John Finch doesn’t watch the news.
“We made an agreement,” his adoptive mother, Meagan Finch, said.
“It was too much trauma,” his adoptive father, the Rev. Andrew Finch, continued.
The 20-year-old was born in Ukraine, and by the time he was 1, his parents and sister were thrown into jail. He grew up in an orphanage — with countless tales of physical, verbal and medicinal abuse — and by the time he was 15 was adopted by a Kansas family.
The family who adopted him to live on their farm in the Flint Hills was not a good fit, and they left him at the house of their pastor, Andrew Finch. The Finches later adopted him and have since moved to Omaha.
Although John doesn’t watch the news since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in February, he keeps up with it through friends still in the area — although he may know more about what’s happening there than they do.
“We knew in the United States that a war was happening, but his friends were still going to work,” Meagan said. “He was like, ‘Why are you going to work? You need to take shelter.’ They didn’t even know a war was happening.”
John, who left the country in 2015, said he could see the roots of the invasion at least a decade ago.
“I wasn’t surprised. I knew exactly what was going on,” he said. “The war started in 2012, but it was in the eastern Ukraine, which is bigger cities of Ukraine, closer to Russia border.
“I didn’t expect to be a full invasion,” he added. “I only thought it would be half of Ukraine.”
John’s orphanage was in the northeast part of Ukraine, near the capital, Kyiv.
Since the invasion began, some of his friends have come to America while others are in Poland.
“We offered to sponsor any of them who wanted to come to the United States, but they chose to stay,” Meagan said.
“As John would say, ‘They’re pretty stubborn over there,’” Andrew added.
One-year-old Vladimir Vladimirovich — John’s birth name — was placed in an orphanage after the arrests of his parents and sister. John says now he doesn’t have any memories from the orphanage until about age 10, but in the subsequent five years he mostly remembers horrible punishment.
“I had a life experience that no child should go through,” he said during a video devotion for Micah Corps, the Great Plains Conference’s social justice program for young adults, in which he just completed his second year.
John matter-of-factly speaks of punishments including isolation in a dark, windowless room for a day at a time, having to peel potatoes until 2 a.m., being put in a cage with a dog even though he was afraid of dogs, and having his thumb dipped in hot sauce as a deterrent to sucking it.
“Some days were worse than other days,” he recalled. “There were days I was left alone and not bothered or abused or anything. I was disciplined but disciplined in a physical way. I was abused often, I wasn’t fed if I didn’t do something, or if I didn’t like something that was served for the meal, I wouldn’t eat my next meal until I ate my first meal.
“In younger years a lot of people peed themselves because we were babies as orphans and they just wrapped the stuff we peed in around our heads or we would have to wear it all day,” John added.
He remembers being sent to a psychiatric hospital at Christmas and during the summers.
“That way I don’t get to have fun or sit down and relax with other kids,” he said. “It was just a room with beds, and a living room but no TV, no nothing.”
John said he was given a series of shots and pills, with no explanation for their purpose.
“I didn’t drink the pills. I’d flush them in the toilet,” he said. “The shots were given to me in the morning. They didn’t tell us what they were giving us. They just gave them to us every morning.”
Despite all the abuse John alleges, he said he had happy times in the orphanage.
“If the worker likes you, you most likely will be left alone and do what you want,” he said.
About 500 children were in the orphanage, he said, and 10-15 of them were in his age group and his only friends.
Andrew Finch says his son’s abuse was likely the cause of workers who didn’t know better.
“John was a typical orphan who had trauma. Was he the most well-behaved and respectful? No. But there wasn’t training for any of the staff to handle that,” Andrew said. “I think it was more corporal punishment. I don’t think they were trying to be mean to be mean. It was more trying to instill a behavior, just not in the standard way we would think.”
Church groups from New York state and Canada visiting during Christmas or the summer each year, John remembers, mostly because they brought candy.
John rejected any offers to learn about the Bible or the teachings of Jesus.
“I completely denied it,” he said in his Micah Corps video. “I ran away and said, ‘This was not for me.’”
An older female friend named Natalia, who was born in Russia, confronted him about his beliefs.
“Natalia asked me what I am afraid of,” John said. “I don’t exactly remember my answer, but she was the person that broke me. I went to church. It kind of took a shift unexpected.”
The farm family from the Flint Hills, which already had seven biological children, came to the orphanage seeking a Ukrainian girl.
“They came from Ukraine only for one,” John said. After seeing his picture in the files, “They found me and adopted two of us. They cut the price down for the second person.”
It came as a surprise even for his new grandparents, who were expecting one new addition to the family while picking them up at the airport.
“Everything was great for about two weeks,” he said in the Micah Corps video.
The family put demands on him for chores and farm work, he said.
“I’m not a farmer guy,” John said on the video.
He and his newly adopted sister were also expected to speak English, even though they had never learned it, John said. His family spoke neither Russian nor Ukrainian.
In an introduction to an offering for Ukraine during this year’s Great Plains Annual Conference session, John said he was offered English lessons while in the orphanage, which he refused.
“I didn’t take it, because I didn’t see no need for it,” he said to the chuckles of the audience.
John said he initially used Google Translate on his phone to communicate, then learned some phrases from the Rosetta Stone program.
