Jonestown: Catalyst for Social Change

by Robert B. Moore

(Ed. note: Bob Moore lost two nieces to the Jonestown tragedy: Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore. He and his wife Doris responded to the tragedy in a unique way, however. They became peace activists in their local community of Redlands, California. Their activism led them on a peace mission in the Soviet Union, and to an unforgettable experience. This essay appeared in The Need For A Second Look at Jonestown, ed. Rebecca Moore and Fielding M. McGehee III (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989).)


On Saturday evening, November 18, 1978, my wife Doris and I sat watching “Lifeline,” a medical series which that evening showed the birth of a baby. I had never witnessed such an event.

About ten minutes to eleven, the preview of the up-coming news told of dramatic happenings in Guyana, on the northern coast of South America. There were unconfirmed reports that a U.S. Congressman from the San Francisco area, Leo Ryan, had been shot, and possibly killed by members of a religious commune. Doris and I looked at each other, knowing of our nieces’ involvement in the Peoples Temple there.

We were not worried for Carolyn’s and Annie’s safety. There was no reason to be. In any group of any size there may be a fanatical fringe. Those responsible for the tragedy would be apprehended.

The next afternoon came word over the car radio about stories of mass suicide in Jonestown. My response was pure disbelief. Irresponsible rumors! They persisted into the late evening news, however, and I went to bed worried, worried especially about my brother John and his wife Barbara. Their daughters were the ones living in Guyana.

By Monday the rumors had been confirmed. Although anxious, Doris and I were sure Carolyn and Annie would be in the jungle, having fled the madness. Doris called the White House in Washington, D.C., to encourage the search for survivors. I remember worrying about snakes. Perhaps our nieces were safe in a friendly Indian village.

As the week went along, and the body count increased, our worries deepened. I decided to fly to be with John and Barbara in Reno the day after Thanksgiving. By that Friday, I had come to believe the worst. Too much time had passed without news of survivors. About noon that day word came that several hundred more bodies had been found. It was clear that almost no one survived. The worst fears were now fact. John and I were in the kitchen getting something to eat. I recall standing at the refrigerator with the door open, looking inside at the food, fighting back tears. I had been dismayed thinking about some problems in the raising of our family. What hope is there if something like this can happen to people like John and Barbara, people who have lived their lives trying to serve God and God’s people who were victims of suffering and injustice in life. How could such a family deserve this?

I said to my brother, through my tears, “There are no guarantees in life, are there, John?”

“No,” he said, “There aren’t.”

Understanding undeserved suffering was a problem for me, as for so many others. The problem was God. How could He allow such cataclysmic things to happen?

We were not prepared for Jonestown. In addition to shock, horror, and disbelief, there followed tremendous grief and empathy for John and Barbara and their surviving daughter Becky. I experienced anger, too, as to how Carolyn and Annie could hurt these people.

I also experienced guilt. Carolyn had lived with my parents — her grandparents — and myself for a few months in Long Beach, California, when she was a tiny girl. I still have a snapshot of her peering over the dining room table at home. Now I wonder what was going on behind those eyes even at that early age. Had I said or done something to hurt her at that formative stage?

When she was about five or six, there was a family dinner at Barbara’s folks’ home in Alhambra. I remember putting a collapsible fork at Carolyn’s place, something a loving uncle would do as a tease. Sure enough, she fell for it. Everyone laughed. The joke turned sour, though, when Carolyn fled the room in tears. So now I have to wonder if I am responsible, in part, for what happened so many years later?

We were upheld and strengthened after the tragedy by countless friends and loved ones, as were John and Barbara. A number of letters came: “There are no words to express our feelings as we received news of the sad events in November. We have been praying that the Lord would provide peace and understanding and help you to sustain. We shared with our [spiritual] growth group and all have been praying daily for John and Barbara and the whole family.”

Most struggled for words at “a tragedy so profound.” Some had insights: “We do have a long way to go on the road to human tenderness, for there is still hunger and war and tragedy all around.” And another, “It was such a horrible mess it is almost too painful to mention.”

