covered Jews, Roman Catholics, voodoo, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions.
The size of A Journey’s enterprise project is probably unique in religion reporting in NYC. There have been several extraordinarily good series on religion in New York City that focused on one site, person, or event. Andrea Elliott’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stories on an iman in Brooklyn and David Gonzalez’s series on one storefront church in Upper Manhattan come to mind. But A Journey’s series is not a drilling down into one place but a roundup similar to the New York Times’ series on religion in New York City in August 1975. The reward is the discovery of a new postsecular New York City.