An Open Letter to the People of Peoples Temple

Over the last three years, I have sat down multiple times to write this article, only to stumble over everything I wanted it to say. But it was important for me to write. My previous article, An Open Letter to Jim Jones, only went so far and left much unsaid. I have struggled to address you, the people, as well, to articulate my need to recognize and appreciate you. You were the heart and soul of the movement itself. Every good thing that came out of Peoples Temple was due to your hard work, dedication and altruistic ideals. And I know I am not alone in these beliefs.

First and most importantly I wish to extend my heartfelt condolences to everyone who lost loved ones in Jonestown or in the aftermath of the tragedy, as well as to everyone who lost a part of themselves. There are no words to make your pain go away or to bring back those whom you loved, and I know you’ve had a difficult time getting people to understand and appreciate your struggles. We as researchers want you to know that someone does care. I extend a universal embrace of love, empathy and understanding to you all.

When a researcher gravitates to this particular subject, the most obvious draw is to the events that took place on November 17 and 18, 1978. They read the books, watch the documentaries, and listen to the podcasts, most of which only scratch the surface of what Peoples Temple actually was and why it needed to exist. If they study anything in depth, it is usually Jim Jones. The people themselves go virtually unrecognized. They are seen as mindless drones who followed a man who claimed to be god. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

After listening to some of Jones’ earlier sermons, it became very clear to me how people were drawn in. I found myself spellbound, both by the messages and by Jones himself. His charisma, brilliant intellect, perceptiveness and attractiveness soaked directly into my cellular structure like a sponge. I was converted within the first 10 minutes. Then there were the things he said that felt as if he had pulled them right out of my mind. For me it was his attitude on social justice and theological declarations about being responsible for your own circumstances in life. Being your own god, for example, a challenge he reiterated innumerable times, is almost identical to my long held theological beliefs.

The only real question I still have about Jim Jones is one I’m sure many of you have asked yourselves over and over: What might have been, if the leader of Peoples Temple hadn’t had an ego so big it could block out the sun? Because that ego took him –  and more than 900 others – where it did, we will never know.

Nevertheless, I’m ashamed to say to you that I became completely enamored by him, even as it left me with a black hole in the pit of my stomach. I was enthralled, terrified and disgusted with myself all at the same time. His likeness and voice settled deep into my subconscious, appearing in dreams to the point where I didn’t want to go to sleep. As I read the recollections of the survivors and former members of the Temple, I started to see parallels to what I was experiencing on a psychological level. I suppressed this feeling, as I felt I was imposing myself on territory where I had no business being. 

One evening while evading sleep and – more to the point – the intensely vivid dreams I was having, I found an extremely well done podcast Transmissions From Jonestown that completely altered my perception on a permanent level. Something Rebecca Moore said on one of the episodes – about how we know all this about Jim Jones but nothing about the people – really struck a chord with me. 

Some of you were gracious enough to talk with me and share your experiences and perceptions. I began to realize that you were exactly like me in a lot of ways: idealistic, principled, and wanting a world where people could live without being hindered by things like race, sexuality, and economic status.

The more you let me into your world and lives, the more humbled I became. Some of you have gone on in your lives to continue making the world a better place in your own very significant ways. There are former members who do more in a single day than I accomplish in a year. You had every reason to give up on the dream of the world envisioned by Peoples Temple, but instead chose to continue using your moral compass to navigate through your lives. “Impressive” does not even begin to describe it.

I had all but lost faith in my little world before I began my research, probably why I was drawn to the Temple story – and more specifically to Jim Jones – in the first place. Not only have I learned that I would have been just as susceptible to Jones’ magnetism and charisma as everyone else, but getting to know the people has actually made me want to live in this world again. Just knowing you’re all out there being you.

Thank you for sharing, talking and expressing your experiences with us. Because of your fearlessness and candor, the perception of your movement is changing.