Our relatives had mixed reactions. One, at a distance from California, wrote that she objected to the newspapers naming names. She was relieved that “no association with the incident has been made with the family here.” Another wrote that “We are surely shocked and horrified… We talk of it constantly, just between ourselves…; but not to anyone else.”

I can well understand the reluctance to have it known that one was connected with this incredible event and “insane” group of people. However, Doris and I decided to share the news with family and friends across the country in our annual Christmas letter. A Canadian friend from seminary days wrote in response, “I appreciate your openness in sharing this burden with us.”

On Tuesday, November 21, 1978 — with the news from Guyana still sketchy and the shock wave still building — I attended my weekly Kiwanis Club meeting in Redlands. Walking from the parking lot to the meeting hall, I struggled within myself. “Should I share this with them? No, it’s too shocking and embarrassing. Yes, they should know these people were human beings, much like ourselves.”

I asked the president if I might have a minute at the beginning of the meeting. I explained to the men our family relationship and asked for their prayers. There was universal shock and bewilderment. There were also expressions of sympathy, then and later.

The decision made so quickly that day opened doors that I had not anticipated. Because of what followed, I have never regretted making the choice to be open about our connection to the tragedy. It would not necessarily be the right decision for everyone, but it was for us. I believe many people were helped in problems they faced because of hearing about Peoples Temple and the catastrophe on a deeper level.

Our local newspaper sent a reporter to interview Doris and myself. Jan Michaels Englebretson visited with us in our living room for two hours, took no notes, and wrote an excellent, accurate, and sensitive account. She wrote a high-quality follow-up story on the first anniversary as well. The Daily Facts also published an understanding editorial on December 4, 1978 entitled “Father Pays Tribute.” It contained excerpts from a sermon John preached which had been made available to the paper.

As the community became aware of our willingness to discuss Jonestown, invitations to speak came from churches, area ministers’ councils, a local college and other groups. I was interviewed and questioned by callers on Carol Hemingway’s talk show on KABC in Los Angeles one Sunday evening.

The sharing was therapeutic. However, the inner turmoil was very deep. The problems of evil and undeserved suffering wouldn’t go away. The hell that was Jonestown was overwhelming.

When the family met in Reno in early December for the memorial service, we gathered around the dining room table at John and Barbara’s for our evening meal together. The table was filled with food from wounded and caring friends. In a talk I was asked to give at the Redlands Kiwanis Club a few weeks later, I said: “You who have been visited by death, heartache, tragedies of sorts, know this power of love as loved ones gather around- as we did in Reno at the time of the memorial service. At grace before dinner, standing around the table holding hands that evening, John offered the prayer, thanking God for the lives of Carolyn, Annie, and Carolyn’s four-year-old son Kimo. He spoke through his short sobs, and he wasn’t alone in the tears. But in the ashes of those moments we powerfully felt the gift of divine and eternal love.”

Both at that time, and ever since, while wrestling with the problem of evil’s victories in this life, I have had the profound conviction of the greater and eternal power of God’s mysterious, but real, love. That moment that evening will always be remembered as a moment of grace.

*

I have shared the story of our family’s involvement in Jonestown with my “Religion in America” classes at Valley College in San Bernardino, California, every semester since the tragedy. Students almost universally have been kind and sympathetic. Unintended, there has been personal therapy for me as well. Several students have also had family or friends who died in Jonestown. One gave me a program of the memorial service for her beloved granddaughter Dee Dee, an electrocardiogram technician in the Jonestown community.

Two U.S. Air Force personnel told of their involvement in the bodylift from Guyana to the United States. As pictures were shown in class, one recognized his helicopter. He was uncomfortable in talking about his experience. He did say that what he saw there made him physically ill. In particular, he said, he could not get over the deaths of all the children.

The other airman was stationed in Korea and received orders to go on an unknown mission in November 1978. He and the others were not told the nature of the mission. They arrived at the compound and were horrified at what they saw. They thought there must have been a disastrous chemical or nuclear accident. Traumatized by his experience, he later read all he could, to try and understand these people.

