Surrender 139: Joplin’s Butterfly Sculptures 

I’ve been aware, this past month, of the large sculptures that have been quietly appearing around Joplin. There are 22 of them. Area businesses, including Missouri Southern State University, Mercy Hospital, The Joplin Globe, The Joplin Chamber of Commerce and Mason Woodard Mortuary have these uniquely beautiful butterflies mounted on their lawns. 


This week marks a big anniversary in the Joplin and Duquesne areas. Five years ago, on Sunday May 22, one of history’s biggest and most destructive tornadoes tore through both communities, leaving devastation in its wake. Thousands of homes and businesses and vehicles were destroyed. Trees were uprooted or, left standing, stripped of leaves, twigs and bark. In places even the grass was ripped from the ground and the earth gouged. One hundred and sixty one people lost their lives…men, women and children. 

It’s not an anniversary to celebrate, per se, but a time of remembrance…a time of appreciating a community that has rebuilt and grown strong…a time of recognizing the tremendous efforts of more than a hundred thousand volunteers. There are many activities connected to the 5th anniversary this week, grouped under the banner of Joplin Proud. I’ll be mindfully attending several of those events. 


In the aftermath of the EF5 tornado, the butterfly became an important symbol in Joplin, for two reasons:

As stories were told by survivors, one story in particular was repeated over and over, especially by children. As the deadly storm approached, many kids, and some adults, reported seeing large “butterfly people” appear above them, their wings spread as a protective covering over them and their families. These protectors disappeared as the tornado passed by, leaving people shaken but safe. 

There has been a great deal of speculation about who the butterfly people were, however the most accepted theory is that these were angels. Many other people reported being helped by tall men in bright, white clothing…men who later vanished. But the children saw huge butterflies. Perhaps because butterflies are not scary, perhaps to reassure the kids, these youngest storm victims saw something marvelous and beautiful. Whatever extraordinary beings people saw, the ultimate result was the same…protection and assistance. 


And the butterfly is a symbol of change, of transformation through the process of metamorphosis. The caterpillar uses massive amounts of energy to literally change form, to emerge as a beautiful and wondrous new creature. Imagine life changing to such an extreme that you are unrecognizable at the end of the transformation. 

Southern Joplin was unrecognizable after the initial, negative transformation, brought about by a massive force of nature. My first thought as I emerged from my battered house was that a bomb had been dropped on us. My neighborhood was gone. Houses, or pieces of them, blocked the streets. Explosions erupted from busted gas pipes. Trees lay broken in yards, cars were twisted or flattened hunks of metal. Debris was everywhere. I stood in the silence, eerie after the roar of the tornado and the unforgettable sounds of the world shuddering apart, more shocked than I have ever been in my life. 


My community immediately sprang into action, even as rain continued to fall, clearing roads for emergency vehicles, boarding up broken windows, searching through piles of lumber where houses once stood, hoping to find survivors. Volunteers poured into Joplin and Duquense from around the world. For days sirens never ceased to wail as rescue operations continued. And for months and months, the hopeful sound of saws and hammers filled the air as rebuilding began. 

Five years later, we are a community transformed by the power of love. We have emerged, a new creation. There is still building going on. We have more work to do. And we have things yet to repair, in a physical sense and in deeply emotional ways. But our spirit is strong. 

The butterfly is our symbol. Like that amazing creature’s transformation, it has taken massive amounts of energy to bring Joplin through her metamorphosis. And like the butterfly who has just emerged from her cocoon, we are flexing our wings, preparing to soar, rising with those very winds of change. 

We are Joplin Proud, indeed. 

Journey 142: Remembering

st johns memorial chapel

I knew when I woke up this morning, that it wasn’t an ordinary Friday. As I moved from light slumber to full consciousness, I was immediately aware of a heaviness in the room, crowding me. It was overcast outside, not as light as it should have been, but that didn’t account for the somber stillness in the room.

