IOWA DERECHO 2020

Blue spruce damaged in derecho lights up Christmas for Cedar Rapids church

People sing #x201c;Silent Night#x201d; as the outdoor tree is lit during a Christmas Eve service at First Congregational
People sing “Silent Night” as the outdoor tree is lit during a Christmas Eve service at First Congregational Church in southeast Cedar Rapids. The tree is a blue spruce that was damaged in the derecho and was going to have to be removed from a resident’s yard. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — On Christmas Eve, after singing hymns in the cold, members of First Congregational Church of Christ turned on a light against the darkness, illuminating a Christmas tree that symbolized more than trees normally do.

The blue spruce originally belonged to Cedar Rapids resident Cheryl Fiala and her family, who planted it in 2009 when they moved into their Cedar Rapids home. For years they decorated it each holiday season.

Then the Aug. 10 derecho came, toppling trees as it ripped through Eastern Iowa. The 22.5-foot spruce was partially uprooted — half its root ball exposed, the trunk leaning over precariously.

Fiala said many people told the family the tree wouldn’t survive long-term. But she wondered if they could still do something meaningful with it anyway.

They also lost part of their roof and had water damage inside the house. If something positive could come from this storm, they wanted to find it.

“It was a beautiful tree, and we didn’t want to just cut it up and take it to the curb,” she said.

So she posted on a derecho Facebook page, offering to keep the tree alive as best she could until Christmas if someone wanted it. The Rev. Melanie Van Weelden of First Congregational Church responded.

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The Cedar Rapids church hasn’t held in-person indoor services since March due to the pandemic, relying on occasional front porch services when it was warmer and virtual services. Van Weelden said the church wanted to do something special for Christmas Eve, which usually is its best-attended service of the year.

So the church invited congregants to gather, masked and socially-distanced, outside the church on Christmas Eve. In deference to the cold, the service was short, but ended with a lighting of the tree.

“It’s a really special time. This is one of the most special nights of the year, and it’s a great gift to be able to be here together,” Van Weelden said.

Mark Culver and Culver’s Garden Center & Greenhouse transported the tree and installed it in the church’s yard at 361 17th St. SE.

Fiala said she was glad the blue spruce was able to get a second life.

“It looks beautiful. I drove by and had to go around the block twice. It just looks like it’s growing there,” she said.

“I’m just so happy that someone was willing to take it and put it up.”

Van Weelden said in some ways the tree feels like a metaphor for the church itself, which sustained almost $1.2 million worth of damage in the derecho. The 150-foot steeple lost most of its copper cladding, which was original to the century-old building. There was also significant roof damage, and water poured into the sanctuary, causing damage inside. Repairs are scheduled for March.

“It’s been a really tough time over these past few months. We might have gotten knocked over but we weren’t knocked down,” Van Weelden said. “And we’re still standing here, and we’re still trying to light up the world as best we can.”

Just like the spruce.

“I often tell our church folks it’s easiest to see the light when we’re in the middle of the dark,” she told The Gazette before the service. “Christmas Eve will be very cold, and we’ll be outside in the dark and cold, and I can’t wait to see it light up.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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