He is 19 years old. He’s as thin as he stands tall and his confidence is unwavering from his lips but fragile in his heart. His mind believes in his purpose, but his spirit is afraid to give his all. He walks to the court, joins the crowd, and waits to be chosen.
He’s the last man standing. Chosen by default.
The game begins and his back and forth jog resembles a cardio workout more than a basketball game. The first quarter passes; he never touches the ball. Finally, he finds himself wide open on the 3-point arc. With no other options, his teammate passes him the ball. A stare from the team leader to the passer. He squares up, one dribble, lifts the ball above his head. A perfect shot leaves his fingertips. The ball approaches the basket and falls through with flawless grace; no rim, no backboard. Nothing but net.
The game continues with no acknowledgement of the shot.
Possession changes, a turnover on the other end. Back to his basket. He finds his place at the arc and waits for the pass. Unguarded and wide open, he calls for the ball. No one acknowledges. The leader of the team drives to the basket and fights for a layup. He sinks it.
In the rest of the game, he hits three more three-point shots; the only three times he touched the ball after his first shot. 12 points total. 100% shooting percentage.
No one spoke to him.
As he heads for the door, the leader extends his hand. Dapped up, approval is given.
He keeps showing up. Consistently. Every time ready. Every time last. Every time giving his all. Finally, after another game of solid threes, someone asks.
“Hey, white kid. What’s your name?”
“You alright, Corey.”
Over the next ten years, Corey James Hunka would find himself playing more pick-up basketball games than he could count. In 2011, Corey took his talents from the Southeast Community Center to The Martin Center, a converted elementary school found at 1253 3rd Street SE in Canton, Ohio. The courts were fewer and the games were wilder, but Corey moved from last pick to building owner. In the summer, they played with the doors opened in hopes of catching a breeze, and in the winter the layers were piled on and eventually shed as people walked from all over the community to play basketball and listen to the white kid preach.
In 2016, Corey formed a team of his own and launched 3rd Street Community Church inside The Martin Center as a result of the rapidly growing programs occurring within the walls of “The Martin”. He never saw himself becoming a pastor, but could not deny the call from God he felt inside him. His team wasn’t one that many would bet on; the church would meet in a place people said would never thrive, the oldest member of the team was his wife (29 years old at the time the church would launch), there was no worship leader, and not a financial advisor to be found. They had a God-sized dream, a piggy bank budget, and a tight-knit community with no experience in church leadership or church planting.
But sometimes a God dream, a willing group, and a teachable heart are all you need.
Corey stands at the three-point arc a little less these days, but can be found regularly preaching from half court. As the lead pastor of 3rd Street Community Church, he chooses to meet on the basketball court every Sunday. The team does a full set-up and tear down every week, filling the court with chairs, screens, sound equipment, and a floor covering to protect the polyurethane coating on the floor. They gather today with a team of gifted worship leaders, a diverse staff, a wise council with two financial advisors, and 250 beautiful people from every corner of the city of Canton. Sometimes they sing in Spanish, sometimes there’s a choir, and always there is a spirit of praise and worship to the God who gives visions of unity, renewal, and restoration to his people.
Throughout the week, the same court is home to middle school gatherings, high school students, WORD Wednesdays, and The Martin Leagues. The place that has been named by magazines as “the most dangerous small city in the US” and “the most miserable place to live” is becoming a place of hope and healing. The area labeled by its’ own city as a place of poverty is becoming a beacon of light.
Ten years ago, I followed that skinny, white kid to southeast Canton. Nine years ago, I bought a house in the city and made this place my home. Seven years ago, I married Corey James Hunka and promised God I’d follow whatever crazy dreams he gave my husband. Four years ago, we began the journey of 3rd Street Community Church. My greatest privilege in life has been having a front row seat in watching these years unfold.