(Dr. Mary Sawyer has written extensively on the Black Church in America. Her book on Black Ecumenism: Implementing the Demands of Justice traces the history of the Black Church’s initiative in social issues from the 1930s to the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement. She is currently writing about the role of the Black Church and African Americans in Peoples Temple.
(The following essay was delivered at the nineteenth annual memorial service, held at Evergreen Cemetery, Oakland, California November 18, 1997, honoring the people who died in Jonestown.)
I am aware that we each come to this service with our own perspective. I would like to share with you a little bit about my perspective on Peoples Temple.
In the mid-1970s, I was working for California Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally as his speech writer and liaison with social change movements. One of these movements was Peoples Temple. I had earlier been involved in the civil rights movement, and I found many kindred spirits in Peoples Temple in people who shared my values and ideals about social justice. Like so many others, Governor Dymally and I were devastated when the movement came to its tragic end.
Over the years, I have been able to attend three of these memorial services, and each time I find myself in a different place in relation to Peoples Temple. This time, I came out to California from Iowa a couple of days early to spend some time in Mendocino County. I had never been to Redwood Valley, and it felt like a pilgrimage I needed to make. (Note: Redwood Valley, in Mendocino County, was the home of Peoples Temple before it moved to San Francisco in the 1970s.)
When we left the town of Mendocino in the morning, the sun was shining brightly, but as we drove through the redwoods, it began to get foggy. As we got closer to Redwood Valley, the fog became thicker and thicker; it began to feel very symbolic.
The first ten years after Jonestown, I lived in a thick fog. I couldn’t talk about Peoples Temple, couldn’t think about it, couldn’t let myself feel. Then I came to the Tenth Anniversary Memorial Service, and for the next five years, I could do nothing but feel the pain of the loss.
I attended the Fifteenth Anniversary Service and in these last three or four years, I have started to read, think, and write about the movement. And this tells me that healing is taking place for me — as I pray it is for the thousands of people touched by this tragedy who we never see or hear from.
As I live with and process this defining event of my life, the one constant I keep coming back to is the goodness of the people. I remember the people with fondness, with respect, and with tremendous sorrow. I remember the people for what so many of them were about — for their commitment to justice, community, and caring for the least among us. I remember that some of the people made mistakes — but the people were not mistakes. They were the children of God.
I remember that many of the members came out of the black religious experience and that many of them tried to the end to remain faithful in their own way. That is what I am now writing about. I believe it is a part of the story that has not been adequately told. If you or others you know would want to share your stories and memories with me, I would be honored to hear them.
May we all continue in our healing.