Peoples Temple is not a topic I often discuss. For the most part I avoid it, not from a lack of interest, rather as a result of general societal perceptions. The references and observations I come across are typically dismissive and derogatory, inspiring little confidence for the possibility of informed discussion. The word “cult,” used often to describe Peoples Temple, is nothing more than a pejorative and reflects a superficial understanding of the group.
My parents were members of Peoples Temple, and my existence would be highly unlikely had the events in Jonestown not transpired. They have told me stories of their time in the Temple, and perceptions of their experiences, all of which illustrate a far more complex story than the narrative offered up by television pundits or journalists.
Attending the memorial service illustrated other aspects of Peoples Temple which aren’t discussed very often. I was struck by the degree of community and openness of those who attended. People who I only knew of through written material and stories were kind and welcoming. This environment was a refreshing change from the normal cynicism and frustration I experience from the current political and economic landscape. Rather than sit idle from such frustration, these people sacrificed a tremendous amount to pursue the reality of creating something better. That is more than I can say of myself.
The events of November 18th garner most of the attention around Peoples Temple, and diminish the dedication and ambition of those trying to expound ideas of human equality. It is easy to cast negative judgment with so much suffering, but this undermines the need to learn and grow. By generalizing the negative judgment of the Temple’s outcome to its entirety, we fail to recognize its attempts to overcome social, economic, and racial boundaries. As Viktor Frankl wrote in his book Man’s Search For Meaning (Beacon Press, 1959): “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” The majority of Temple members were doing just that in a tumultuous period in United States history, the last day in Jonestown shouldn’t supersede the goals and diverse aspects of the Peoples Temple community.
The openness and sincerity I experienced while conversing with survivors was a reflection of the strong desire for community within Peoples Temple. I hope that this is not lost in the public understanding, and that a more open and earnest dialogue may occur.