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story.lead_photo.caption Glen Gessley, chairman of the Community Christian Church members board, lights a candle during a special service for the church. Gessley played a 1988 recording of the church's choir singing a cantata. The church remains a shell after the May 22 tornado damaged it. Photo by Joe Gamm / News Tribune.

A church endures.

It endures because it's more than a wooden, brick and stone structure.

The church is its people.

On Wednesday — Christmas Day — members of Community Christian Church and their friends held a service in the church sanctuary.

They had no pews, no carpet, no doors, no walls, no bathrooms.

It was not meant to be a formal service, simply a chance for people to come in, light a candle for prayer intentions, receive communion and mingle with others, said Bethany Imbler, minister of the church.

"We invite you to open your hearts — open your spirits," Imbler told those gathered.

Church members held their Christmas Eve services the day before, through the generosity of Hawthorn Bank, which lets them use the bank Community Room on Amazonas Drive. They haven't been able to hold service at their church for more than seven months.

The church has been little more than a shell since May 22, when an EF-3 tornado with winds exceeding 160 mph tore through East Jefferson City. The twister severely damaged the church, destroyed its roof, blew out windows and damaged contents of the building.

However, that unmistakable swooping, white spire still stands.

And so does the church's congregation.

Linda Tinder has been a member for more than 40 years.

Tinder looked forward to attending the informal service, an effort to take long-time members back in time. For the service, members listened to a recording of a cantata, sung by the church's choir and recorded in 1988.

About half the choir members who appear on the recording have passed away. Many who attended the service listened for old friends or family members they lost.

Tinder wanted to see what progress was made on the building since the storm. She had been one of the volunteers who helped clean up after the disaster, she said.

"We walked across broken glass, which was everywhere," Tinder said. "I had to clean out the library. Some of it was irreplaceable."

A blessing, she said, was that about two-thirds of the library was preserved.

The debris is gone. Some of the windows remain in the walls of the church. It's a rare window in the building that doesn't have spiderweb-like cracks across them.

Weather was mild Wednesday, which was a good thing for those who attended the service because the exterior walls aren't closed up very well, said Glen Gessley, chairman of the church's member board.

However, there's progress.

"We're hoping to get things back in shape in mid-2020," Gessley said.

Demolition within the church is complete. Of course, when workers began the effort, they found asbestos. Asbestos mitigation is complete too, he said with a smile.

He seemed to be keeping a positive attitude about the tornado, and where it left the church.

The original structure was built in 1965, and received additions in 1986 and 2010. The tornado gave church leaders a chance to make upgrades to windows, doors, and heating and cooling systems, Gessley said.

Between repairs and upgrades, the cost of rebuilding the church, which was insured, will be in excess of $1.5 million, he said.

The roof was finally closed in mid-October. Here and there on the inside, small wires dangle from steel roof trusses. Heat, if it is needed, is available through use of temporary furnaces. Much of the structure is down to bare studs.

However, there was a thought. It was suggested that members of the church could hold some sort of Christmas celebration under the spire. And then, they learned a subcontractor could light up the spire for the event.

"I said, 'Oh my gosh, we have to have communion (in the sanctuary). We have to have candles,'" Imbler said. "It's an opportunity to worship — not in the way we're accustomed to."

About 50 people showed for the event, including Robert and DeAnn Driver Ege, who were married in the church and live in Columbia. DeAnn Ege, with her parents, helped start the church years ago, she said. They wanted to hear her father's voice. Joe Driver had been in the cantata, but died a few years ago.

"He's going to be singing, that's why we're here," she said.

The service could help strengthen connections, Imbler said.

We think it will be a powerful experience, she said before the service. "We'll remember the past as we look to the future together."

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