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A Black man’s fatal shooting by the police exposes Ohio congregations’ bitterly opposing interpretations of faith and justice

The Rosedale Free Will Baptist Church in central Ohio. Its pastor, Jason Meade, who is also a Franklin County sheriff’s deputy, killed 23-year-old Casey Goodson Jr. while on assignment with U.S. marshals. (Ty Wright/The Washington Post)

ROSEDALE, Ohio — Rare is the law enforcement officer accused of an unjustified shooting whose accusers can point to even a single public statement made by the officer advocating misconduct. But that's what supporters of Casey Goodson Jr. believe they have in a recorded sermon delivered by the person who fatally shot him, Jason Meade, the Franklin County sheriff's deputy and Baptist pastor in this no-stoplight town 30 miles west of Columbus.

A recording of Meade’s remarks, delivered at a 2018 convention of the Ohio State Association of Free Will Baptists, has brought religion to the forefront of a controversial police killing with opposing interpretations of the Gospel squaring off on Sunday mornings here in central Ohio. During those remarks, the SWAT officer described violence in the line of duty as a “righteous release.”

“I work for the sheriff’s office. . . . I hunt people — it’s a great job, I love it,” Meade told those in attendance. “I worked this job 14 years, you know I ain’t never been hit clean in the face one time? It’s a fact. It ain’t ’cause I’m so good. . . . You know why? I learned long ago I gotta throw the first punch. And I learned long ago why I’m justified in throwing the first punch. Don’t look up here like, ‘Oh, police brutality.’ People I hit you wish you could hit, trust me.”

An Ohio deputy was seeking a fugitive. Then he killed an unrelated Black man outside his grandmother’s house.

Advocates for Goodson have seized on the recording, which local media first circulated this month, as evidence of Meade’s unfitness, describing his views as morally reprehensible interpretations of the Bible and a probable indicator that he prejudged Goodson on Dec. 4 when Meade shot him to death.

“This is a man who was called to protect and serve who’s talking like that,” says City of Grace Church Pastor Michael Young, who has counseled members of Goodson’s family in the days since his death. “He’s using the platform of the pulpit to teach and preach things that are contrary to scripture.”

Said Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District, who has appeared at protests on behalf of Goodson: “That’s very different from my religion. Can you equate ‘hit first’ with ‘shoot first’? I don’t know. But the fact that he’s boasting about that kind of mind-set is very troubling.”

Meade’s attorney, Mark Collins, did not respond to a request for comment.

Meade, a 17-year police veteran who served in the Iraq War with a Marine Reserve unit that suffered extensive casualties, killed Goodson while on assignment with U.S. marshals after they attempted unsuccessfully to execute an unrelated warrant. He remains on paid leave while federal, state and local investigations into the incident continue.

Officers at the scene were not equipped with body cameras. Meade’s attorney has said previously that Goodson, who had a concealed-carry permit, waved a gun at police. His family has rejected any narrative suggesting that the 23-year-old posed a threat to Meade’s life.

On Sunday, sheriff’s SUVs filled the gravel parking lot outside Rosedale Free Will Baptist Church. Meade’s associate pastor, Paul Moore, met parishioners, and resolved to cancel services and instead caravan to the Southwest Free Will Baptist Church in Columbus, where Meade’s father, John, is pastor.

Protesters at church

A week earlier, the Sunday morning service at Rosedale became the target of protesters after its address had been shared on social media by Goodson’s supporters. In an exchange between Moore and protesters, Moore defended Meade: “We can’t have you talking bad about our pastor.” He and fellow members of the church have defended Meade in media interviews as well, cautioning others against passing judgment until the investigations conclude and officials “find whatever they find.”

“I have the right to support my pastor,” Moore told a local TV station, “because I know his character.” He said he feels that Meade has been portrayed unfairly, adding that “they’re trying to make him a villain.”

The Southwest Free Will church was the location of Meade’s ordination in 2013, according to a biographical page on the Rosedale Free Will website, which is “temporarily down for maintenance,” according to a message on its homepage. The website houses dozens of Meade’s recorded sermons, but they’ve been unavailable to the public since the shooting.

The service at Southwest Free Will hosted about 50 congregants as John Meade led a Christmas-themed service concentrating on Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for humanity, with detours to reject homosexuality — “I still say it’s Adam and Eve. I don’t care what the rest of the world says,” he said — and instruct the faithful not to speak with the news media but to pray for his family instead. “There’s a lot of stuff being said that’s completely out of line,” the elder Meade said.

John Meade declined to speak with The Washington Post, as did Moore.

At the City of Grace Church 15 minutes away in the northeast corner of Columbus, Young began his sermon with a pledge to continue fighting for Goodson. Wearing black jeans, tan Timberland boots and a black #JUSTICE4CASEY hoodie, Young explained that, “On the Sunday before Christmas I would normally put on my red or green, but I wanted to be more intentional with what I wore today, and I wanted to represent Casey Goodson Jr. and his family by demanding justice. There’s no way you can frame it where you don’t conclude this man was murdered.”

Community engagement

A former high school football standout who played defensive back for the Akron Zips, Young has become an outspoken advocate for social justice, organizing panels and protests centered on the fight for racial equality. The stage at City of Grace was host in 2018 to a panel titled “Police, Politicians, Pastors and the People,” a group that included Columbus’s mayor and a handful of city council members, among others. While organizing the panel, Young met Sean Walton, the attorney now representing Goodson who suggested that Young could be of service to the family.

Fatal shooting of Casey Goodson reignites scrutiny of police accountability

This summer, after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, City of Grace leaders were asked to guest-preach at a handful of area churches with predominantly White congregations, including the C3 Church in Canal Winchester, Ohio, and One Church in Gahanna.

All three churches serve Franklin County, a liberal stronghold in Ohio where more than 20 percent of residents are Black and Joe Biden won 64.9 percent of the vote in November’s presidential election. In rural Madison County, home of Jason Meade’s church, Rosedale Free Will, President Trump won 69.7 percent of the vote.

Sermon topics

Recent national polling suggests that few conservative Christian services have chosen to broach the topic of police brutality, compared to other groups. According to a July Pew research poll, among U.S. adults who attended in-person religious services or watched services online or on TV in the previous month, one-quarter of White evangelical Protestants (26 percent) said they had heard sermons that have expressed support for recent Black Lives Matter protests, while a somewhat smaller share said they instead have heard opposition to the protests (17 percent).

And among the Christian groups Pew researchers analyzed, White evangelicals are the group least likely to say they have heard sermons in support of the recent protests. Meanwhile, Black Protestants are much more likely than other groups to have heard sermons expressing support for the Black Lives Matter protests, with 66 percent affirming they have heard such messages. One-third of Black Protestants say they have heard sermons expressing opposition to the protests.

“For churches not to address this issue, to me, is perpetuating a gospel and a religion that I believe Jesus would reject,” Young said. “Jesus was somebody who fought for those who were oppressed and even pre-New Testament, God was consistently and constantly magnifying the need for justice and looking out for the oppressed and widows. So to me, to preach the gospel without justice is to preach an incomplete gospel.”

Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the lawyers for Jason Meade and Casey Goodson Jr. and where Rosedale Free Will Baptist Church is located. The lawyers are Mark Collins and Sean Walton, respectively. The church is located in Madison County, Ohio.