Paper Clip Miracles: The Children’s Holocaust Memorial

While I am a regular congregant and chorister at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in the deep south of Louisiana, I have sung for my “other church family” at Temple Gates of Prayer. The setting of the season of High Holy Days is a perfect time to share with you a miracle – that to me, just goes to show (again) how much God can do with the smallest, simplest things.

 

Over two months have passed since Joshua and I visited the Children’s Holocost Memorial in Whitwell, Tennessee. I can still barely find the words to write about it.

 

This amazing memorial is at a middle school in the mountains of Tennessee, northwest of Chattanooga. Friends Diane and Vickie suggested we visit there after we’d spent time with the sisters of the Community of St. Mary in Sewanee. I’m glad I had that dose of peacefulness to strengthen me before visiting the memorial, which still has me in awe.

 

Over the years, the 8th grade classes at Whitwell Middle School have learned about history, prejudice, and the holocaust through this amazing project that has changed hundreds of thousands of hearts and lives.
 
Whitwell pause sign

Sign at the entrance of the Memorial.


 
“You should go see this,” said our friends. “It may not be open right now, because it’s at a school, but you could at least try” and they tried to describe the Paperclip Project. In the end, Diane sent us off with a DVD that we watched later that evening.

 

Neither Bubba (Joshua) nor I said a word as we watched this nearly 2 hour long documentary. (We are never at a loss for words.) As the credits rolled, we said in unison, “we’re going.”

 

I will quote the Whitwell website to give you an idea of the Memorial:

 

“In 1998 eighth grade students at Whitwell Middle School began an after-school study of the Holocaust.  The goal of this study was to teach students the importance of respecting different cultures as well as understanding the effects of intolerance.  As the study progressed, the sheer number of Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis overwhelmed the students.  Six million was a number that  the students could not remotely grasp.  The students asked Sandra Roberts and David Smith if they could collect something to help them understand the enormity of this extermination.  The teachers told the students to ask permission of principal, Linda M. Hooper.  She gave the students permission to begin a collection, IF, they could find something to collect that would have meaning to the project.  After some research on the Internet, the students decided to collect paper clips because they discovered that 1) Joseph Valler, a Norwegian Jew is credited as having invented the paper clip and 2) that Norwegians wore them on their lapels as a silent protest against Nazi occupation in WWII.”

 

The rest, as they say, is history. The students began collecting paperclips, with the goal of 6 million paper clips. After a slow start, the idea exploded, with help in part from a German journalist husband and wife team who were working in the United States.

 

Over the following years, the students collected over 30 million paperclips from all over the world. In 2004, a documentary film was made (the DVD that Diane loaned us).

 

The project expanded exponentially, and became much more than just a class exercise. The project came to change the entire town, and impact everyone who has seen it.

 

The day that Bubba and I went was a quiet summer day, and Whitwell is off the beaten path and away from the tourist attractions of Chattanooga and Nashville. The town and school are not diverse in population, which is initially one reason why the school chose to learn about the holocaust. In addition to learning about history, there were lessons in tolerance to be learned as well.

 

We found the school, nestled on the outskirts of town. The gates to the schoolgrounds were wide open, and they were beautiful gates with artistic butterflies incorporated into their design. As we rounded the bend in the driveway, I began to wonder aloud where the memorial (which, we’d been told, was in an authentic cattle car – yes, one of those) might be near the school, behind the school, or…
No need to wonder:
 
Whitwell LS for blog

Still, no words.


 
We drove up in silence. The car sat on a length of track, which rested on limestone. A wheelchair friendly ramp led to the open door of the car. Butterfly bushes were planted nearby, and mosaic butterfly stones and sculptures were around the car, as was an iron fence.
 

 
On a granite monument, we read the words of the poem, The Last Butterfly:

 

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone…
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I’m sure because it wished to
kiss the world goodbye.
For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
In the ghetto. 

 

This was written by Pavel Friedmann, dated 4.6.1942 . Pavel was born in 1921 in Prague, and was deported a couple of weeks after the poem was written. He was murdered in Auschwitz in September of 1944.
 

 
After spending a long walking in silence around the outside of the fence, Bubba finally spoke.

 

“Want to go inside?” he said. “But it’s locked,” I replied. “We can get the key. Look.” He pointed out the sign on the gate that I’d missed; the key was available at a local grocery.

 

We drove into town, sharing few words. The grocery was on the main thoroughfare, and I pulled in next to a motorcycle. “I’ll get it,” I said, grabbing my wallet. After all, they would want some ID, right?

 

“Hi, is this where I get the key to – “ the young lady smiled, said “yes m’am, here you go” and handed me a key (on a giant paperclip keychain). I stopped in midsentence.

 

“Do you need an ID, or do I need to check it out, sign anything?”

