I was an anti-war protester in the Vietnam era and joined the Peoples Temple Christian Church because the church’s message reflected my views. Twenty-six years after Jonestown – still antiwar, still committed to the ideals of the Temple – I translate the group’s social activism into something I can do quietly as an individual: I am volunteering my mediation services to help the reservists and national guard people who are returning home from Iraq and who often face disputes about re-employment with their employers.
I recently spent a lot of time with retired and reserve military to become trained in the federal statute that protects the re-employment rights of these uniformed service members. On a heart level, below the frozen tundra of politics and a past I do not discuss, I have established an amazing connection with these people. I am touched by their obvious loyalty to the cause of standing up for their fellow service members’ rights. Twice before in life, I have experienced a connection beyond the obvious differences of age, gender, race, ethnicity, dis/abilities.
Ten years ago, while working as a change agent for an engineering company, I was assigned to work closely with an engineer who was a born-again Christian and who was publicly known for his stance against abortion. It took me two years to warm up to him. Somehow we got past our differences – without ever discussing them – and became a successful team for three years. We still stay in touch.
At the graveside services during the weekend of the 25th anniversary of the deaths in Jonestown, I was in awe as I stood in a big circle with the people with whom I have shared an amazing journey. I felt gratitude that despite the myriad ways we each took action in those final years, oftentimes casting each other as the adversary, we were able to come and be together, remembering not only the ones who died and were killed, but also to remember ourselves in that earlier time and to perhaps close the circle in some profound and inexplicable way after all these years.
Beneath the veneer of our current lives, where I for one have little contact with anyone from that chapter of my life, perhaps there exists an amazing swirling of political and social activism, perhaps even involving the people I once knew and still love. I hope so.
My dreams over the past 26 years have occasionally given me fragments that hearken me back to the seven years I spent in Peoples Temple. Sometimes during my rush hour commute, the profile of someone’s face in the next lane of traffic will remind me of someone I used to know. I cherish those dreams, those glimpses, and those memories.
It doesn’t seem incongruous for me to help these reservists. The surface benefits are immediate, obvious and real. But they also speak to me – and reward me – on a deeper level. They take me back to an earlier time, and suggest that finding meaning on both layers is possible.
(Andy Silver, a former member of Peoples Temple, is now a divorce and federal mediator in Charlotte, North Carolina. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)