“My Lord, What a Mourning”:
Twenty Years Since Jonestown

by Mary R. Sawyer

(This piece is from a larger work in progress by the author. Mary R. Sawyer is an associate professor of Religious Studies and African American Studies at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. She is the author of Black Ecumenism: Implementing the Demands of Justice, Trinity Press, Intl., 1994.)

Those of us who had connections with Peoples Temple in the years when it was a vibrant social justice movement in San Francisco tried frantically in the weeks and months following the movement’s demise in Jonestown, Guyana, to make sense of that shocking event. I was assuredly not alone in subsequently abandoning that quest. Most of the individuals in my personal world did not care to talk about it, and those who were willing spoke of it from a highly prejudicial stance that had been inflamed by sensational media coverage. Indeed, most of America quickly was persuaded that those who had followed Jim Jones to Guyana to die in a mass homicide and suicide had to have been naive and gullible people at best, and demented radicals at worst. Amidst all the attention that was focused on Jim Jones, the people were accorded scarcely any respect as thinking, feeling, caring human beings.

At the time, those of us who knew better–those of us who had worked with the people of Peoples Temple in various capacities and had come to feel a strong sense of communion with them–could do little else than utter feeble protests: “But they were people just like you and me!” Healing from the grief and trauma of this incomparable loss has been long in coming, if it has come at all. Some have found healing and integrated the tragedy into their lives, but many still are reluctant to speak of the personal ties they had to the movement and its members, a circumstance that in large part is a consequence of the sense of shame generated by the demonizing and caricaturing of the movement’s leader and his followers by those who did not know them personally.

The dehumanizing of the victims of Jonestown by the journalistic community was tantamount to the withholding of permission to grieve. And America’s religious community–that vast potential reservoir of pastoral care–was unable to facilitate a proper grieving, either on the part of the families immediately effected or on the part of the nation, because they, too, did not know the people, and what we do not know in a personal way, we cannot mourn. Indeed, because of not knowing the people, the church and its national congregation could not begin to fathom how very much there was to mourn.

Martin Amos was a beautiful, precocious, biracial ten-year-old who loved books and plants. Annie Moore was the artistic daughter of a United Methodist minister who along with his wife had routinely included all three of their children in peace and civil rights demonstrations; Annie followed her older sister Carolyn into the movement. Archie and Rose Ijames and their children came to Peoples Temple searching for a church home that would welcome them as a black family. Richard Tropp was a Jew who had been in the South during the civil rights movement. Jynona Norwood was never a member, but her mother and 26 members of her extended family came out of black churches in San Francisco to join the Temple; all perished in Guyana. Today, Jynona and her son, both ministers in California, annually organize an anniversary service in memory of the victims of Jonestown. Marcie Jones had the most gentle, compassionate spirit of any woman I had ever met. She was the abused spouse of Jim; she was dearly loved by the Peoples Temple family.

Family is how the people of Peoples Temple understood themselves. As in every family, there was diversity, and as the family grew, the diversity shifted. Peoples Temple started in the 1950s as a small, racially integrated congregation in Indiana known as “Community Unity.”

It later affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), changed its name to Peoples Temple, and relocated to Redwood Valley, California in 1965. At that time, the membership was approximately one-third black and two-thirds white. The white membership grew in the remaining years of the decade as idealistic young people who had been influenced by the civil rights, peace, and counter culture movements found a home and a purpose in Peoples Temple. Several of these individuals who shared with Jim Jones a passionate commitment to socialist communalism and racial equality became key members of the planning commission that constituted the movement’s leadership.

Beginning in 1968, the Temple initiated an aggressive campaign to bring more black members into the movement. In 1970, a church building was purchased in San Francisco and within a short time the membership grew to three thousand, with the numbers of visitors swelling to thousands more. At its peak, over eighty percent of the Peoples Temple movement was African American. Most of these members came out of the black Christian tradition, and many of them were elderly women who were life-long church-goers. One after another, they were drawn to the movement not only because of its leader’s vision of a racially integrated and economically equitable community, but because they experienced a love and an acceptance in Peoples Temple unparalleled in their life journeys in the larger society.

What this profile means is that the labels of “cult” and “sect” which were so readily attached to this movement obscured more than they revealed. While the labels arguably apply to Jim Jones and to the leadership of Peoples Temple, their validity is limited insofar as the membership itself is concerned. Indeed, one is disposed to speak of the “church” that existed within Peoples Temple, even as the larger structure degenerated into an unthinkably destructive and abusive organization.

