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'It's sad. It really is.'

The First Christian Church of Moore, which was formed in 1962 and has about 225 members, was the hardest hit in Oklahoma.

BY PJ HELLER | MOORE, Okla. | May 12, 2003

"It's a miracle that they escaped."

—Cheri Hunter

Four-year-old Preston Hunter on Sunday peered into a room that once had been a library and wondered where all the books had gone. Then he scampered across to the remains of his Sunday school classroom at the First Christian Church of Moore and paused at a table, one of the few items still upright.

Along the way, he passed the restroom where he and two other youngsters along with their daycare teachers had sought shelter from last week's devastating tornado in Moore.

While little was left of the church, the restroom where Preston and the others rode out the storm still stood amid the debris. The roof had been blown off and the opening had served as the escape route for the children and teachers once the storm had passed.

"We were just scared to death," said Jim Hunter, Preston's father, who helped pull the children and their teachers to safety.

"We feel really blessed," said Cheri Hunter, his mother. "It's a miracle that they escaped."

On Sunday morning, members and former members of the church gathered for services in the parking lot of the church. Sitting on metal folding chairs under a bright blue sunny sky, they listened as Pastor Mike Hohlier attempted to explain the good that could come from the storm.

"I don't believe God creates tornadoes," he said. "But I think atmospheric conditions happen and winds collide and weather occurs that creates things like this . . . It was just the weather that happened. And it was one of those events like we in Oklahoma know happens all the time. The reality is, the bottom line is, God will use this to God's glory if we allow God to do that."

Other churches affected by the tornadoes which damaged or destroyed 300 homes, left about 145 people injured, none seriously, and caused an estimated $100 million in damages scrambled Sunday to hold services in shared facilities or elsewhere. Hohlier said he expected the messages being delivered there would be similar to his on Mother's Day Sunday.

The First Christian Church of Moore, which was formed in 1962 and has about 225 members, was the hardest hit in Oklahoma. The adjacent Warclub Ministry, which attracts a large number of Native Americans and teens, was also destroyed.

Scrawled on a chalkboard in one of the Sunday school classrooms was the message, "We will rise again from the rubble."

"The church is indestructible," noted choir director Lynn Manning.

Hohlier said the church was fully insured and was in no rush to rebuild.

"Our concern is not building right now," he said. "Our concern is people. So we will spend the next year or so not looking at buildings probably. We'll just find temporary space. We can be a family together, spend time supporting one another, lifting one another, and building people up.

"Our area has been hurt," he added. "A lot of families are just devastated. This (church) is a building. This isn't an individual's home. It's a church home, but it's not an individual's home. Our concern is more for individual home and those families and how we can be there for them. This stuff can be dealt with later."

Hohlier said six church families had their homes damaged by the twisters. The damage was mostly minor, compared to the total devastation that some six church families suffered in the May 3, 1999 tornadoes.

Before and after the 90-minute outdoor service, some members of the congregation searched through the rubble.

Among them was Kevin Tubby, minister of the Warclub Ministry. He managed to find the 10 spotted eagle feathers considered sacred to Native Americans that had been given to him as a gift.

"I guess I was more concerned about these than I was about all the equipment because the equipment is replaceable," he said. "It's kind of hard to replace something like this."

Asked what he was going to do now that his building was destroyed, he replied, "Keep going."

"I'm always preaching that we need to be outside the box," he said. "I guess we're outside the box now, aren't we."

John Branscum, who joined First Christian in 1968 but has since moved away from the area, sadly surveyed site where the Warclub Ministry once stood. As a high school senior and president of the youth growth, he had helped raise money and then construct the building, which was originally used by the Christian Youth Fellowship.

"We laid the foundation. We laid the bricks. We built everything," Branscum recalled. "We did it all ourselves."

"It's sad," he said walking through the twisted maze of metal and debris. "It really is."

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