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story.lead_photo.caption Glen Gessley, the chairman of Community Christian's church member board, talks about the damage done to the church by the 2019 tornado. He pointed out the repairs made and the work yet to be done. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

The May 2019 tornado did not spare houses of worship in its path — and while the storm was not the last disaster local churches have faced since, a leader of Community Christian Church expects congregants will be stronger for it.

"We're just dealing with things that happen, and we haven't been forsaken by our God and our creator," said Glen Gessley, chairman of Community Christian's church member board. "There is purpose behind (this), but I think the purpose is sometimes to have an opportunity to grow stronger in our relationships with each other and as a church."

The tornado's winds destroyed the Ellis Boulevard church's roof, blew out windows and damaged items inside the church.

Since then — up until the COVID-19 pandemic pushed congregants to remote services — the congregation had been worshipping in the Hawthorn Bank community room on Amazonas Drive.

There's no firm date for a return to Community Christian Church on Ellis Boulevard, but Gessley said the repair and renovation project's general contractor — Verslues Construction Co. Inc. — has said the church might be ready in November.

House of Refuge Worship Center was also hit by the tornado. The storm leveled the church on Heritage Highway, basically down to its foundation.

Services since the tornado have been at locations including the Salvation Army of Jefferson City, Capitol Plaza Hotel and Capitol Ritz Banquet and Dance Center, according to posts on House of Refuge's Facebook page.

"Our church building was destroyed, but our church was not destroyed," House of Refuge Pastor Andre Grinston said in November. "Our faith is strong, and we believe what happened God has allowed, and we are moving forward."

Grinston could not be reached to provide an update on the progress of rebuilding but said in November the hope was to have the church rebuilt on the property by the middle of 2020.

The city building permit for Community Christian Church was approved in March. After that, "things have started moving along very quickly," Gessley said.

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Subcontractors were working this month on windows and interior walls. Gessley said the church will be a completely new building within its original shell.

"We've got a long road ahead of us," he said, with new doors, carpeting and cabinets needed. With no permanent space of its own at the moment, the church has not yet been able to replace other equipment damaged in the tornado — chairs, tables, desks and computers.

The organ, piano and a lot of sound system equipment were saved, and the church pews are being restored in Iowa, Gessley said.

The pandemic has not really slowed down the rebuilding, he said. Design meetings are remote now, with pictures and emails being passed back and forth. Construction crews are keeping track of everyone they work with and whether any family members get sick, but the work continues.

The whole project will cost approximately $1.5 million, most of which insurance will cover, Gessley said.

The community has helped, and combined with opting for lower-cost replacements within insurance coverage — such as suspended ceilings instead of the original plaster — that's meant savings that have been put toward other things, including upgraded windows and more efficient heating and cooling systems.

"We feel like we're in good shape right now," Gessley said.

Still, it's been a tough year.

In addition to the tornado and the pandemic, he said, in between a Missouri man had made some threats to churches that left people on edge — enough to mobilize to do intruder training and change procedures.

"It's been hard on some people; but other people, it's strengthened their resolve to be the church," Gessley said.

"When we move back into our new digs, we will be a stronger congregation with more sense of purpose and more drive," he said. "That's probably where I'm at in my role as board chair; I try to be the problem-solver and keep the long view of things."

In the meantime, he said, Community Christian Church was not planning to hold any in-person services through the end of May, but there had been talk about an in-car service in a parking lot for Pentecost.

Pentecost is when Christians celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the disciples of Jesus Christ to guide the Christian community after Jesus' death and resurrection.

"It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that we draw our strength and stay connected in these uncertain times," the Rev. Bethany Imbler, Community Christian Church's minister, said in a written statement.

Imbler said Community Christian Church is "a resilient congregation of God's faithful, rising to the call of Christ to rebuild and expand the circle of God's love to all."

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