It certainly made for a startling video: police, lights ablaze, pull up to local churches. Once inside, they march up to the pulpit and place the pastor preaching there under arrest, in front of the congregation. The men of the cloth are perp-walked out of the church with handcuffs on.
This very scenario created a brief uproar – first at the Akron, Ohio, churches where the “arrests” took place, and then around the country as word spread on social media – among Christians concerned that they were witnessing modern-day persecution.
It was, however, all fake – except for the uniforms of the arresting officers. Those were real enough – and that fact has raised eyebrows in the Ohio precincts where it all took place.
In fact, the mock arrests had been arranged ahead of time by the pastors themselves, who persuaded the Summit County Sheriff’s Department to participate in the stunt as a way of dramatizing and publicizing an upcoming community event called “Defending The Faith,” in which the pastors will face a mock trial and be forced to defend their Christianity.
As the uproar grew, Summit County Sheriff Steve Barry was defensive about taking part in the stunt: “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.”
The deputies who participated were clearly aware that things had gone awry. Sgt. Samantha Walker, one of the participants, told WKYC-TV: “You see people crying in the audience,” “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.”
At YouTube, where a video of the arrests was posted, commenters were confused. Most of the viewers assumed what they were seeing was real: “Arrested for practicing your faith? Is this communist Russia?” asked one. The comments to the video have since been turned off and removed.
The promoters of the “Defending The Faith” event were pleased: “In terms of marketing, it has been very successful because it is creating a buzz. People are asking ‘why are those pastors being arrested’ and are digging a little deeper to find out what’s behind the arrests,” Edra Frazier, marketing coordinator for event, told the Akron Beacon Journal. “We do, however, need to do a more adequate job of tagging the posts with production information.”