Fed up with his new situation, John ran away from home in October 2016.
His mother found him and took him to the Finches. Andrew had just been appointed pastor of their church a few months earlier, and that night he had just arrived home from work on his master’s of divinity degree from Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
“I had just gotten back into town a few hours beforehand, and I was asleep. I had heard yelling, and I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’” Andrew recalled. “They dropped him off with no clothes, no shoes, no glasses, no medicine. Nothing.”
Complicating the situation, the boy’s grandmother was the chair of the small church’s staff-parish relations committee. The immediate family had since stopped going to the church.
Andrew and Meagan Finch, who married in 2015, were already approved as foster parents, and had as many as eight children in their parsonage at one time.
“It always bothered us that there were all these empty rooms here knowing there were kids who needed a place,” Andrew said.
The Finches accepted the offer to take John in.
“It was supposed to be temporary,” Meagan said.
“A couple of days, they had said,” Andrew added. “It just kind of spiraled from there.”
John eventually told them he didn’t want to go anywhere else. After the three of them took a cruise, the Finches asked John if he would join their family.
“Ultimately it was up to John,” Meagan said. “We were getting to know each other, asking what do you want to do with this. By April of the next year, we had adopted him.”
John was happy being a part of the family.
“It was different than my first one,” he said. “I got to love Mom and Dad more, knowing that I had a safe place.”
They parented differently than their predecessors.
“We gave John options,” Andrew said. “It wasn’t ‘We tell you what to do.’”
“It has been a loving family. They have done so much for me,” John said on the video. “They supported my decision, they supported who I wanted to become. I’m just grateful for them.”
John had an immediate family that also included his foster siblings. The Finches have fostered 26 children through the years.
“As they were learning, John was learning with them,” Andrew said. “They would do their work assignments together – ‘homework,’ they would call it.”
John’s first two years of high school were in the Flint Hills community. Halfway through school, his father took an appointment at Hiawatha UMC in northeast Kansas.
Being immersed in an English-speaking community helped John’s English improve, although teachers did not have high hopes for him.
“This is a kid that was told when he came to America that he would never graduate high school, would never amount to anything,” Andrew said.
The special ed teacher in Hiawatha told John when he was talking about college that he should aim for something more realistic.
“She told me I wouldn’t be able to get 1 on my ACT. I got 17,” John said with a smile. A perfect score is 36.
“He did better on his ACT than I did, and I was born in America,” his father said.
Although neither of his high schools offered soccer – his favorite sport – John played football.
In 2021, Andrew accepted an appointment as associate pastor at St. Paul Benson UMC in his native Omaha, and in July was named as pastor of TRI-Community UMC in Omaha, where he is working at reviving a congregation that was stagnant during COVID, except for weekly drive-thru prayers.
John began attending the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and is entering his junior year this fall, majoring in sociology, with a concentration of inequality and social justice with a minor in Black studies.
The Finches say John has acclimated himself to American life, gorging on cheeseburgers or his favorite combo: a Texas Roadhouse steak and loaded baked potato.
He said he does miss food from his homeland, and John and his parents have tried to make some of his favorites, including vareniki (Ukrainian dumplings) and borscht (a beet soup). Ukrainians have a diet primarily of fish and chicken.
A Catholic church in Omaha with Ukrainian roots, as a fundraiser for humanitarian efforts in the country, have regularly been selling Ukrainian foods.
“I think for a month straight every Saturday we would buy $100 in food, and he would just eat it all up,” Andrew said with a laugh. “It was great for the first two weeks for us, then we were ‘Maybe we could have something else?’”
During a trip to Washington, D.C., with Micah Corps, John took three of his friends to a Ukrainian restaurant, which was well-received by his team.
“I don’t have a favorite,” he said with a smile. “I like everything.”
As a member of Micah Corps, John has dreams of starting a nonprofit that would bring Christians into orphanages throughout the world, teaching about God and interacting with children.
Andrew said he’s spoken with his son frequently about career options but is not pushing him toward ordained ministry.
“I think he wants to be in ministry, but he doesn’t know what that means. He’s got a heart for justice and helping those who are disenfranchised, heavily,” Andrew said. “Even in the Methodist system, there’s so many avenues and branches that we’ve talked about — becoming a deacon or a missionary, things like that. He’s open to it, but he’s still exploring.”
Before he was adopted, John said, a search was made for his biological parents, and nothing was discovered. He was told he may have a stepsister but knows no information about her.
John said he finds hope in the future for his home country and appreciates what his new country has done for them.
“If it wasn’t for the U.S. and NATO, it would have been over a long time ago. The military wasn’t formed, or strong. They didn’t have supplies to fight them off,” he said. “I would like to see NATO sending troops there, but I don’t like troops from other countries fighting our war.
“I have hope it will be over one day. I’m thankful for everybody who’s helped Ukraine,” he added. “It’s been incredible that they’ve given money.”
Andrew is a second career pastor, after working in logistics and planning for a wedding company. Meagan, an Iowa native who met her husband online, works for an insurance company.
And John can’t imagine any better parents.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “They changed me a lot as a person, my beliefs. In my prayers, I just say I don’t know where I’d be without them. Mom and Dad took me farther than I thought I could go.”
Contact David Burke, content specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.