And then I remembered….it was May 22. It all made sense then. Four years ago today, Joplin and its neighboring community of Duquesne were devastated by an EF-5 tornado that cut a path of destruction through the southern part of the city. In its wake lay the rubble of thousands of homes and businesses, piles of twisted cars and trucks, trees pulled from the ground or, if left standing, stripped of leaves, small branches and bark. Big box stores such as Wal-mart, Home Depot and Academy Sports were gone or severely damaged. St. John’s hospital was ravaged, as was the high school and numerous restaurants, churches, elementary schools and parks. One hundred and sixty one people lost their lives….men, women, children.

st johns memorial tornado tree

Our funny looking trees that survived the tornado

As I got ready for the day, I pondered the heaviness that I felt. I am intuitive and empathic, gifts since birth. I wasn’t just feeling sad, remembering the day. I was feeling the accumulated emotion of hundreds of people in the Joplin area, and beyond, who were feeling grief and sadness….who were remembering. I realized it must be a phenomenon created by the great disruption of energy, accompanied by intense fear and loss. And the loss was so massive, of life, of pets, of possessions.

I moved through my day, as I normally would, but with my awareness heightened, my emotions just beneath the surface, remembering as well. I took shelter during the tornado. I felt the house shudder and buck under the impact of wind and debris, windows shattering. I heard the horrific noise of my neighborhood being torn apart.  I felt intense concern for my family members, and relief as one by one, they were accounted for. I hurried into the next block, with my heart pounding, to my youngest child’s house, or what was left of it, and felt the greatest of gratitude when I saw her standing in her yard, wrapped in a blanket. I don’t believe anyone living in Joplin that day was left untouched by what happened. The upheaval of the city shifted and changed lives.

st johns memorial vacant lot

A vacant lot where a house once stood

My path this morning criss-crossed through the tornado zone. I continue to live within the area.  In the four years since the storm, I’ve grown accustomed to the sights and sounds of re-building, the vacant lots, which are decreasing in number, the funny looking tornado trees, as I call them. I was more mindful today, as I drove. On a corner a new bank is being built. Apartment buildings are going up nearby. New houses are filling in my neighborhood. Everywhere there were signs of growth, progress, rebirth. I cruised slowly through the area, really looking, carrying that collective heaviness like a weight on my shoulders and chest.

st johns memorial commercial construction

st johns memorial new construction

After a wonderful time this afternoon, spent with my grandson Dayan watching Dr. Who, I returned to Joplin and after a quick stop at home, headed out again. I was very aware of the time…5:20…the time the tornado struck. I knew where I wanted to go, to spend a few moments reflecting and releasing. I had not visited this place yet. It was calling to me.

On the old site of St. John’s hospital is a newly erected memorial. The hospital has relocated to just south of Joplin, and opened its doors in March of this year. The St. John’s Mercy Memorial Garden has a beautiful, spacious pavilion standing on the exact location of the former hospital’s chapel. High atop a grassy knoll, the serene space overlooks the newly restored Cunningham Park to the north, with its children’s play areas, memorials and the Butterfly Garden, and the new Irving Elementary School to the south. To the east are neighborhoods of newly constructed houses, testaments to the strength of Joplin in overcoming this tragedy. And to the west, where once there stood a vast medical community, there are empty spaces being reclaimed by grasses and nature. Perhaps, someday, buildings will stand there again.

st johns memorial cunningham park

Cunningham Park

I sat, alone, in this sacred place. Four years ago, the tornado would have just passed this place, leaving devastation behind. Closing my eyes, I could hear the roar of the wind and the sounds of breaking glass and screaming metal. I let that old energy rise within me and pass on through. There followed the cries of hundreds of people, in pain, in shock, in sorrow, accompanied by the persistent wail of sirens. I let those too pass through me. My emotions rose, briefly, fiercely…and they moved through. At last, there was silence. My shoulders, neck, head, jaws and chest hurt. The weight grew heavy indeed, pressing me into the bench. And yet, in that deep silent heaviness, I began to feel pools of hope. Alert, I opened to more. Eddies of life, currents of faith, pockets of healing were there, beneath the sorrow.

st johns memorial roof

Beneath the pavilion

I breathed deeply and let it all pass through….the fear, the grief, the despair….and then hope, the ability to prevail, the spirit of unity…and Life. Beneath it all….Life. When I stood, the heaviness and pain had eased, carried away with the cool breezes swirling around me. I walked to the four sides of the pavilion and looked out in each direction over Joplin, my home, my community. I sent out love and gratitude and blessing. And peace. The wind brought back silence to me, and deep, sustaining peace in return. It was time to go home.

st johns memorial irving school

Irving Elementary School