In 1970, I began my middle-aged career of teaching Language Arts and Social Studies to seventh and eighth grade students in Hayward, California. I suppose because of my age and experience, I was assigned a group of “challenging” children. The students were primarily Hispanic. Perhaps one or two of each class were Afro- American and a small percentage Euro-American.
We teachers were well aware of the drug and delinquency problem which was becoming strong in our schools. Somehow we heard of a center in Northern California where students such as ours were “counseled and set on a straight path.” We made arrangements to visit for a day, and another teacher and I took the students to Ukiah. We had no specific knowledge of Jim Jones, and sure enough, only much later, did we realize where we had been!
We were welcomed into the beautiful rural setting by young people, and offered refreshments and answers to any questions we might have. My impressions were much the same as my students. We were welcomed, the people were courteous, it looked like a fun place to be. One by one, people came to talk to us as a group and as individuals. One young woman told us the story of being in the gutter in San Francisco and being saved by what she had found there. Another young man told us of the evils of drugs and went over their “zero tolerance” program, even to the signs on the wall that said “No Aspirin.”
I was most impressed by a young man who showed us into a large room with chairs around the outside walls. In the center was a stool. He told me of the use of that room, that people were encouraged to relax, share and become acquainted with themselves. They each had to take a turn remembering something that they wanted to share. I had the impression that he meant confessions to small or large infractions. This came to my mind later as I read of the “brainwashing” techniques used on prisoners-of-war and other groups.
We were not overwhelmed with large groups of people, we were not “persuaded” or “sermonized,” we were welcomed and made a part of the family. Our children discussed things at length, but I am not sure if they understood the message of the place, except for the self-discipline and the pleasant place to be.
Many years later, what I recall the most from that day is the message of hope to families, the disenfranchised, lonely, and the poor that we heard that day. I had the experience as a young person of living in a deep southern state where there were chautauquas and traveling ministers who came through and preached to us, inspired us and provided us with a touch of the gospel. Jim Jones would have been perfect in that role. Perhaps the “southern-ness” of this worship style brought Jim’s followers back to their roots and their history, where hope was all that was available to everyone.
(June Gerlach may be reached at JuneGer@aol.com.)