(Editor’s note: Hue Fortson was an Associate Minister of Peoples Temple in Los Angeles at the time of the deaths in Jonestown. In early 2021, Fortson produced an autobiographical video, Losing Anger, reflecting on his journey, both before and after the tragedy. The following article discusses his reasons for making the video.)
As a young man, I was basically a free spirit looking to do the right thing in my life. My mother was a single parent, and not having a father figure around to look up to, I was not very motivated to shoot towards many goals after high school. I had wanted to work and get paid for a job of some kind, but even with that, I did not have any understanding of making an investment or even of purchasing a home.
I had always considered myself as a “good” person in my small world of life. My lack of knowledge of the word of God was very limited, and I would give anybody a chance as long as they did not physically hurt me. However I have had a great number of emotional traumas, too many to count, especially when it came to relationships with women. I would always become the “friend” when women broke up with their man friends. They could always come and talk with me, and of course, I would give them my best advice, as if I were a young black Dr. Phil.
In my early 20’s, I met and married my first wife, Rhonda Denise Wright. We were both part of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, but we had not been familiar with the fast talking “con” men who would deceive many within the “church systems” of the world. I was green as they come, but I was attempting to know it all as a “good” person, hoping that others were as good as I was.
I can remember my introduction into Peoples Temple. I had arrived early one Saturday morning behind the Embassy Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles and was talking with one of the other brothers who came to see what was up with all of these buses of people. There were two senior women struggling with their luggage, and we just watched them as they went by. At that moment, Jim Jones was speaking with someone inside one of the buses, but when he saw what was going on in front of us, he pushed open the bus door and hollered at us that we should be helping those seniors. Of course, we both stood at attention and did what we were told. Sometimes hindsight is better foresight: there were in fact at least three Temple buses parked right next to one another, and no one from any of them were called out by Jones.
But the more stories I heard about this man, the more I wanted to work with his group. I thought it was already a great help to people, and I wanted to be a part of that. I learned that Peoples Temple was called that because it was a place where “all people could come and worship God and help other people in the process.” I was naïve, and I took the bait, hook, line, and sinker. I had a mindset that this was the ultimate Christian group around, and that we were going to be a part of a group helping people. Keep in mind, this was before the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project had even been spoken about. Without knowing the Word of God for myself, I missed where Jesus Christ himself said in Matthew 24, let no man deceive you. I did not have a preference as to how I was going to lend myself to help people, and that was because I did not know that God had a purpose in this life, one that he had placed inside my mother’s womb. After going through what I have these past 43 years – and will continue to go through – I realize that each and every one of us has a divine purpose for being here on this earth. The key is to finding it.
My early period in Peoples Temple was spent cleaning toilets, mopping floors, vacuuming carpets, whatever it took just to make the L.A. Temple look good when church members from the Bay Area and Redwood Valley came down to visit every other weekend. I liked getting the recognition from others as to how we appreciated the church building. I knew that would get back to Jim Jones, and at times he would give shout-outs to those of us who went beyond the call of duty. We made things happen.
At one point in time I was asked to take on “special assignments.” Now I can look back and see that I was being set up for the kill. But back then, I wanted to be part of this great movement – not a church – but a place where people could come and get what they needed by way of a “man of God.”
One of my special assignments was to go out a few days before Jim Jones and the buses came down from Redwood Valley and the Bay Area, and to buy every news publication I could find – the Los Angeles Free Press, Los Angeles Sentinel, Life magazine, New West, Los Angeles Times, New York Times – and have them ready when Jones arrived. The various articles that exposed the hardships of “poor black and white” people in America provided the texts for his sermon. Most if not all of his messages to the people would be taken from those articles, all coming around to his basic point, that only what we do together as “poor black and white people” will last. The people united will never be defeated! That was our battle cry. I could kick myself in the butt when I think about how I didn’t see what was going on back then. But I trusted that it was for the greater good, that we were making a big difference in the lives of the people in our community. I was blinded to many things because I choose not to believe the ugly side of things, even though I would periodically get a queasiness in my stomach.
As time went on, we would purchase a three-story apartment building next door to the huge Los Angles Temple located on the corner of Alvarado Street and Hoover Street. This was to show how we as “poor black and white” group could pool our monies and do for ourselves. But I now see that we left the wolf in sheep clothing in the person of Jim Jones at the helm of the operation. And he did make it look good and sound good. I do think at one time his mode of operation was pure, but somewhere along the line, he switched gears. As he conducted more and more healings, as more and more “lookie loos” stopped by to see what was going on, the result was that more and more people left their churches and joined the Temple.
I also realize that I needed that approval from Jim Jones at that time to keep me going. With my natural father being absent from my life, I had always sought out other men to give me guidance. But putting my trust in any man is wrong, because the Bible tells us that man’s heart is deceitfully wicked, and man will deceive you over and over again and again.
When we learned about the overseas project, we were all very excited, because no other Pastor had taken a step so bold as to seek out such a place. We were told we could go there and relax for six months or more, and then come back and work a while longer in this place of pain and suffering called America. Later on the name of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project was changed – supposedly by an unknown Guyanese official – to Jonestown. Money was raised for the project, houses and other real property were signed over, and businesses were sold to get finances to build Jonestown. Along with others, I felt that this was our finest hour, that we were part of one of the biggest projects in the world, that in fact we were building a “brand new” world.
And then on November 18, 1978, some 918 men, women, and children lost their lives to the command of one man by the name of Jim Jones!
For years, each time fall approached, I would begin to get depressed and angry, because if I hadn’t joined that group, maybe my first wife Rhonda and our four-year-old son Hue Ishi Fortson would still be alive. I had been praying for peace in my spirit, and I had come to know God for myself in 1981. But I was still angry at the man Jim Jones because of what he did to all those people and my family.
God is so forgiving to me, but first I had to understand that I was part of the problem that allowed a person like Jim Jones to do what he did to God’s people. I had to ask God for forgiveness for myself, and finally – after many years in my quest – I came to the place where I understood that I had to forgive Jim Jones. More than that, I had to forgive myself for allowing another man to take control of my life and made decisions for my family. God is so good that he has forgiven me and restored my life. I spent so long trying to put my life back together without him. He has blessed me with a real companion who loves me even after I opened myself up in total honesty in all areas of my life. God has blessed us with six children – three boys and three girls – and now we are the proud grandparents of seven with another on the way.
I do not judge anyone who has not committed their lives to serving within a church structure. However, I know for a fact that there is a GOD, the higher power who has purpose for your life. Seek him in your own space and time, and watch what happens. When His real love overshadows you, it somehow lets you know that once you forgive those that have taken advantage of us or misused us, it will make life a lot better in whatever we are going through.
(The DVD “Losing Anger” may be purchased by making a check or money order for $20.00 payable to Dr. Hue Fortson Jr., and sending it to the following address: In His Habitation Ministries, Spiritual Trauma Center, 165333 Green Tree Blvd., 849, Victorville, California 92395-9998.)