As we were talking about how intelligent, well-meaning people could follow a leader so blindly, one student said, “Oh, I can understand that. Millions of us followed Adolf Hitler.” She was a German-American immigrant who came to this country in the 1950s. Born in the 1920s, she was in the Hitler Youth movement and later served in the German Navy during the war. She spoke movingly of all Hitler had done for her people and her country in a time of great personal and national suffering. She, and they, worshipped him, even to the time of his death. I asked her what her reaction was when she learned he had died. She said, “Disbelief and grief. I prayed for him.”

Other students demonstrated great insight into the Temple. They were “so far down in worry and pain…” “Some never knew freedom, others forgot what it meant…” The Temple was “sort of a sanctuary away from the stifling hopelessness that can overwhelm a people of meager means…” “This could have happened to tell the world to wake up and do something about the problems we have…”

And one student wrote the following letter:

…The first thing that came to my mind when I read and saw what had happen, what could I do that I hadn’t done to help more people in our society? Have I failed God, my fellowman in any way to cause some harm? Have I not taken a stand when I should have? Is there more I can do now to help this not happening again?

The next thoughts that came to me were: my daughters, my sons and also my husband could have been killed in Jonestown. In fact our whole family (including me) could have been part of the horror that took place.

May I say to you now that your family don’t need to ever dwell on what happen to Annie, Carolyn and Jim-Jon because your family were and is a good strong family. You have to be to handle the situations you had to deal with.

You can be proud of Annie and Carolyn because they were doing what they thought would help people who were in need. They gave of themselves the way Jesus would have done and they did a lot of good. I think you can be proud even though I understand how you feel of the way those lovely daughters and rest of the people that lost their lives, was a waste. I do believe we can learn and make progress from what did happen…

*

It took the Jonestown tragedy to lead me into peace activism, and in a strange way, the Redlands Peace Group is the product of that incredible disaster. In his anguish, John included these thoughts in his sermon the Sunday following the tragedy:

“The forces of life and death, building and destroying were present in Peoples Temple. Death reigned when there was no one free enough, nor strong enough, nor filled with rage enough to run and throw his body against a vat of cyanide, spilling it on the ground. Are there people free enough and strong enough who will throw themselves against the vats of nuclear stockpiles for the sake of the world? Without such people, hundreds of millions of human beings will consume the nuclear cyanide, and it will be murder. Our acquiescence in our own death will make it suicide.”

John’s words ate at my heart and conscience for a year. Already concerned about the suicidal arms race, but wondering what one person could do, a verse from the Bible spoke to me: “What is required of a servant but that he (she) be found faithful.” Not successful, not effective, but faithful.

In November 1979, Doris and I invited interested persons to our home, persons who wanted to try and do something to stop the arms race. About 20 came. We were startled at the turnout, since we had expected perhaps four or five persons.

We met again in January 1980, and regularly after that. We called ourselves the Redlands Peace Group. Eight years later, RPG continues to meet and to work for peace in our community and in our world.

Our principal activities have focused on the educational. Speakers at the monthly meetings, which have averaged 25 to 30 people in attendance, address such issues as the arms race, the threat of nuclear war, Soviet-American relations, domestic military spending, problems in the Middle East and Latin America, and so on. We have also arranged several community-wide meetings. At a May 1980 forum on “Peace and National Defense” at our Redlands retirement community, Plymouth Village, speakers came from the University of Redlands, Norton Air Force Base near San Bernardino, and the TRW company.

The most successful conference in terms of numbers was the “Southern California Peace Conference” held at the University of Redlands in February 1981. About 275 persons attended workshops and heard speakers, including William Sloane Coffin, minister of the Riverside Church in New York City.

