(Tim Stoen lives in Mendocino, California. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. A 2003 interview in the North County Journal appears here.)
I joined Peoples Temple in 1970 in Redwood Valley. I remember the delicious tang – a tang of buoyancy – in feeling part of a utopian society that would be a model of sharing in a cut-throat world. I remember watching Chris Lewis come off heroin cold turkey, with Harold Cordell and other men staying with him round the clock. I remember the consistent affection and warmth between black people and white people at the meetings. I remember the concern for the poor. I remember good works for the community by Archie Ijames, Bonnie Hildebrand, and Jack Beam. I remember Birdie Marable’s pecan pies. How good it was to be part of an extended family whose members so cared for one another!
All of us were looking for heaven on earth, accomplished by the power of will. Ours would be the one commune in Northern California, we vowed, that would not disintegrate. We decided to pay any price to prevent that from happening, including the fatal one: authoritarianism. People like me, with a grounding in world history, should have known better.
The price was paid – a heavy, heavy one. It is now a quarter century later, and we have all chosen to keep going in our lives. But November 18, 1978 will never disappear from the deep niches of our minds. We look at photos of our loved ones, and involuntarily flinch, and then summon whatever it takes to keep gazing. We wonder, “Where would they be today?”
All of us have had to find some means of strength to keep going. Maybe it’s friends. Maybe it’s therapy. Maybe it’s work. Maybe it’s God.
For me, it’s God. Because we are made in God’s image, we have a basis for loving one another genuinely. We are all given free will, which means we can make mistakes and feed on them and cut ourselves off from one another. But because we have a model for forgiving “seventy times seven,” we can also accept (or grant) forgiveness, choose a fresh start, and show love one to another. Life can be sweet again.
To each of you who has lost family or friend at Jonestown, I send encouragement and love.