Barbed Wire and Butterflies

by the Rev. Paul McLain


After preaching a sermon one Sunday about holy plans and the Children’s Holocaust Museum in Whitwell, Tennessee, Ruthie suggested we make a one-day pilgrimage there this past Monday. After a lovely 5-hour drive through mountains and ice-covered rocks, we arrived at the Whitwell Middle School on Butterfly Lane in time to see children still on the playground near the end of the school day. We spent an hour walking around the grounds and meditating in the German railcar that had been transported to Whitwell to house the paper clips and artifacts the students had collected to honor the memory of the 6 million Jews and 5 million others including gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and Germans who were differently-abled, who died in the Holocaust.


One of the images that stays with me is a statue of a butterfly wrapped in barbed wire on top of a pillar. The barbed wire appeared so jarring – an image of confinement, torture, suffocation, and death. In contrast, the butterfly is a sign of release, freedom, new life, and hope. It says something not only about the victims and survivors of the Holocaust but about the students who worked on the paper clips project. Perhaps the students had been imprisoned in what they thought was a protected and insulated lifestyle, but one in which their minds and hearts were suffocating. Their exposure to the story and the flesh-and-blood holocaust survivors opened their eyes to see the world in all its bright and bold diversity and opened themselves to the possibilities of new and unlikely friendships.


I am grateful to Ruthie for suggesting we make this one-day pilgrimage. It is one thing to read and talk about a story. It is another thing to see it, touch it, breathe it in, and pray in the presence of it. Sarah York writes, “My travels stirred reflections on what it means to leave home in order to find home, to go ‘there’ to find ‘here,’ and to listen, always, to the voice inside saying, ‘Pay attention to now.’” I hope this visceral experience stays with me and inspires me and others to become untangled from whatever barbed wire is imprisoning us, then to spread our wings and soar.

19 thoughts on “Barbed Wire and Butterflies”

  1. Paul,
    I’ve been recently praying to be present in the moment, to be present even in the moments that seem small and routine. Truly, I thank you for this Divine reminder to indeed “pay attention to now.”

    Btw, Michael and I plan to visit Whitwell soon, too!

  2. Road trip for our girls this Summer for sure. I never want them to question how great we have it and how important it is to understand by protecting others, we protect ourselves. Thanks for this reminder Paul!

  3. Paul, what a wonderful road trip! I hope you took a copy of your sermon to leave with the school children. It was so profound to hear your telling of the story, which we wouldn’t have known otherwise, that I think the school would be proud to learn that you had spread the word.

  4. Good for you Paul and Ruthie. How about a sermon on another tragedy – Trail of Tears. Then you can go to the monument wall the man built in Florence Al to memorialize every step his Creek great grandmother took. Ask Jim Boyd about it

    1. Margaret, thanks for letting me know about the monument wall in Florence . I will ask Jim Boyd about it and we’ll plan another pilgrimage and, perhaps, another sermon. Love and Blessings, Paul

  5. Thanks Paul for not only the sermon/story but for the story of your and Ruthie’s adventure. It inspires me!! Another option…. Trip to the EIJ museum in Montgomery,AL and Brian Stevens story.

    1. You’re welcome, Mary. And a pilgrimage to EJI in Montgomery sounds like a great idea. Scott and Ardelle did such a trip recently. Ruthie and I loved seeing the movie “Just Mercy” about Brian Stevenson’s story.

      Hope you are enjoying your first weeks of retirement! Love and Blessings, Paul

  6. This is one of your all-time-best blogs. Touching, and extremely troubling after all these years, but proof positive that some good can come of every tragedy. Unfortunately, we can’t afford to let our guard down with NAZIs on the move in America and around the world.

    1. Thanks, Pat. So glad this spoke to you. I agree that we need to encourage more efforts like this to learn the true stories of tragedies and share love instead of hate. Love and Blessings, Paul

  7. Paul
    Your compassion for people is a blessing for our church. A powerful sermon that touched the hearts of all who heard it. Of course you and Ruthie made that trip. I know you both are glad you did.

  8. Your sermon on this subject was one of the best of your many great sermons I have experienced. I am sure to experience Whitewell firsthand had to be an amzing experience. It is so sad that there are people in this world who say the holocaust never occurred.

    1. Thanks, Gary. It was amazing to see the German railcar and all the work of the students firsthand. I am glad they not only know the truth, but they have lived it. And through their eyes, we live it too.
      Love and Blessings,

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