Last week I watched the YouTube video, just like everyone else did. Crowds appearing to cheer, testify and shout as New Birth Missionary Baptist Church's Bishop Eddie Long stood, sheepishly, being wrapped in a so-called Holocaust Torah — perhaps it even had the "dust of Auschwitz and Birkenau" remaining on the precious scroll. Bishop Long was raised high in a chair carried by several strong men and hailed as a king according to "Jewish rituals." Even Long didn't look particularly convinced or excited about his "coronation."
Following this display, Long apologized to the Jewish community in a letter to Bill Nigut, Southeast regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, saying, "The ceremony was not my suggestion, nor was it my intent, to participate in any ritual that is offensive in any manner to the Jewish community."
Sigh. Interfaith mayhem.
Watching the video (which has been removed from YouTube, but CNN did a story on the event) and reading all the commentary flying across my social networks, all I could think was, "What a shame." It doesn't have to be like this. Interfaith respect and spiritual clarity is, in fact, possible. The picture of confusion on the pulpit at New Birth during that video stands in such stark contrast to the worship experiences I had in different sacred spaces across the world during my "52 Weeks of Worship."
Over the span of a year, I experienced a number of kind, humble interchanges with leaders of various worship communities I visited. In interactions devoid of pomp and circumstance, I was able — immediately — to feel the energy of the sacred spaces I was in, as reflected by the leaders of those communities, and to appreciate the kind invitation they extended to come, experience, worship and learn.
Videos like the one of Bishop Long are plentiful. You don't have to search for long to find an example of "religion gone wild." Stories of situations where religion is used to confuse and sow sad seeds of deception abound. Undeniably, religion is wielded as a weapon and used as an excuse for violence all over the world.
People often ask me about the "craziest thing I saw" as I worshipped in a different place every week for a year. I always respectfully share that I saw a lot of wild and wonderful ways in which worship takes place. There were some situations in which I was completely comfortable, and (of course) there were others I did not fully understand. What was clear, however, is that there is a safe, sacred space for anyone who seeks it — and that the journey is worth it.
I'm not sure what was happening at New Birth during that "coronation ceremony." I wasn't there, and without context, it's hard to evaluate. But the way it came across was disturbing to many, and it was certainly disrespectful to more than one community of faith, including, some may argue, those who were present in the New Birth congregation during that service.
My experience is that for every time you meet someone who does a disservice to their worship tradition, there are others who will help you see that tradition's beautiful, positive elements. I learned quickly during my 52 weeks that it isn't a good idea to judge a religion based only on the bewildering people you may meet or the overwhelming popular myth. These perplexing contributions to the body of religious conversation are likely based more on characteristics of someone's personality or on challenges they face in their lives than on their true alignment with a particular faith tradition.
There will never be a time when negative images of religion don't exist. But those negative images sit side by side with an equal number of instances of those people, inspired by their faith, who do great things. There are countless stories of those who aim to love others and build up, rather than spew hate and tear down. Many reflect a divine energy that defends and comforts those in need, rather than deceives and confuses those very same people.
Above all, I learned this truth on my 52-week journey: Don't let the sensationalistic images present in today's world of religion prevent you from finding an authentic connection to God and a community that helps to strengthen your spiritual foundation. If you search with an open heart and good intentions, you may find that community, and it will likely be filled with others like you who are searching for truth, just as you are.
Pamay Bassey is an entrepreneur, world traveler, writer, comedian and philosopher. Her book, My 52 Weeks of Worship: A Global, Spiritual, Interfaith Journey, is due out this spring. Visit her at my52wow.com. Follow her on Twitter.