Jeff Finley

Jeff Finley

Light + Life Executive Editor

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.

by Jeff Finley

Justin Ross was a pastor leading The Story Project until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the innovative church plant/social enterprise into hiatus. Now he is writing a new chapter as he shares the stories of Christians around the world — especially Ukrainians who fled to other European countries since Russia invaded their homeland.

Ross recently returned from Hungary where he interviewed Ukrainian refugees and Free Methodist ministry partners who are helping them. Now he is in the process of releasing a series of videos through the ICCM YouTube channel for the #GiveUKRAINE campaign. At the time of this article’s publication, eight videos have been released so far with more on the way through a collaborative effort between ICCM and Free Methodist World Missions.

“The world is captivated by the ongoing tragedy, and our hearts break for the millions of displaced families. We, the people of Jesus, look forward with hope to God’s restoration of all forms of brokenness. In the meantime, as we witness and anticipate healing, a couple uniquely Free Methodist teams are actively engaged in coming beside Ukrainian families,” Ross said. “International Child Care Ministries (ICCM) and FM missionaries throughout Europe are also partnering with trusted caregivers and professionals for the sake of trauma and PTSD identification, therapy, and recovery programs.”

Ross interacted with missionaries such as Europe Area Director Josué “Josh” Fajardo, Associate Director Larry Winckles, Central and Eastern Europe Regional Director Gerry McNamara, and Eric Casteel. He also spoke with refugees and aid workers.


“Healing is realized as the people of Jesus step into this brokenness.”


“The reality of the tragedy is quite real. The trauma is real. The need is real. The situation is far more complex than we even see from a distance on CNN,” Ross said. “Hope is also real. Every family who spoke of heartache also spoke of hope and gratitude. Healing is realized as the people of Jesus step into this brokenness.”

Engineer, Elder, Videographer

Ross grew up attending a small Free Methodist church in Zanesville, Ohio. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in computer science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University and became a software engineer.

“I did that for four years and hated it,” said Ross, who spent much of his spare time working with teens in a rapidly growing Free Methodist congregation. “I ran the high school ministry as a lay person. … I learned how to preach there. I learned how to lead small groups.”

That led to a move to Indiana for a full-time ministry position as a family pastor. He earned a Master of Divinity degree from Anderson University, and he served as a lead pastor or staff pastor at multiple churches in Indiana and Ohio. Several of the churches were in other denominations, but Ross has remained Free Methodist since returning to the denomination in 2012.

He eventually felt called to the Columbus area to launch The Story Project. Ross said he returned to software engineering on a bi-vocational basis “because church planting doesn’t pay anything.”

His wife, Amanda, began her current job as a pediatric nurse at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus.


“What if we planted a church that didn’t have any seats?”


“We were a church plant social enterprise that planted outside the walls of a traditional Sunday,” he said. “When we moved here to do this, a pain point for us was getting people out of seats and into the streets. From previous church experiences, we decided, ‘What if we planted a church that didn’t have any seats?’”

Ross said that the Story Project “heavily invested into a particular area of brokenness” and connected with the Set Free Movement “because we were drawn to the human trafficking problem. We created a social enterprise model, a self-sustaining organization that would help create awareness for what human trafficking is in our city and around the world and, ideally, help survivors find jobs with health insurance.”

The Story Project held training sessions in the Columbus area about human trafficking.

“We produced videos on YouTube, built a lot of relationships, and had the funding to open our first coworking space, which was our dream, and then COVID hit,” Ross said. “COVID affected coworking, which tanked our entire model.”

Although The Story Project still exists on YouTube and Ross hosts some training sessions on human trafficking, the plan is no longer for the project to develop into a Free Methodist congregation. Ross is an Ohio Conference elder and is now part of the conference’s leadership team providing guidance in areas such as funding and financing.

“I’m good with numbers, but my joy comes with communicating, with relationships, with telling stories. That’s where I really thrive,” Ross said.

Dinner discussions with Ohio Superintendent Brent Thompson and ICCM Director Alma Thompson — Brent’s wife and former co-superintendent — led to Ross learning more about ICCM.

“I had been a Free Methodist most of my life, and I always knew about the organization but just never really knew what it was,” said Ross, who discovered ICCM is more than just a Free Methodist version of other child sponsorship agencies. “Out of that came a desire to say, ‘How can we help?’ From my work with story project, we acquired a good bit of equipment, gear, software, and some skills for storytelling on YouTube.”