The Peace Group encourages public witnesses. Several times information booths have been set up at the Redlands Mall. For several months, and joining a national witness, the RPG participated in one-hour “silent vigils” on Sundays following church on the steps of City Hall. In protest of a congressional vote for further Contra aid in Nicaragua, an outdoor worship service was held one afternoon in the small city park on the main street of the business district. The local theater was reserved, and the public invited, for a special screening of “Testament,” an anti-nuclear war film starring Jane Alexander. Afterwards, several of the people in attendance went to a nearby church to discuss the movie. We have joined with other peace activists in vigils at Norton Air Force Base and TRW, ten miles away in San Bernardino. One featured the release of red, white and blue balloons coordinated with the air base in order not to interfere with incoming planes.

RPG has sought to make information available to people in the community. Draft information, prepared by the Cantor of the San Bernardino synagogue, was sent to over 200 clergy. There have been gifts of books and magazines to local libraries.

We also set up a Peace Resources Library at the First United Methodist Church of Redlands. It contains books, journals, tapes and poster displays available on loan to area schools, churches and other interested groups. Items that the Redlands Public Library feels it could not fund or house can be found in the RPG Library: specialized journals such as Fellowship by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, The Friends Journal, Nuclear Times and Soviet Life. A gift subscription for the last publication was offered to the public library but was rejected as being propaganda which might be misinterpreted by young people.

The RPG encourages “networking” with other peace groups, such as the FOR, World Federalists, United Nations Association, WAND, Amnesty International, Bread for the World, the Quakers, and Beyond War. We also made attempts to arrange a sister city relationship between Redlands and a Soviet city, but met with no success. With glasnost prevalent, we may try again.

While involvement in the peace movement is often heavy and serious, it can, and should, be fun as well. We have set up a booth at our local park at the time of the city’s traditional July 4th festivities. It’s a joyful time; we have emphasized the celebration of life and freedom, with themes like “Patriots for Peace.” We make literature, buttons, bumper stickers, and UNICEF gifts available, and provide children with paper and crayons to draw pictures with peace themes. It’s upbeat and happy.

A major service of the Redlands Peace Group is the publication of the monthly newsletter, Peace Action, of which I serve as editor. In 1988 its circulation reached 400. It contains information about local and national resources and activities. Emphasis is placed upon answers to the question, “What can I do?” Most who read Peace Action do not attend the RPG monthly meetings. Its purpose is not to promote attendance, nor to solicit donations. Rather, it is designed to provide information and inspiration to enable the reader to respond in his or her own way to the needs of peace.

Time and again, the “ripple effect” has become apparent. Drop a pebble in the water, and the results move far beyond what might be expected. A Christian minister from Ohio read in the Disciples of Christ Peace Fellowship newsletter about a Peace Action item I had written critiquing a Reader’s Digest article which charged that the peace movement was “orchestrated by the KGB.” The minister requested a copy of Peace Action to make available for his congregation. The Universities of Kansas and Wisconsin, which have research collections on public issues and grass roots organizations, are now regular subscribers to Peace Action.

*

When Bill Somers, one of the most faithful RPG supporters, died, a scholarship fund was established in his honor at Redlands High School. The fund was set up with the following stipulations: “A $100 per year scholarship will be awarded a college-bound senior high school student, with an acceptable G.P.A., who is motivated and qualified to consider seriously a career in peace studies or international relations. Economic need shall not be a consideration.”

The first recipient in 1987 was a young black woman who began her college career that fall at Tufts University in Boston. She plans to major in international law. Bill would have been pleased.

The Somers Scholarship was especially important because, of all the scores of scholarships, not one recognized the value of international relations as a future career. The fund will be replenished by other donors and will not only help specific students thus honored, but will continue to be a reminder that we are all a part of one world.

From time to time people write and tell us of their appreciation for the work of Redlands Peace Group. A college English teacher wrote “Thank you as you sustain your pro-peace efforts from month to month despite discouraging odds.”

*

If RPG has come out of Jonestown, then it is also true that our 1985 trip on the Volga Peace Cruise in the Soviet Union came out of our work with RPG. But Jonestown provided us with a more direct link to our understanding of the Russian people, to their government, and, by extension, to ourselves. We do not believe in the communist system; we believe that the USSR does evil things. But we do not believe that the Russians are essentially any more evil than we are. Those who took their lives in Jonestown did an evil thing. But they were basically decent people of our common mold.