It has been perplexing to me that even those early journalistic and scholarly accounts of Jonestown and Peoples Temple that did acknowledge the racial composition of the movement, ignored the significance of the people’s religious roots. It is perplexing, because such a high proportion of the members of Peoples Temple were African American, and few African Americans, whether churched or unchurched, grow up in this country without being touched to their core by the essence of black religiosity. It is perplexing, because our country had just come through the contemporary civil rights movement–a movement led by the black church, and a movement that had put the matter of racial justice on the national agenda and on the conscience of the white church.

What has become evident to me as I speak to survivors and to fellow travelers during the movement’s years in San Francisco is that participants in the movement “kept the faith” in a multitude of ways. Some black members kept the faith of orthodoxy–the faith that Jesus was Lord and Savior, the faith that God had sent a servant to lead the people out of bondage in biblical times and would do so again, the faith that all people were the children of God and ought to be accorded equal privileges and opportunities. Other members–black and white–who were driven by secular ideals of racial harmony and socialist communalism lived out the social mandates of the gospel in the extraordinary political and social service programs that they conducted through Peoples Temple. It was this public modeling of “church” that gained so much support for the Temple from government officials, church officials, the black press, and individuals like myself.

Untold numbers of us who were in the San Francisco area at the height of Peoples Temple’s activity experienced the movement as “church.” A voice that comes to me across the chasm of time is that of Mervyn Dymally, lieutenant governor from 1974 to 1978 of the State of California. I remember him exclaiming to me, following one of his visits to Peoples Temple, “This is what church ought to be about–community and a concern for social justice. Peoples Temple,” he said, “is a real church.”

That Peoples Temple was “real church” to Carlton Goodlett and Thomas Fleming, the publisher and editor respectively of The Sun Reporter, the largest black newspaper in the Bay Area, was attested in their laudatory editorials on behalf of the Temple. In like fashion, recent conversations reaffirm that it was “real church” to Donneter Lane, the executive director of the San Francisco Council of Churches during the mid-1970s.

Conservative black ministers initially embraced Jim Jones as a gospel-preaching “brother,” disregarding his genetic whiteness in the face of his public ministry to “the least of these,” but subsequently became hostile as members of their churches left for Peoples Temple. A few of the progressive black ministers in the Bay Area were skeptical of Jones, but others were laudatory of his ministry and the work of the Temple. A letter written to Jim Jones by one representative of this group eloquently and poignantly reminds us of what many saw in the movement:

Dear Pastor Jones,

More than anyone of us in the ministry, I can truthfully say that you and your members live courageously and dramatically in deep action programs which reflect the spirit and work of Jesus Christ. Like our Savior, you identify with the plight of the poor. Like Amos, you are a prophetic voice crying out for justice. Like Moses, you are a respected leader of the masses. If the Pharoahs of our time endeavor to discredit your deep devotion toward correcting the evils of our day, it is because their status quo power legitimizes oppressive power and conscienceless expediency. Know full well that truth which is crushed to earth shall rise up again. If either (our) church or (I) can lend the stubborn ounces of (our) weight to support you and Peoples Temple, please issue the Macedonia call.

Some of us perceived Peoples Temple to be church not only on the basis of its social gospel-type programs and projects, but on the basis of the spiritual support we drew from the Temple’s services–which always had the ambience of black church services–and from the fellowship we experienced with the members. Among the progressive politicians, black and white, who left mass meetings at the Temple inspired and rejuvenated was San Francisco gay rights leader and board of supervisor member Harvey Milk who, along with Mayor George Moscone, would himself fall to an assassin’s bullet a scant ten days after the Jonestown holocaust. Wrote Milk, following one such visit: “Rev Jim, It may take me many a day to come back down from the high that I reach today. I found something dear today. I found a sense of being that makes up for all the hours and energy placed in a fight. I found what you wanted me to find. I shall be back. For I can never leave.”

Although I never met Jim Jones in person, my own experience with the Temple community was akin to Milk’s. I had first met Lt. Governor Dymally while conducting research on the emerging problem of harassment of black elected officials, a pattern that was becoming all too evident a decade following the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Governor Dymally, whose staff I subsequently joined, referred me to Peoples Temple as a group that would likely help support my research. They did–along with the Women’s Division of the United Methodist Church and precious few other entities. In the course of working with Temple staff members on this project, they became an important support group not only politically but emotionally. The space of Peoples Temple became a sanctuary to which I more than once retreated from the harsh and frightening realities of the external political world which included police and FBI assaults on militant social activists.

