Since graduating from Shelby High School in 1966, the Rev. Joel Hunter also has become one of President Barack Obama's spiritual advisers, but he said little of it would have been possible without the foundation he received from his hometown.
Hunter is senior pastor at Northland Church, in Longwood, Fla., a church where he grew membership from 200 to more than 15,000.
Hunter, who was invited to preach Sunday morning at his home church, The Shelby First United Methodist Church, took the podium around 10 a.m. He started by asking the congregation to excuse him if he happened to cry during the sermon.
Few held back their own tears as he reminisced about his days growing up in Shelby, and shared what the 18 S. Gamble St. church means to him.
"It is so, so good to be back in this church," he said. "Thank you for welcoming me back. This is a big deal to me. A very big deal. I hope you'll all indulge me in a few moments of nostalgia."
"This church is a very big part of who I am. I often talk about the Shelby church in my sermons. I say I went to the First Church in Shelby, Ohio, where all the men wore pin stripes on their suits and all the women wore fruit in their hats."
The whole sanctuary erupted in laughter when Hunter singled out Dwight Somerville, a choir member who has been a church member since 1950.
"I knew Jesus would be here, but I wasn't sure about Mr. Somerville," Hunter said. "This is amazing!"
Hunter said his original goal was never to go into ministry, but that the civil rights movement changed his path in life.
"There was a little custodial couple (who used to attend the church) and they didn't have two nickels to rub together," he said. "There were times in seminary when I just wanted to quit because I didn't think I was good enough to do this -- but that was before I learned it wasn't about our goodness but about God's goodness.
"And from time to time I would get a letter in the mail from that couple with a check for $5. Now I know what you're thinking, back in those days $5 was a lot of money, but it really wasn't -- but it was more than they had. And there would be a little note inside saying, 'Joey, we think you'll be a good minister someday.'"
Hunter paused as his eyes welled up.
"And it was just enough to keep me going," he said, his voice cracking. "That's what this place means to me. You're the reason I'm in ministry. I feel the same way about the whole town."
Hunter's sermon dealt with relationships and the importance of human differences.
"Everyone has a different reason for coming to church," he said. "Some come because of relationships or they're looking for relationships, but they all see that God has something for them.
"If you have someone who thinks just like you, one of you is not necessary. Differences are so important. God knew that in order to be a healthy church, we had to be a combination of differences. So as God grew the church he grew us to work together, and he grew us to be a team."
Jeanette Allard, of Shelby, raved about Hunter's speech as the congregation filed out.
"It was absolutely wonderful," she said. "He's such a good speaker. It was very inspiring. It brought tears to my eyes."
Hunter told the congregation no matter where he's preaching and living, the Shelby church will always be with him.
"Every time I walk into the Oval Office and I speak with the president, you're there. Every time I meet with church leaders from other countries, in meetings so secret no one can ever find out, you're with me. I loved listening to the choir this morning. I haven't heard a church choir in I don't know how long, but I miss it. And I loved listening to all the family concerns you shared. With a church of 15,000, if we did that, we'd be here till next week -- but yet we're in the same church. You have strengths and weaknesses my church doesn't have, but we are all the church together."