Prior to our trip I wrote in Peace Action that Doris and I would like to take a quilt to Russia as a gift for a church or peace group there. A long-time friend, the Rev. Percy Walley, of Harcourt, Iowa, responded. He located a group of women who were willing to take on the project.

Eighteen persons met to discuss it. They defined their purposes as: “(1) to make concrete our concern over the escalating arms race and predictions of global nuclear war; (2) to make concrete our determination as ordinary people, to extend the hand of friendship to ordinary people in the Soviet Union; and (3) to have a good time doing a community project together.” Ultimately 35 people volunteered to make a pieced or appliqued or embroidered one-by-one foot square. Once the blocks were finished, Evelyn Lathrop assembled them and stitched them together for quilting. Fifteen persons were involved in the quilting process. The women’s groups of the Burnside Baptist and Lutheran churches, and of the United Methodist Churches of Lehigh, Lundgren, and Otho contributed funds to buy materials for the quilt.

We were excited to hear from Percy Walley when the quilt was finished. “We have been so pleased with the response to the project. There have been fifty persons directly involved in making it. There are others who have taken pictures, written news stories, and still others who furnished snacks and drinks during the quilting sessions. There will be others involved when the community dedication service is held this spring.”

In May of 1985 the quilt arrived in our home in Redlands. As we opened the package in our living room that afternoon, Doris and I were overwhelmed by its beauty. The creativity of the blocks represented Iowa, and a world at peace. It was a sacred moment when we realized what these ordinary people had done.

Doris packed it carefully for the trip. Two months later, while traveling on the Volga River through Soviet farmlands at dusk one July evening on the cruise ship Alexander Pushkin, we displayed the quilt and told its story to our fellow Americans and our Russian hosts. They were greatly moved. One Intourist guide who had doubtless seen just about everything by now, had tears in her eyes.

The quilt was presented to the Peace Committee in Volgograd, the former heroic city of Stalingrad. It now hangs on a wall in the Friendship House, a symbol of the potential unity of the common people of both countries.

There were many other valuable experiences we had in the Soviet Union. It has been good to share them with individuals and groups here at home, as well as with my classes at Valley College. Perhaps my recollections helped some people call some of their stereotypes into question. For example, one Sunday morning at the annual international breakfast at our Baptist Church, I wore my black rabbit fur hat from Russia as I served small Russian pancakes. A 10-year-old ate some pancakes, liked them, and came back for more. As we talked she learned that Doris and I — her big-people friends — had been to Russia. She looked dumbfounded. She remarked, “I thought they killed everyone who went there.” We spoke at a nearby intermediate school, and showed our slides. Some of the children wrote back. One said, “I learned a lot about Russia that I didn’t know. I thought that Russia was out to kill!”

*

I have one final story to tell that comes from our trip to the Soviet Union. It relates in an unusual way to the tragedy at Jonestown, and to the hopes and dreams for the world which Carolyn and Annie had.

Ludmila, a member of the official Soviet Peace Committee, was with us for ten days on the Volga Peace Cruise. She is a professor of history at Moscow State University. She is about 50, short, neatly groomed, intelligent, with a quick wit, sparkling eyes and a contagious smile.

That summer she became our friend. She is a Russian Communist but, as far as Doris and I are concerned, not our enemy. In fact, we believers think in some strange way that God was very present in our encounter with this non-believer. Not only in the encounter, but in Ludmila herself.

Kazan, the ancient Tatar capital several hundred miles east of Moscow, was the termination point of our Volga Peace Cruise and the last stop for our cruise ship, Alexander Pushkin. Our Intourist buses gave us a tour of the city, highlighted by a walk through the Kazan Kremlin fortress which dated back centuries. It was here Ivan the Terrible drove out the Tatar conquerors.

Our last stop before returning to the ship was at a monument in a city park. It was simple, a sheer stainless steel column, perhaps 100 feet tall, dedicated to the memory of Lenin. As I approached it, I noticed Ludmila by my side.