The horrifying irony, of course, is that we were unaware of the harsh and frightening realities of what was taking place inside the organization out of our sight and hearing. When rumors and allegations of abusive activity did become public, and members of the Temple appoached us seeking advice, Dymally and I replied, “If you have nothing to hide, the best policy is an open door.” Little did we know what was being hidden. Much have we had to grieve.

Peoples Temple was, for myself and not a few others, an extension of the then-recently deceased civil rights movement. If for no other reason than this, I have been unable to deny my brothers and sisters in Peoples Temple–neither the general membership, not the predominantly white leadership–for I, too, was a white activist in the 1960s and ’70s, and I, too, was seeking to carry on the spirit of the larger movement.

Indeed, the civil rights movement was the most profound, most formative religious experience of my life. Still today, the sustaining of an interest in matters of social justice, and particularly racial justice, is in some sense an act of preserving the cosmogonic nature of that experience, of reclaiming over and over again the lucidity and integrity of that extraordinary moment of purpose and possibility that we knew in illo tempore. I think it was not otherwise for many of the white members of the leadership team who had dedicated their lives to the pursuit of justice, and believed they had found in the Peoples Temple movement the vehicle and the community for fulfilling that commitment. If Peoples Temple, for them, was not a religious endeavor in a conventional sense, it certainly served as a functional alternative to religion.

Just as I have grieved the passing of the larger civil rights movement, so, for these nearly twenty years, I have mourned the death of this smaller civil rights movement and mourned its having become so encrusted in the misguidedness of its leader that the civil rights of so many–including 260 precious children–were fatally violated.

But perhaps the biggest heartache of all is that our country and our churches still have not sought an answer to the question of why the people joined this movement, and so still have not discerned the central lesson of Jonestown. Why, indeed, were white idealists and black Christians drawn to a movement that promised them sanctuary from America’s failure to honor her promises of equality and justice?

As the decade of the 1970s was coming to a close, Vincent Harding wrote an essay in which he reflected about the state of the black religious community generally. In a portion of this reflection which he entitled, “My Lord, What a Mourning, Jonestown is America,” he wrote,

The horrible tragedy of Jonestown and the degradation and destruction of so many of our people should not allow us to forget the essential message that still remains: Nothing in the arid materialism and individualism of the 1970s has eliminated the fundamental hungers in the human spirit for a deep sense of a caring, responsible, disciplined community and a great human cause to which a person may give himself or herself at the risk of “life, possessions, security, and status.” Indeed, perhaps we have learned again that people become truly human only as such hungers are fed” (The Other American Revolution, 1980).

The people of Peoples Temple had a great cause. They knew, for all of their leader’s deceit and heresy, that Jim Jones spoke a truth, and that truth was that America’s “self-evident” principles were not evident in practice. In despair that it would ever be otherwise, they sought to build a community in another land, and then, having been led to believe that their community was threatened by the same forces that violated the principles they held dear, they chose to die–as a community.

Nearly twenty years later, we seem scarcely any closer to the kind of societal transformation that would obviate the need for a Peoples Temple. People are still hungering. And they are still unfed.

They are in our prisons. They are in our drug- and violence-ridden central cities. They are in homeless shelters and soup kitchens. They are in the AIDS wards, unable to purchase life-prolonging medications.

They are also in scripturally-shallow movements that promise racial inclusiveness without racial parity. They are in gospel-impoverished churches that endorse the prosperity of capitalism for some and reject social and human rights for others. And they are in militia groups that tout white supremacy and raise the spectre of fascism.

They are in governmental bodies that act in fear and resentment to abolish affirmative action. They are in corporate board rooms where living wages are taken from some and slave wages given to others. They are in the military bastions where sabers rattle and plowshares go unfunded.

Those who hunger–those who seek nourishment in the midst of the “arid materialism and individualism” of the 1990s–are the descendants of Martin and Marcie and Carolyn and Annie and Michael and Robert and all the others who died trying to fill their hunger for a better world. Now, as then, some are struggling to merely survive. Now, as then, some are being led into death instead of life. Now, as then, prophetic voices of integrity are all too few, and all too faint.

My Lord. What a mourning.

Last modified on March 21st, 2014.
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