Leah Church, a former basketball player who played for the University of North Carolina but later pulled out of the team, recently shared why she chose God over her college sports dream.
“It was everything I’d ever dreamed of,” Church told The Gospel Coalition for an article titled "Choosing God over College Basketball." She recalled the first time she stepped onto Carmichael Arena, where the UNC women’s team plays and the court where Michael Jordan played during his time at the school.
Church, a guard from Purlear, N.C. who was homeschooled but played basketball at Forest Trail Academy, played for the Tar Heels from the 2017-2018 season through the 2019-2020 season.
Her faith set her apart, as she was one of two Christian athletes on the team, but she felt accepted as she had Christian coaches, including famed head coach Sylvia Hatchell.
However, things changed after Hatchell resigned after 33 seasons at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2019.
During the first couple of months with the new coaching staff, little changed. But gradually, it became more difficult for Church to live out her faith, she said.
“I started seeing that there were expectations for me to participate in the party lifestyle and condone things that didn’t line up with my biblical beliefs,” continued Church, whose father is a full-time missionary evangelist. “I choose not to drink, and I’m choosing to save myself for marriage. I said no to a lot of things, which made team bonding challenging.”
Soon after the new coaches were hired, Church said the other Christian girl on the team quit.
“It was super lonely. I felt like sometimes I was singled out for my beliefs, which led to degradation,” recalled Church, who was homeschooled all the way through high school.
The athlete's mom would tell her that it was Christ in her the other girls on the team didn’t like, as light and darkness don’t mix. “I knew that, but it didn’t make it any easier,” Church shared.
Church didn’t quit until the coach required the team to support causes that were against biblical principles.
“I decided, in light of eternity, that basketball wasn’t worth it,” she said, without any regret. “I talked to my mom and dad, and we prayed and looked at every option. Ultimately, we all felt peace that it was God’s time for me to leave.”
Church, who averaged 4 points per game over her three seasons, left the team before her senior season.
In a Facebook post, evangelist Franklin Graham compared Church to Daniel in the Bible.
“I like people who’ve got guts for Jesus, people who will stand boldly like Daniel. Leah Church is one of those people," he wrote.
It was difficult, Church said in the interview, but she was able to deal with the disappointment.
She said she found comfort in James 1:12, which reads: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him.”
“Life’s not supposed to be easy for Christians,” says Church, who is now an assistant coach for her local high school basketball team. “For me, it helped to think about eternity. And through this, I’ve had the opportunity to share my faith at churches and with teams. I’ve been able to use this to encourage others to stand firm because, in the end, that’s what matters.”