Ohio Sheriff Defends 'Fake Arrests' of Pastors During Sunday Services

The Rev. Melford Elliott, pastor at Greater Bethel Baptist Church, is 'fake arrested' as part of the 'Defending the Faith' public outreach effort in Akron, Ohio.
The Rev. Melford Elliott, pastor at Greater Bethel Baptist Church, is "fake arrested" as part of the "Defending the Faith" public outreach effort in Akron, Ohio. | (Photo: Screenshot via YouTube/Larry James)

Law enforcement in Akron, Ohio, is on the defensive after receiving criticism for "fake arresting" three local pastors during their Sunday sermons as part of a marketing promotion for an upcoming drama at the city's civic center.

Summit County Sheriff Steve Barry released a statement this week that the arrests made last weekend at three different churches were part of a community outreach effort called "Defending the Faith," where participating pastors are "fake arrested" during their Sunday sermons and escorted out of the church. The "fake arrests" serve as a lead up to the upcoming drama "Defending the Faith," being held at the Akron Civic Center. During the drama, the pastors will undergo a mock trial, during which they must defend their Christian faith. The purpose of the drama is to show pastors and all Christians must constantly work to defend their faith when it is challenged by evil.

"I want to clarify that none of the arrests were real. It was all part of a skit that went along with the pastors' sermons that day," Barry said in his statement. "I knew it was being filmed, but I thought it was only going to be shown to the congregation. Once it got out there on the Web, people were commenting about how disgusting we were to interrupt church services to effect an arrest."

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A seven-minute YouTube video created by the KAZ radio television network documents each arrest, with the theme song to the reality legal series "Cops" playing in the background. In each arrest, sheriff's deputies enter the church with the KAZ film crew in tow, approaching the pulpit during the pastor's sermon and telling him he is under arrest for "defending the faith." The pastors go willingly, but often respond by saying they will continue defending their Christian faith until they die.

"I make no apologies; I make no apologies at all. For God I live and for God I'll die; I'll take this," the Rev. Melford Elliott, pastor at Greater Bethel Baptist Church who participated in the sketch, tells the camera as he sits in the back of the cop car. The other two pastors who participated include the Rev. Robert Golson, pastor at Prince of Peace Baptist Church, and the Rev. Vincent Peterson, pastor at Providence Baptist Church.

The end of the video promises "more arrested to follow," and local media outlets report that several other pastors have signed up to participate in the mock arrests in upcoming weekends to promote the "Defending the Faith" production. Although the participating pastors have been impressed with the effectiveness of the outreach attempt, some churchgoers and viewers of the YouTube video have been irked that the sheriff's department didn't clearly state beforehand that the arrests were fake. The YouTube video shows some members of the congregation in utter shock upon learning their pastor was being arrested.

"You see people crying in the audience," Sheriff's Sgt. Samantha Walker, one of the officers that helped in the arrests, told WKYC-TV. "They're not believing this is happening to their pastor. Some of the looks the audience was giving us -- I've never been so afraid in church in my life."

Some YouTube viewers have also expressed their confusion at the video, arguing that the seven-minute spot never clearly states the arrests are fake. "Arrested for practicing your faith? Is this communist Russia?" questions one viewer, while another writes, in part, "I am so trying to understand what this is all about. I feel like they are trying to convey a message here but somehow it is not clear … I am so confused here, can someone please explain this?"

Sheriff Barry told WKYC-TV that "hindsight's always 20-20," and the sheriff's department will keep participating in the arrests along with some minor adjustments, such as passing out flyers to the congregation beforehand explaining the purpose behind the arrests so they will not be shocked during the service.

The drama production of "Defending the Faith" will premiere at the Akron Civic Center on March 22.

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