Ross connected with global ICCM partners and created a video about ICCM for use at annual conferences and on YouTube. His name surfaced as missions leaders explored ways in which ICCM can partner with Free Methodist World Missions to address the refugee crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Alma Thompson called and asked, “Do you want to go to Budapest in two weeks?”

Thankfully, his father had recently retired and was available to help with child care to make the trip possible.

Experiences in Hungary

Ross wasn’t sure what to expect when he landed in Hungary, which shares 135 kilometers of border with Ukraine and has become a destination for hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24.

“About 24 hours before my flight, I had no idea what I was doing,” Ross acknowledged. “I knew I was going to Budapest. Outside of that, I had no clue.”

Trips to the border and to Poland (where many Ukrainians have fled) were considered, but Ross ended up spending his time in the Hungarian cities of Budapest and Győr because of the interview opportunities there.

His interactions with Free Methodist missionaries included interviewing Gerry McNamara, which resulted in videos titled “Relocation, Anger, and the Struggles of Ukrainian Refugees,” and “Gerry, Body Armor, & Supplies for Ukraine.”

“Gerry talked about the things he’s personally doing,” Ross said. “Within the next week, he was running body armor into Ukraine.”

Among the other people he met were Misha and Lena Petrochenko, the Ukrainian couple leading Free Methodist ministry in Ukraine and temporarily living in Hungary while using technology to continue to provide leadership.


“They’re a part of something special, and God is using them.”


“They hosted us for dinner, which was very humbling,” said Ross, who pondered that people who were recently displaced had become his hosts. “We had the opportunity to leverage our relationship and get a little deeper with them than we could anybody else, and they were very gracious to share with us. … It hurts, but they’re hopeful. There’s pain because family and friends are still there, but they also see that they’re a part of something special, and God is using them.”

Ross visited a hostel for refugees where Lena helps with translation.

“Lena speaks very good English, and a lot of the Ukrainian refugees don’t speak Hungarian. … They don’t speak a lot of English either,” Ross said. “Lena’s ability to go to the hostel and hang out with these families a couple of days a week helps with immigration paperwork, passports, job applications, school opportunities.”

Refugees share their story with Lena’s help in the video “Max and his Mother – Ukrainian Refugees in Hungary.”

Ross said refugees face challenges getting jobs and appropriate clothing. They fled Ukraine in winter clothes that are too warm to wear now.

“People donated rooms full of clothes, but they’re sitting in a room somewhere with no way to get it to the refugees, and even if you could give it to refugees, they can only carry so much because they’re transient,” Ross said. “These weird problems don’t have easy answers, and every day is completely different depending on where a refugee is in their journey. We got a sense of that frustration from them but also a sense of gratitude. There wasn’t a single displaced family that we talked to that wasn’t grateful for the government help or the help of the church community.”

Ross expressed gratitude for Larry Winckles’ help in arranging interviews along with sharing his own perspective in a video discussing racism and the difference between the Syrian and Ukrainian crises.

“Larry cast a wide net. He has 21 years of relationships in Budapest, and so he knows a lot of the different organizations, churches, and groups,” Ross said.

One of these connections is the John Wesley Theological College, which isn’t an exclusively Free Methodist institution but is a longtime ministry partner.

“There’s a big plaque on the wall of some Free Methodist contributions over the decades,” said Ross, who noted the college’s important efforts to help refugees. “They’re holding dozens of families in transition in the school, and so getting to talk to them was a real highlight.”

The college’s involvement is detailed in the videos “Ukraine’s Roma Families Find Shelter at College Campus” and “Ukrainian Grief Meets College Hospitality.”

People may find news coverage of well-known charities such as the Red Cross helping Ukrainians, but many ICCM supporters are not aware of the important faith-based efforts of Free Methodist ministry partners and how they can support their work serving displaced families.

“We wanted to tell the story so that ICCM could provide an avenue for partners,” Ross said. “The Free Methodist network is huge. Providing an opportunity for us to share the stories of what’s happening created that relational, personal opportunity to say, ‘OK, here’s a trusted name and a face, and here’s a way that I can pray. Here’s the way that I can give, and here are people I recognize telling the story.”

Click here to watch the videos on the ICCM YouTube channel.+

Jeff Finley

Jeff Finley

Light + Life Executive Editor

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.