(Hattie Newell is a former member of Peoples Temple and is now a nurse who lives in Highland, California. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here.)
I began attending Peoples Temple services in Los Angeles in March 1973, and I joined two months later. I moved with three other nurses from the Temple to work in a nursing home in Santa Rosa, then moved to Redwood Valley for about a year. I lived in a couple of communal houses. I was a member all the way to the end.
My family went to Jonestown in 1977. I waited for Jim to give me the okay to go over, but he never did. I was told he said, “Let her stay here and continue the work she is doing. Let someone else take her place.” I stayed packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice, waiting to join my mom and the other members of my family. Someone else did take my place to go over. When I began working with Marceline in October 1978, I thought for sure that would be my opportunity to go, but again the answer was no.
On November 18, 1978, my whole world shattered. Twelve members of my family, including my mother, two sisters, and three brothers, along with nine hundred followers of the Reverend Jim Jones, committed suicide or were murdered in the remote jungle of Jonestown, Guyana. When I saw the lists of those who had died on the evening news special report, and saw my family’s names listed among the dead, all I could do was cry. Because of the loyalty I still felt for Jim, I could not bring myself to hate him at that moment for what he had done to my family.
But in February 1979, when I finally left San Francisco behind me, I was filled with anger and bitterness for a man and cause I had loved and supported for six years. I was struggling to find answers to why this had happened to me and my family. My life was going downhill fast. I felt so far away from God I thought there was no way He would help me or could help me. Jim Jones had been my source for answers for six years. Now he was gone. Who would be my source for help now?
It has been twenty-five years since the tragic events in Jonestown, Guyana. What has happened to us? Where has the road of life taken us? I am sure all of us have many stories we can share if given the time to do so; my story is about my search for answers to why my family died such a horrific death.
My search led me to the one person who could give me new life and strength to face the fact that I may never find the answers to why all of this happened. His name is Jesus Christ. This is the Scripture verse that guided my life, Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Over the years, I have asked myself innumerable times why my life was spared and my family died. God spared my life on three separate occasions, and for that I am eternally grateful. Why? If I would have gone to Jonestown and died, I would have spent eternity in hell because I did not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
In 1982, God sent Debbie Seitz (Dodd), a Christian lady, into my life, and she invited me to Immanuel Baptist Church with her. After attending for a few weeks, I heard Pastor Rob Zinn speak the words in a sermon that would change my life forever: “Would you love God and serve Him even if you never get answers to your questions?” I knew God was speaking directly to me. I said, “Yes, Lord, I will love You and serve You, even if I never get answers.” Because Jesus Christ is now in my heart, I can deal with the pain and heartache of my past and also deal with the trials and storms in my future, because He gives me the strength to make it through.
In 1993 I faced my biggest test. On the fifteen-year anniversary of Jonestown, the pain hit me like a Mack truck. I cried as never before. The pain would not go away. I thought of friends who had committed suicide, but I knew that was not the answer. I asked the Lord, “When will the pain go away?” I remembered Pastor Rob saying that sometimes we shed tears to water someone else’s garden. I said, “Lord, someone’s garden is flooding right now.” I felt God saying, “You are going through this right now so that others will not have to suffer the same pain.” God sustained me through that time of crisis. He was my strength and my shield. I can truly say that I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.