I was a child – I think I was around 11 – the very first time my family went to hear one of Rev. Jones’ sermons in a barn in Redwood Valley. My grandmother had been terminally ill with cancer, and when we saw a story on the TV news one night about this “man of god” who was healing people, we decided to see for ourselves. The very next Sunday, my grandmother, my uncle, my sister, and I drove to his church. We got there early – about an hour before services began – and a real nice lady greeted us. She asked us all kinds of questions, like who we were, and why we were there.
As we entered the sanctuary, I saw a swimming pool at the rear of the church. I was so excited about the prospect of being able to swim in it one day. As we sat there waiting for the service to start, I saw this young black kid about my age coming in and out of the sanctuary. I thought, neat, there are black people here. I would later learn that the kid was Rev. Jones’ adopted son, Jim Jr.
When the service did start, there was only a handful of people in attendance, maybe 20 at the most. All were white. The service started off in a manner that I was accustomed to, opening with a musical praise and worship. Then Rev. Jones came out and preached his sermon. Towards the end of his address, he abruptly stopped and said that God was speaking to him. There was a woman who had cancer in attendance with her grandchildren, he said, but God was going to heal her today. He called her out by name. I remember thinking that all of the things he was saying that God had said to him, were the same things we had told the nice lady who had greeted us. Strange I thought. But I was too young to understand or to even question what I was hearing.
Rev. Jones called my grandmother up to the pulpit, laid hands on her and prayed, and then told her she was healed. Two women escorted her to the ladies room, and returned shortly with a piece of tissue. He unfolded the tissue. Inside was what he called the cancerous tumor, surrounded by “blood” that he said came from her.
Afterwards, there were only a handful of people remaining when my grandmother called me over to meet Rev. Jones. I was freaked out! As I approached him, he bent over and extended his hand to shake mine. At the time our hands made contact – as he was bent over – I could see his eyes over the top of his dark sunglasses he had on. What I saw scared the daylights out of me, and I jerked my hand back. There was something very strange and frightening about what I both saw and felt. As I got older, and the events and truth of his ministry began to unfold, I understood that what I sensed was pure evil, but as a kid, I had no idea what my feelings were. All I knew is that this was a strange man.
We joined Peoples Temple that Sunday, and started to attend on a regular basis. Over time, I was happy when other black people started coming. But prior to this, my recollection is that we were the first and only black people there.
There were other healings, of course, but I also recall when there was some talk going around the church about the people who approached the audience during church services and selected the ones who would be called up to the pulpit to be healed. Rev. Jones already knew about their conditions or illnesses, the talk was, because he was receiving secret notes or some other form of surreptitious communication from a more earthly plane.
Later, I remember there was a lot of gossip about people selling their homes and giving all of their money to the church. They were the ones planning on moving to Guyana. My grandmother had planned on going too, and there was some discussion – arguments, really – between my parents as to whether I would go with her. The argument was resolved, however, when my grandmother died from cancer, the same cancer that Rev. Jones had supposedly healed her from.
I could have ended up in Guyana anyway. I knew lots of people who did go and who died there. Renee, Sebastian and Teddy McMurray, for example, were the children of my best friend’s sister. In fact, I tell people to this day that although I didn’t know each and every person down there by name, I did know each and every one of them by face. Each and every one! God bless their souls!
By the grace of God, I barely escaped. These might be strange words for anyone who knew me back then to read. Because it’s true, right after the Jonestown mass murder, I denounced God. I remember saying that God, Jesus and religion was all something designed by the CIA to keep the poor and hopeless in check. For years, I had a real hard time even walking into a church. Even now, I have no use for anything that reminds me of the deception that I witnessed as a child. I have run out of many church services. The gift that God gave me as a child that allowed me to see the evil and deception in Rev. Jones, has gotten only stronger. Today, I still see the deception of Rev. Jones, in many pastors and religious leaders, some very well known and with big mega-ministries like he had. Today, I have accepted my calling to speak out against false prophets and their false teaching. Today, I know that without a doubt, that what I saw and felt as a child, was in fact, pure evil!
(The writer is a former member of Peoples Temple. His other article in this edition of the jonestown report is My Life Since the Temple.)