As we watched the changing of the young honor guard at the obelisk together, she said to me in her soft voice, “I understand some of you Americans do not like to see that.” My first reply was, “Well, you have more military honor guards at your many memorials than we have back home. I’ve traveled a good deal in America and have seen them only at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C.” Later I remembered the guard at the Arizona at Pearl Harbor.

Then I realized that wasn’t really what she had in mind. Rather, it was the manner of their walking — the goosestep — as they changed the guard. Russians did it everywhere: at Lenin’s Tomb in Moscow, at the inspiring memorial in Stalingrad, and now here in Kazan.

So, I added to Ludmila, “I hate it.” Then, not wanting to sound rude, I explained why. “To most of us older Americans, it immediately reminds us of Hitler and his Nazi goose-steppers. We hated them.”

She nodded in understanding. I said I didn’t hate the people we saw doing it here. I had come to learn that it was an old European custom. But, “Yes, many of us really don’t like it.”

As I reflected on the incident later, two thoughts came to me. First, I believe it was good for Ludmila to hear me say that. Many Russians think that we Americans did not hate Hitler and would have been glad if he had conquered their country because of our animosity towards communism. They note the great American prosperity resulting from the war, and contrast it with the utter chaos and horror the war visited upon their country: 20 million dead, many of their cities devastated. For every American male who was killed, 60 Russians — men, women and children — died. So it was good for Ludmila to hear that we too despised Hitler and all he represented.

Second, I believe Ludmila accepted my spontaneous response as an honest one.

The Russians are a very proud, patriotic and sensitive people. When you think about it, Ludmila’s question about the goosestep was opening the door to criticism of a common practice of her people. I believe Russians in general to be very reluctant to accept much criticism, often for understandable reasons. What made Ludmila open to criticism, and what made her non-defensive as I talked with her? It was an attitude I regard as healthy. I think it was a consequence of our developing friendship over the preceding days. She would ask that only of someone whom she could trust, someone who was not hostile to her and the country she loved.

How had our relationship developed to this point of mutual respect and trust in such a short time?

Some ten days before, shortly before our arrival in Moscow, Doris and I and 107 other Americans participating in the Volga Peace Cruise trip had met Ludmila for the first time. We went to the Moscow Friendship House to meet the nine Russian leaders, all members of the official Russian Peace Committee, who were to accompany us on the river. As we entered the building, children greeted us with flowers and smiles. We were ushered to a small auditorium where the Russian leaders and our leaders sat on the platform and, one by one, spoke to us. Ludmila was one of two Soviet women who spoke. Her remarks came near the end of the presentation, by which time I was tired and bored and genuinely struggling with a problem of animosity towards our hosts. They spoke in platitudes, it seemed to me, only confirming my suspicions that this was what we would get from them the whole trip.

Doris was impressed with what Ludmila said. I mildly wished I had paid more attention. In addition to my problem of attitude, I was struck by the fact that several Russian men who had already had their turn were whispering to each other as Ludmila spoke. “How rude,” I thought. Also, it seemed a clear example of male chauvinism, which we later came to feel is a fact of life in the Soviet Union, moreso than in our country.

The meeting adjourned. We didn’t see Ludmila again until we reassembled on the Alexander Pushkin for the peace cruise. Once on ship, we gathered together to hear our panelists, of which Ludmila was one. She was articulate, friendly, non-abrasive, and unapologetic in expressing her views on controversial issues. She was a real asset to our serious dialogue about every imaginable topic on the trip.

One evening we happened to sit with her at dinner, became acquainted, and enjoyed her company in friendly conversation.

At some point during the meal, Doris asked a question about the beginning of the Russian Revolution. We asked many questions of many people on the trip, but that was perhaps the most important one. It opened the door to the most unique and meaningful relationship we had with any Russian on our three-week visit.

Ludmila answered the question, and that led to more. As we left the table, she asked if we’d like to continue the conversation. We were eager, so we gathered in a corner of the ship and talked about Russian-Soviet history. Ludmila gave us a detailed account, and the crash course went on for four or five hours, long past midnight. Her history contained not just facts, but human feelings as well. A day or two later, Doris and I met with Ludmila again and she continued with the story of her country.