 

“Nah, just remember to bring it back when you’re done.”

 

Wow. Thank you. I got back in the car, unused to this simple, honest, open greeting.

 

We drove back to the Memorial. I walked over to an area near the parking lot, with stones lining a drainage ditch, and selected a small, smooth one. I walked along the sidewalk, and also selected a piece of limestone. We unlocked the gate, and stepped in.

 

Whitwell CCar 1
I don’t know how long we stayed . There was no sense of time. I walked around, finally getting the nerve to touch the cattlecar. It had been cleaned, repaired, and “disinfected.” The car had been used for the most nefarious of work, bringing innocent souls  to the slaughter of the camps. Blood, tears, secretions of body and of spirit were soaked into the wood. After the war, it had been adapted to use for hauling grain.

 

From hauling innocents to death, to hauling food – grain. Was it on the path to being forgotten? Or was this a metaphor as well?

 

Whitwell door

 

I expected the wood to scream at me, saturated with grief and terror. Yet, it didn’t scream as I’d anticipated. It whispered, and I couldn’t quite make out the whispers. It wept. I walked around the outside of the car, the open doors eye level with me. I left one piece of limestone on the outside of the car, and saw where many other visitors had left their stones of remembrance.

 

Whitwell rocks

 

I saw life in the butterfly garden. One memorial stone was placed in honor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who were murdered by the Nazis. Coincidentally, about the same time as I visited this memorial, my mother was back home, having coffee and visiting with a relative from New York – the daughter of a cousin who was a Jehovah’s Witness.
 

I finally walked up the ramp and into the car. The doors were both open, and the sides were partitioned off by plexiglass.

 

Behind the plexiglass were 11 million paperclips.

 

Whitwell not forget you

 

Clearly, the paperclips were from all over. Not all were “standard American paperclips.” There were plastic ones, differently-curved ones, from all over the world. Tucked in with the paperclips were other memorials:

 

~A vintage, battered suitcase from a school in Germany filled with letters from German students, written to Anne Frank.

 

~Kippahs from Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, adorned with paperclips.

 

Whitwell kippahs

 

~Books, and a copy of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

 

Whitwell Mourners Kaddish
~A beautiful Mezzuzah, sent from a Jewish Congregation (in Ohio, I think) was on the door of the car. God’s word welcomed all who entered, regardless of faith.

 

Whitwell Mezzuzah

 

Above the paperclips, a sign read:
Whitwell inside

Sign above the paperclips, and the suitcase from schoolchildren in Germany. My own reflection, witnessing.

 

Standing in this car, I wondered how many thousands of souls were forced to ride it, in misery and terror. Today, this cattlecar stands as testimony and reminder: Never again. It serves as a focal point for former, current, and future students who are all involved in the Paperclip Project. Students greet visitors, give tours, answer questions. The heart of this project has grown to encompass the entire community of Whitwell, and people all over the world; art blossoms at this Memorial, reflecting the desire to be a part of this reminder, this hope, this healing.

 

Whitwell my rock

 

I left another stone at the edge of the paperclips, and prayed. As much of the Mourner’s Kaddish as I could remember,  Hail Holy Queen, and the words of my heart. (After all, what else is an Episcopalian with Catholic roots who says “my other church is a synagogue” going to do?)  It’s all God, after all, and prayer is prayer. I prayed, and I listened, actually somewhat confused at what I was feeling and at what I was not feeling. One thing was certain: I will not forget. 

 

I was anticipating angst, fear, horror.
I felt horror…but also some calm, peace, hope, and healing.

 

The lives lost can never be regained. Yet the healing power of this project which grew into an international effort cannot be denied. I was left awestruck by the power of a simple paperclip and a desire to make a difference, no matter how small.
Whitwell touch
As I write, I recall reading something about a man who bartered his way to a house, starting with only a paperclip. The students of Whitwell Middle School started with an idea, and a simple paperclip. Even the smallest thing, teamed with love and vision, can make a huge difference.

 

We were leaving, and had locked up the gate when another car drove up. Somehow, we found our voices to greet the newcomers.  “Get ready,” Bubba said to them. “It’ll hit you.”

 

“I know,” replied the young woman. She told us that she was a teacher, who came to visit the Memorial every summer.

 

We unlocked the gate for them, and brought the key back to the grocery. “We unlocked it for someone who got there when we were leaving,” I told the young lady at the register. “They said they’d lock it when they left, unless someone else came by.”

 

“That’s fine,” she said.

 

“Thank y’all for keeping that key available,” I said as I left. “Being able to walk inside was – incredible.” She smiled. I had no words; it was hard enough to find those.
 
Whitwell childrens sculpture

Artwork at the Children’s Holocaust Memorial

I’ve thought of two words to describe the Children’s Holocaust Memorial: Healing Miracle.

