“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” – 1 John 3:1
NCC Ministry Leaders: Justin and Leah Ross
Our story in Cleveland, Ohio begins in 1990 when Leah and her family moved from Chicago to Shaker Heights, Ohio. Leah grew up in Shaker Heights, an inner ring suburb of Cleveland. Justin grew up in Marietta, Ohio, a small town in southeast Ohio. They met in Nantes, France in 2008 where Justin was on a summer mission trip and Leah had been serving as a missionary for a year. They graduated together from Ohio University in 2010, and moved to Cleveland to be married.
Justin and Leah were married in October of 2010. They soon realized the role that their marriage would play as an example of the racial reconciliation needed in the world. Justin grew up in a small rural town in southern Ohio that was 98% white. After marrying Leah, they attended an African-American church in Cleveland of 3,000. While there, they were struck by the vision the apostle Paul presents in Ephesians 2. There, Paul talks about the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile being broken down “in his[Jesus’s] flesh” on the cross. The impact of racial reconciliation as central to the purpose of the cross was demonstrated not just individually to Justin and Leah but in the context of an interracial small group that was studying Ephesians. The reconciling community was the context for a deeper experience of the gospel.
It was in Cleveland that their vision for ministry was first impacted by the poverty and injustice of the city. On Christmas Eve at the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry in downtown Cleveland (known on the street as “2100”) Justin encountered brokenness that was beyond the verbal presentation of the gospel that he knew. He encountered homeless men who refused to believe in God because they were trapped in the oppressive cycles of poverty, violence, and addiction. Justin’s world was shaken, but his calling was not yet clear. With the goal of pastoral ministry continually on Justin’s mind, he and Leah moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 2012 for Justin to attend Covenant Theological Seminary. Their first week in St. Louis they attended a church within walking distance of their house: New City Fellowship. Soon after, Justin was hired by NCF for an internship role coordinating and leading the Teen Tutoring Program.
Working for Justice
Justin’s role at the Firm Foundation Tutoring Program put him on staff with pastors and ministry leaders with decades of experience working in inner-city St. Louis. It also placed him in the midst of the dynamic multi-cultural experience of New City Fellowship. Dozens of youth and their families from the neighborhood shared their lives with Justin. He quickly found himself involved in the lives of Hispanic, Congolese, African-American, Somali Muslim, and other families.
In 2013, Justin and Leah moved back to Cleveland for a summer so that Justin could intern with The City Mission men’s homeless shelter. For three months Justin worked full-time with homeless, addicted, and formerly incarcerated men. Many were exiting prison for crimes such as murder, assault, sexual crimes, child pornography, and drug trafficking. Many men had severe mental problems including hallucination, hearing voices, and even an obsession with cannibalism. It was quite the summer! But it continued the Lord’s work in Justin’s life to open his eyes to the plight of the vulnerable and broken.
The Ferguson Movement
On August 9, 2014 Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in the north St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. That night Leah and Justin were shopping in Ferguson and witnessed around 30-40 St. Louis County Police cars staging in a parking lot in preparation for civil unrest. The Michael Brown news story of quickly garnered international attention as the National Guard descended on Ferguson and Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in an attempt to quell the violence and rioting intermingled with the protesting. Justin and Leah knew they had to be involved somehow in the events transpiring even if it was as simple as handing out water to protesters and eating at local businesses vandalized during the violence. Tension and anger continued through the summer as the Ferguson moment became a movement. Another shooting of a black man, VonDerrit Myers, occurred weeks later in South St. Louis sparking outrage virtually on the doorstep of South City Church, a sister church to New City Fellowship. As the summer ended, the looming grand jury decision on the Michael Brown shooting moved closer. The entire region was gripped with anxiety. The anger and the pain of much of the black community was palpable. On November 24, a St. Louis grand jury ruled to not indict Officer Wilson and sparked the worst violence yet. Over 25 businesses were burned over night on national television.
In many respects, the stunning violence of the police and response of rioters was only the beginning of a spiritual awakening of compassion, justice, and unity in the church in St. Louis. Justin and Leah, along with other members of New City Fellowship and South City Church organized a unity march at the justice center of St. Louis County. The march was led by leaders in the church across St. Louis County and featured prayers for justice, scripture reading, and songs of worship all on the open streets of St. Louis. Hundreds attended this and subsequent marches across St. Louis hosted by evangelical churches and attended by believers and nonbelievers alike. The message was clear for Justin and Leah, a practical concern for the cause of justice mobilizes and unites people from across denominations, races, classes, and traditions. Not only this, but a practical concern for justice is a witness to the watching world. The story of St. Louis and Cleveland and so many other cities around the nation are united in the continued violence that haunt our streets and the continued mission of the church to be a demonstration of justice, peace, and healing.
Justin and Leah’s journey in St. Louis also involved deep suffering, sin, and brokenness in their own lives. Justin began to experience a growing sense of burnout and frustration beginning in his second year at seminary. This culminated in the winter of 2013-14 as Justin became deeply impacted by his personal history of trauma and addiction. His world became more chaotic as he slipped into a season of depression and anxiety. Beginning in the summer of 2014, Justin took a full year off from Covenant Seminary, he left his role at New City’s tutoring program, he started seeing a psychiatrist, and began working as a carpenter’s assistant. For two years, the vision and hope for ministry slipped quietly into the night and even Justin’s faith in God seemed under assault. Justin and Leah’s marriage suffered under the emotional, relational, and spiritual strain. They traveled through an extended season of support groups, counseling and grieving.
But the Lord did not leave them in this valley of trouble. They continued to be faithful attenders at New City Fellowship in their time of trial. During the summer of 2015 Leah and Justin were both deeply impacted from the word of God. Hebrew 6:19 “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters into the inner sanctuary, behind the curtain” was a verse so powerful for Leah she made a tattoo out of it! During the same time, a passage from Proverbs 24:16 impacted Justin during a season of deep pain and apparent failure, “for though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again.” This summer proved to be a turning point in Justin and Leah’s call from God as their thoughts and desires rapidly turned to Cleveland, Ohio, developing eventually into the vision for New City Cleveland.