A Life-Long Spiritual Quest: Remembering Barbara Hoyer

Barbara Hoyer teaching children in Jonestown

Barbara Hoyer was both a cousin and neighbor, and so a close friend from childhood through high school. Born 11 weeks apart, we grew up on the grounds of a Lutheran seminary in St. Louis, where both our fathers taught theology. She was a smart, inquisitive, and adventurous friend from a warm and loving family.

Eventually Barbara and I grew up, went to college 1000 miles apart, and saw little of each other. So it was a shock and a pleasant surprise when she appeared at my door in Berkeley, unannounced and somewhat bedraggled, in the summer of 1970. I was attending graduate school at UC-Berkeley; she had come for the beginning of what was to become a life-long spiritual quest. With nowhere else to stay, she joined a revolving rag-tag group of characters that slept on the floor of my small apartment, mostly drawn to Berkeley by the mythology around the 1967 “Summer of Love.” It’s said that if you clearly remember Berkeley in the ’60’s, then you didn’t participate, and indeed much of that chaotic summer is now only a hazy memory. But by the end of the summer I was ready to settle down and study, and Barbara to move on to San Francisco, where she had already found a number of like-minded spiritual seekers.

She had also landed a nice San Francisco job, a story that reflects the culture of that time and place: As the summer neared its end, she interviewed for work at a high-end department store there. She was a beautiful woman and must have made a great impression, but it took them four interviews to decide that she was right for them. Perhaps they were eventually impressed by her stylish way of dressing: though she had no money, after each interview she was able to “liberate” a great new dress from the store, one she would then wear for her next interview. Finally, they made her an offer: she would be a sales associate – in their silver department!

Barbara’s spiritual quest continued, but I was busy with my studies and pretty much disengaged. I did go with her and some mutual friends to a strange spiritualist service, where the officiant accurately predicted how I would meet my future wife, but also guessed that I was a dental student. What to make of that? I know that Barbara later visited Indonesia to check out a spiritual leader there, but decided he was just a con man, exploiting his naive followers.

Despite this experience, Barbara somehow eventually found a home with Jim Jones Peoples Temple, even though he was clearly of the same ilk as the Indonesian con man. I visited her after she had moved to the Temple’s compound in Redwood Valley, where she praised the Temple’s vision of mutual service, social justice and racial integration. This resonated with our Lutheran roots, and may have been the primary appeal to her – a version of early Christianity that appeared to work in the 20th century.

My last contact with her was a call she made from JFK airport to tell me that she was on her way down to Jonestown, Guyana with other Temple members. I’d never heard of the place, or of Jim Jones’ plan to move his followers there. I asked her if she had talked to anyone who had come back from Guyana, but she said the community was so wonderful, nobody ever wanted to return.

And that was it, until years later I opened the morning newspaper and read of the mass suicide and so learned of her tragic end. A great loss, and one I still brood about, wondering what her life could have been like as she now passed her 75th birthday.

(Martin Scharlemann is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He can be reached at mgscharl@gmail.com.)