 

Beyond that, you’ll have to visit it yourself, and I urge you to do so.

 

The Last Butterfly accessed from:
For information, visit
and

 

Become the prayer for goodness your lips have uttered.

A couple of years ago I wrote about singing at Temple Gates of Prayer in New Iberia, La. There is a small Jewish congregation here, and I have been blessed and honored to sing for their rabbi-led services for some time.  Fall is the season of High Holy Days, which encompass Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur.

This is a Reform congregation, who uses the New Union Prayerbook.  There are many beautiful prayers within the covers of the regular book as well as Gates of Repentance, used during HHD.

Monday, during the morning service for Rosh Hashanah, these words leapt off the page at me:

“Be among those who cherish truth above ease, and whose prayers are shafts of light in the darkness….Aspire to be loving, compassionate, humane, and hopeful.  Become the prayer for goodness your lips have uttered.” *

Become the prayer for goodness your lips have uttered.

Sounds deceptively simple.  It’s certainly challenging.  I know I am often overwhelmed with day-to-day minutiae, and tend to get onto the “just get-it-done” track.  I’m not rude, cruel, dishonest or treating anyone badly, I’m just…getting things done.  Work. Errands. Housekeeping. Paying bills. Doing laundry. Autopilot.

peace-window-temple-gates-of-prayer

Peace window in memory of Jack Wormser, who was a man whose life was his prayer of peace.  Temple Gates of Prayer, New Iberia, LA

The apostle Paul wrote:

Rejoice always, pray continually. ~ 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-17

What if we were to become the prayer?  I cannot bring peace to the world, but I can be peaceful.  I may not be able to cure someone, but I can be a healing presence. Kindness towards others – even a smile – can be prayerful.

Intention is the difference.

Now, more than ever, our country and our world are torn by voices of division.  We hear so much about what’s wrong, about oppression, aggression, unfairness, shaming, blaming, hatred.  Individual pain is exploited for political gain, and groups and individuals become game tokens in power plays.  Individuals wonder what can I do?

snail-1

Make a difference.  Even this snail makes tracks.

Do what you can. Be open and aware.  Set an intention for kindness. Show gratitude.  Smile.  Pray continually.

