The young people lined up as if they were preparing to receive communion, but instead of accepting bread and wine from the associate pastor at Impact City Church in Pataskala, Ohio, they spit in his face.
Then, they slapped him.
Finally, at least one carved into his back with a steak knife.
The violence unfolded at the pastor’s own encouragement, as an after-school lesson on Monday about the crucifixion — doled out nearly a week before Easter — revealed the perils of trying to reenact scriptural teachings.
The episode at the church was intended as an illustration of love. Instead, it became a parable about the readiness of children to perpetrate violence, sending a disquieting signal of how quickly some young people descend into the sort of savagery fictionalized in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.”
“The students were caught off guard,” the lead pastor, Justin Ross, recalled on Monday night. “Some got excited because they never had an opportunity to spit in someone’s face.”
That they were permitted to do so, he recognized, was also a result of the carelessness of adults. So, too, the children’s behavior showed how smartphone cameras blur the boundary between reality and make-believe, creating perverse incentives to bear witness to unspeakable acts.
The nondenominational church prizes its impact on Pataskala, a small city east of Columbus, with a population of about 15,000. Its aim is to be “both relational and relevant,” according to the church’s website. “Although our approach is anything but traditional, we believe in and maintain a conservative theological position. In other words, we believe the whole Bible, Genesis through Revelations, was inspired by God, but don’t expect us to be thumping anybody on the head with it!”
Church leaders place a particular emphasis on youth ministry. In addition to a student program, which includes an “after-school hangout” from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. each Monday, Impact City sponsors an initiative called KidCity, which caters to children from birth through the fifth grade.
Cellphone footage circulated on Snapchat and Facebook, as well as statements by the church pastors, cast a harsh spotlight on Monday’s afternoon hangout.
One by one, the middle and high school students reached the front of the single-file line and shot saliva into the associate pastor’s face at close range. Then, they turned on their heels and retreated.
Peals of laughter and cries of disbelief rang out from behind smartphones, held up to document the brutal display. The associate pastor, Jaddeus Dempsey, summoned the students to spit on him, promising that there would be no repercussions. The invitation was part of an attempt to teach the students — gathered for the youth hangout — about the suffering endured by Jesus, as church officials would later explain.
Dempsey, who has worked with students at Impact City for almost four years, stood virtually motionless, his feet firmly planted, the sleeves of his hoodie pushed up to his elbows. Periodically, he gestured to the students, beckoning them to let him have it. He shut his eyes as the spit came flying into his face.
“Can I do it again?” one student asked, as he returned to the back of the line. “That’s enough,” another can be heard advising.
Soon, the proposal shifted. The associate pastor offered, “If there’s anyone here that would like to slap me, you can do so without any repercussions,” as Ross later recounted.
“I’m not doing that,” one proclaimed.
But numerous students took him up on his offer. As a boy rolled up his sleeve, readying himself to strike, the crowd of onlookers became excited and agitated. “No, no,” they said, incredulous.
The student delivered a powerful blow with his open palm, provoking yelps of laughter as the associate pastor withdrew slightly, shook his head and returned to face the next student. Another blow landed on his face. Another. Then another. “That’s enough, that’s enough,” students can be heard shouting in shaky footage of the Easter lesson gone awry.
Their protests mounted, with declarations of “No, no,” as Dempsey pulled off his hoodie to reveal his bare torso. He reached behind him for a steak knife and offered it to the students, telling them that they could cut him, again without repercussions.
“Are you serious?” one student asked, as shrieking can be heard behind him. Some backed away, their mouths agape.
Dempsey placed the knife into the hand of a boy and turned to offer up his back. The boy looked to his friends for counsel, as another adult stepped in to advise, “I’m serious, you gotta be very gentle.”
The boy held the knife close to Dempsey’s back but hesitated. “Don’t do it,” a voice off-screen cautioned.
A classmate pulled the knife from his grip, and then another boy seized the blade in turn, saying, “Here, let me get it.”
“How light?” he asked, tracing a diagonal line from just below the nape of his neck to his left shoulder blade. “Like that?”
“You gotta make it bleed,” one classmate urged, while another cautioned, “Don’t do it, man.”
The student made a second run at the pastor’s skin, pressing harder as Dempsey’s head lolled back.
“Yeah, it’s bleeding,” another boy assessed, training his smartphone camera on Dempsey’s bare back, as the associate pastor recovered the knife from his assailant.
Footage of the episode quickly gained attention on social media, drawing scrutiny from parents. The mother of a 12-year-old boy who had handled the steak knife told a CBS affiliate that she received a call from a friend, prompting her and her husband to rush to the church to pick up their son.
“He was upset,” the boy’s father said. “He thought he was in trouble, and I explained to him, ‘I’m not upset with you. I just want you to know that the things that happened here today wasn’t okay.’ ”
The 12-year-old’s parents reported the incident to the county sheriff’s office, according to the Columbus Dispatch. A police report indicated that an officer had contacted the head pastor but did not suggest that anything criminal had occurred, the newspaper reported.
The church was flooded with complaints, leading Ross to issue a public apology later Monday.
In a video posted on Impact City Church’s Facebook page on Monday night, he explained the intention behind the encounter between the students and the religious leader but acknowledged, “There’s really no excuse for why it happened.”
He stressed that Dempsey was a “part-time, associate pastor,” though he also told the local television station that he was present in the room as his subordinate allowed the students to batter him. Asked why he didn’t intervene, Ross said, “That’s something that I’m thinking about a lot right now.”
Dempsey, seated beside Ross in the apology video, spoke briefly, explaining that his intention was to show the students “how much Jesus loved them, and that I love them.”
“I crossed the line,” he said, noting that several students had expressed remorse afterward. “It was over the top."
Each youth gathering, Ross said, includes a brief religious lesson. On the Monday before Easter, Dempsey had chosen to illustrate a lesson about the crucifixion.
“But," Ross allowed, “the illustration went too far.”
After recounting the suffering to which Dempsey submitted himself, Ross described how videos made by the students ricocheted through social media. He addressed parents and members of the congregation directly, telling them he understood why they were “disgusted” and “hurt.”
But the pastor also made a point of praising the motivation behind the activity — part of the story that wasn’t captured on social media.
After letting them hurt him, Dempsey told the students about “this guy named Jesus,” Ross said, “who thousands of years ago, he was put on trial for a crime he didn’t commit, and he was beaten, he was broken, he was whipped, he was crucified.”
“He chose to allow it to happen,” Ross said. “He chose to allow them to spit on him, and beat on him, and crucify him in order to take the payment of our debt that we call sin."
His associate’s aim, Ross said, was to show the students how much Jesus loved them and to “share in some of the pain that Jesus took on that day.”
Still, he had to make clear: “In no way do we condone that students or anyone else should spit on someone, should slap them or use a weapon to harm anyone or harm themselves.”