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Congregation endures through two devastating blows to church

8/11/2014

By MAYA SRIKRISHNAN

By MAYA SRIKRISHNAN

McClatchy-Tribune

CARL JUNCTION, Mo. -- Fire Chief Bill Dunn received an emergency call a little after 4 a.m. Thursday. A building in Carl Junction, Mo., was burning. He raced to the scene, not knowing which building it was.

"When I saw it, I thought to myself, 'Oh my Lord, not again,' " Dunn said. "Not again."

The steeple of Carl Junction United Methodist Church -- Dunn's church -- had been struck by lightning at approximately 3 a.m. By the time Dunn and his crew arrived, "the blaze was sky-high."

The night had seen an intense storm, with reports of hundreds of lightning strikes bearing down on the county, he said.

Dunn promptly called Pastor Bill Kenagy, who arrived at approximately 5 a.m. to see the church enveloped in flames. By 7 a.m., the 30,000-square-foot church, with its front-facing paneled windows and wooden cross hanging over the altar, was pronounced unsalvageable.

"It was heart-wrenching to see the faces of the people of my church," Kenagy said. "As though they were thinking, 'Not again.' "

The church has ties to Hays as well. For nearly 10 years, students in the church's youth ministry have attended Celebration Community Church's annual youth conference. Youth pastor Rick Flinn and his wife, Kathy, along with other volunteers, bring a large group of students each year.

The Carl Junction church also has been a place of shelter to many Hays students when they travel for missionary work during spring break. For the last three years, CrossCurrent youth ministry students helping with mission work in Baxter Springs have stayed at the church -- making it a home away from home during the week.

Just last month, a group from the C3 men's ministry stayed at the church while doing work in nearby Baxter Springs.

This is the second time the Carl Junction United Methodist Church has been destroyed. On May 4, 2003, a tornado wrecked the church as it tore through Missouri, ripping off the roof and destroying the interior.

On that day -- a Sunday -- at least 15 tornadoes roared through Kansas and Missouri, killing 25 people and damaging more than 3,000 homes and businesses, according to the National Weather Service.

All 25 people who were sheltering inside the church were unharmed. The altar was untouched as well, the candles still were upright, and the church's historic Bible still was at the base, left open to the same passage used in the service that morning, said congregation member Pat Wilson.

The altar and the Bible didn't make it through the fire.

"It's all burned to ashes," Wilson said. "It's devastating."

The congregation was displaced for nearly two years after the tornado, meeting at various locations while they rebuilt their church -- a funeral home, a local Baptist church, in trailers on the church's property.

"We all had one purpose in mind and one goal," Wilson said. "That was to rebuild, to make the church stronger and better than it was before."

The church reopened in 2004, with a larger sanctuary and dedicated classrooms. Now, a decade later, the congregation must raise yet another church.

Kenagy, who wasn't with the congregation during the tornado, said the building is insured and a new church will be built. The congregation, which had approximately 200 members when the tornado hit, now counts between 75 and 100 members.

Dunn and Wilson said the church's destruction doesn't make them question their faith.

"We know that the people are the church, not the building," Wilson said.

Dunn said the aftermath of the tornado was worse, because the entire city of Carl Junction, population 7,410, had been severely damaged.

This time, the church can lean on the rest of the community. The support has come quickly, as other religious organizations in Carl Junction pulled together to plan a prayer vigil for the congregation the day of the fire.

"It's going to be a start from scratch," Wilson said. "But we can do it. We will do it."

In the meantime, services will continue. The first was Sunday in the auditorium of the nearby high school.

For Dunn, the only thing to do is to "take a step back and say, 'Well, here we go again.' "