‘Life Story’: Religion Takes Shape in City Project

A reporter for “A Journey through NYC Religions” challenges her personal struggles and her own search for faith.
By Bryanna Hampton

Melissa Kimiadi walks down the streets of Queens to scope out religious sites. Photo by Bryanna Hampton

NEW YORK – Strolling through a cemetery, Melissa Kimiadi stops and notices a chapel building hidden 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, 24, works with Carnes on the Journey project logging a church census of all the places of worship in New York City. Initially, this was a task to document all religious sites of any religion.

Kimiadi has been working with Carnes since January, 2010, as a research assistant to work on the census for the Council of Churches of the City of New York. 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.

There are 6,374.9 miles of city streets. The team has covered about 70 percent of the city after starting the Journey project in July, 2010. More than 60,000 names and numbers are in the database of information gathered from the census. Now, more than 900,000 viewers have visited the Journey web site.

The team soon realized there was more to the project than numbers. Carnes set a new idea 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

Kimiadi (left) and Tony Carnes take snapshots and notes on the religious monument in a Queens cemetery. Photo by Bryanna Hampton

better.”

The web site became a reporting hub for the census, sharing the personal stories of the members and leaders at the religious sites and archiving the locations with photos and video.

Carnes said on average they cover about 27 locations each day. In Brooklyn one day, they stopped at close to 100 sites.

“There’s no such thing as a typical day,” Kimiadi said. “I just absolutely fell in love with the fact that we were constantly in motion.”

The added 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 site 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 project web site. Kimiadi says she enjoys writing reflective pieces as well as reporting on specific sites and people.

Kimiadi has had a journey of her own. A Chinese-Indonesian graduate student from New York City, she grew up in a Roman Catholic family with Muslim and Christian influences in her extended family. Kimiadi said, though family gatherings had “good intentions,” the time would usually end in a dispute over religious differences.

“The hardest part about this is getting through my own sense of self, getting through what I know of, my experiences with religion,” Kimiadi said. “There was always that tension you could cut with a knife and I associated that with religion across the spectrum.”

Since working on the project, she says her past and own judgments have been the biggest obstacle to overcome in order to “connect with the people I’m interviewing.”

Kimiadi takes notes on every site and interview in addition to data reports and surveys. Photo by Bryanna Hampton

She defines her beliefs as non-Christian, but “more spiritual” after conducting and writing for the project.

When the field work in NYC is finished, the team will still have documentation to process and follow-up stories to conduct.

“It’s going to take us years to really process the journeys that we’ve been through – all the interviews that meant something to us,” Kimiadi said. Although they face a lot of apprehensive interviewees and unanswered doors, the stories shared make a bigger difference.

“They tell us their life story,” she said. “[This project] has revitalized my understanding of the human spirit … a desire to share, grow, learn and understand each other and create unity in that diversity.”

Reporter Bryanna Hampton may be reached at bryannahampton@gmail.com.

Hear what a “typical day” on the project is like:

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