We told Ludmila about the peace quilt and the Redlands Peace Group, and explained how it was founded because of the Jonestown tragedy. She was deeply shocked, but later asked if I would be willing to talk about my nieces and the Jonestown tragedy.

As she and I met that late evening in the corner of a lounge area, I told her of Peoples Temple, our nieces’ motivations in joining, and what was right, and what was wrong, about the group. She was sympathetic.

We talked about related matters: morality, religion, atheism, God, Jesus Christ, the church. At about one in the morning, I had to call it quits. Ludmila seemed indefatigable; I was exhausted.

Later, after the trip had become a series of wonderful memories, I thought about Ludmila and our conversations with new insight. In his valuable book, The Russians, Hedrick Smith tells of his experiences while living in the Soviet Union for several years. Smith notes that when a Russian learns that another person has experienced tragedy in his or her life, the barriers break down and sharing takes place. Tragedy has been a familiar companion of the Russians through the centuries.

This is indeed what happened between Ludmila, Doris, and myself. World War II for her, and Jonestown for us, were common bonds. Our bonds were forged in pain and sorrow.

Time and again I have thought of the Biblical passage, “When I was weak, then I was strong.” If only we Americans could understand the tragedies, as well as the weaknesses, of the Russians. If only they could know of our weaknesses as a people. Instead, we do our utmost to parade our strengths and superiorities. This always, and inevitably, gives birth to one-upmanship. What if we Americans had the courage to reveal our weaknesses, our needs as brothers and sisters? Is it foolishness, or wisdom?

I mentioned my conversation with Ludmila at the Lenin monument. That evening on the ship there was music, dancing, general celebrating of our time together as Russians and Americans. The next day we would part. Americans would fly on to Leningrad for another week of sightseeing. Our Soviet Peace Group friends would return to Moscow. The Volga Peace Cruise was over.

It was raining in the morning. We had had great weather along the 800 mile cruise. Now, when we needed to get our luggage and bags full of souvenirs to the buses, it was pouring.

Four buses lined up abreast of the ship, twenty-five yards away. Doris and I slogged to the last bus in the row. We boarded, with Doris on the side away from the ship, and I on the near side. Through the gloom of the morning and the rain-streaked windows, I watched the ship’s combo play. Our Russian hosts and hostesses, and some of the crew, lined the rails. They chatted among themselves, some danced to the music. From time to time they would wave at us.

The bus engines started. We were about to leave. Ludmila was waving her arms and hands in broad gestures to all of us. As the buses started to pull out, she spotted me in the last bus. Instantly her waving changed to hands clasped, held high over the head. I had been in Russia long enough to learn that this was a gesture of warm, personal friendship. I was moved. Then, at the last moment when we could see, she blew us a big kiss. I did the same. As we drove off through the streets of Kazan, tears as well as rain blurred my eyes.

This has been the story of Ludmila. Her relationship with Doris and me has been a gift. We believe that God was also present. We are thankful. We also believe that such a relationship may be the privilege of more and more Americans and Russians in the years to come. We hope so.

*

In 1978 Doris and I presented a gift of money in memory of Carolyn and Annie and Carolyn’s son Jim Jon, to the American Friends Service Committee. It was earmarked for refugees in the Gaza Strip in Israel, as well as for the rehabilitation of Vietnamese victims of war. Long ago this memorial was expended.

We would hope that some measure of our lives might be a living memorial.

After our nieces’ death, we asked John and Barbara for a physical reminder of their daughters. A plaque that Annie made hangs on a wall in our home. It is a multi-colored sunburst, a celebration of light and life, and joy in the morning. It is a reminder of young lives committed to a love of people in need of love.

And the words of Pierre Teilbard de Chardin, recited at the memorial service, speak to the need for greater love among all peoples:

Someday, after we have mastered
the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity,
We will harness for God
the energies of Love…
And then, for the second time
in the history of the world,
Man will have discovered fire.

Last modified on November 19th, 2013.
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