Then, become the prayer for goodness your lips have uttered.

~~~~~~~~ * 1984, Central Conference of American Rabbis: Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe.  P. 187.  (New York)

Prayer Shawls * 3 Dimensional Prayer

Thoughts at the beginning of a Shawl Ministry at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in New Iberia, La.

“Shawls … made for centuries universal and embracing, symbolic of an inclusive, unconditionally loving, God. They wrap, enfold, comfort, cover, give solace, mother, hug, shelter and beautify. Those who have received these shawls have been uplifted and affirmed, as if given wings to  fly above their troubles…”

                                  Written in 1998 by: Janet Severi Bristow    From the home page at:  http://www.shawlministry.com

prayershawl1

Wrapped in Prayer

I had a Zen teacher in college, Fr. Benjamin Wren, SJ, who taught – among other things – liturgical dance, ikebana and Tai Chi.  He called these “3 dimensional prayer.”  I thought of Fr. Wren when I started exploring the interest level for a shawl ministry at our church, because I also think of prayer shawls as “3 dimensional prayer.”

Shawls are practical, beautiful, nurturing.  Even though the idea of a prayer shawl ministry didn’t really burst into modern consciousness until 1998, shawls have been present in spiritual practice for a long time.  I think of the Jewish Talit, or fringed prayer shawl, worn at various times by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews.  Our priests, deacons and bishops wear stoles when leading a service. Mantillas may still be worn by Spanish Roman Catholic women for worship (and were extremely common in French/Spanish south Louisiana in pre-Vatican II days). Pentecostal Churches may have “prayer cloths” – cloths that have been prayed over and in some cases, anointed.  All of these practices may serve to set the wearer apart, or to help the wearer indicate, even if only to oneself, that this time is now for prayer.

I can appreciate the concept of a prayer cloth.  Here’s something tangible that has been prayed over, given to someone to hold, to touch, a tactile reminder that someone else has been praying for them.  It’s a powerful thing to know that someone is praying for you, and having something in hand that underscores that can serve as a strong reminder: You are loved.  You are remembered and cared for by this community.  You are a child of God, our sister or brother in Christ, and this is a symbol of our ongoing prayer.

A shawl is this symbol, that wraps one in a comforting embrace.  So where did our 21st century concept of a prayer shawl ministry come from?

MonicaShawl

Monica’s Prayer Shawl

Do an online search for “prayer shawl ministry” and you will learn of two women who had attended and graduated from a Leadership Institude in Hartford, Connecticut in 1998.  They’d been in a program of applied Feminist Spirituality with Professor Miriam Therese Winter.  Professor Winter is a Roman Catholic nun (Medical Mission Sister) and an author and songwriter whose works are well worth exploring. These women, Janet Severi Bristow and Victoria Galo, combined compassion, prayer, and a love of fiber arts into a prayer ministry and spiritual practice. Their journey and ministry is described on the website, www.shawlministry.com.

Since then, prayer shawl patterns have been becoming more and more common.  Sure, it’s marketing, but I’m very glad to see this concept blossom in spite of the “secularization of America.”  Yarn manufacturers are designing simple patterns and actually calling them prayer shawl patterns.  Lion Brand Yarn(www.lionbrand.com) has a great assortment of knitted and crocheted prayer shawls.  Several books are available for crochet and knitted prayer shawls, and a “prayer shawl” search on the fiber lovers’ website www.ravelry.com yields (as of this writing) over 20,000 member projects tagged with the term “prayer shawl” or “prayershawl.”

What makes a prayer shawl a prayer shawl?  Intention.  Compassion.  Blessings, and of course, prayer.
The shawlmaker only needs basic crochet or knitting skills to do the work.  A shawl is begun with intention, with prayer and blessings for the recipient, and the shawlmaker may or may not know the recipient.  Shawls may be made with the intention that they will find the person who needs it most.  In other words, the Holy Spirit does the heavy lifting.  When the shawl is completed, the group (and anyone else who wants to join their prayers) may say a prayer for the recipient before sending it on its way.

Prayer shawls may be made for anyone – woman, man, girl or boy and they may be adapted according to the comfort of the recipient – a “prayer square” with a Cross (or Magen David) motif, or a small blanket  may be more appropriate for some than a shawl.  They may be made for someone going through medical treatment, for someone experiencing a loss, bereavement; a life-changing event (which can be joyous as well!), ordination…whatever!  A small cross or charm may be attached to the shawl, this is entirely optional.  Most ministries include a prayer with the shawl – and care instructions help, too!

No matter where you are with your craft, making a prayer shawl is a beautiful thing.  Your stitches don’t have to be perfect, just made with compassion and intention.  Remember that when you make a shawl (or blanket), you are, in a sense, joining the recipient on their journey one stitch at a time, one step at a time, one prayer at a time.

High Holy Days

I sing at our local Jewish temple, which is Temple Gates of Prayer in New Iberia, Louisiana.  This is a small congregation, deep in the primarily Christian area of south Louisiana.  The temple, over a hundred years old, is within walking distance of churches that are Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Church of Christ and Methodist Episcopal, with other denominations in the area (just not within walking distance).  I have sung there for over 10 years, and feel very blessed to do so.

Temple Gates of Prayer New Iberia Louisiana Temple Gates of Prayer, New Iberia, LA

When people learn this, they want to know how this Christian musician wound up singing at a Jewish church.  Just lucky, I say. I was in the right place at the right time when their previous vocalist retired, and I was willing (and excited) to tackle something new.

And so it was that I encountered a whole new world of music and of worship.  I learned the Sh’ma and the Bar’chu. I learned that while vowels weren’t exactly an afterthought in Hebrew,  they probably weren’t on the tablets that God gave Moses.  I also learned that different rabbis write transliterations (phonetic spellings) of the same word in many different ways!

I write this in the middle of High Holy Days, which encompass Rosh Hashana (the new year), Yom Kippur (Day of Attonement) and Shabbat Shuvah, which is the Shabbat that falls in between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  For Gates of Prayer, this time also marks the arrival of their new student rabbi.  As a small congregation, they are served by rabbinical students.  This year is extremely unusual as they have the same student as last year, Alex Kress.  (Most of the time there is a new student rabbi every year.)

This personnel change is unusual; most churchgoers, regardless of denomination, are used to having a spiritual leader for longer than 9 months at a time.  The rabbis may change, but the congregation must stand on its own as a community. They do so, and embrace each new rabbi with open arms and open hearts.  (This being south Louisiana, I must add “open kitchens” as well!) The rabbis become a part of the community, and I think they leave a part of themselves here.

Over the years, I’ve been asked questions members of my “Jewish church family” and my “regular church family” (and other curious souls).  I’ve often heard comments / questions about my level of participation in the service at Gates of Prayer.

“You read along with the prayers?” Yes, of course.  Prayers all go to God, regardless of where I’m standing when I pray.  The prayerbook I use doesn’t matter.  Prayer comes from the heart.

Perhaps the biggest lesson of the many I’ve learned from my years with Congregation Gates of Prayer is simply this: There is much more that draws us together than that which separates us.  We pray for peace, for compassion, for redemption and forgiveness. We pray for those we love, and we pray for help in loving those who may be hard to love.  We pray that we may be better people..  Being Christlike is doing (following) mitzvah.  Love God, do good, follow the commandments.

It’s all good.  It’s all God.