(Vera Washington lives in northern California. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
When I was a first year college student, I started attending Peoples Temple services. I met members of the Temple when they came to a Sunday worship service at our church in the Western Addition district in San Francisco. I was impressed by Jim Jones’ down-to-earth “Just Keeping It Real” type attitude. I was from the South and had been active in the Civil Rights Movement, especially during the voter rights drives which were in full swing during the summer. Jim Jones was not just paying “lip service” to the cause but was actively promoting interracial lifestyles. This was all very impressive to me, so much so that I joined the Temple.
The early years were primarily intriguing. We were introduced to dormitory style living and sharing in a communal atmosphere. The college students benefited from the cohesive environment and were considered the pride of Jim and the Temple members.
We continued in this blissful period until about 1972. Then changes in the hierarchy of the Temple became defined, and the gentle atmosphere became a bit more controlled and less accommodating. The “teaching” sessions gave away to confrontational and sometimes moderately violent episodes. This created a tense and uneasy feeling among the congregation.
The students absorbed all of this. We were encouraged to spy on one another and turn each other in. Some of us decided that something was going terribly wrong, and we felt the loving teachings and considerate attitude that we had been taught as appropriate behavior were all being eroded. Jim appeared to be guided in his primary decision-making by a small elite group of what we considered high intensity egotistical people. He seemed to lose sight of his earlier goals and instead set out to acquire as much wealth as possible. He forced everyone to live communally and turn in all liquid assets. Mandatory tithing was to be 15% of your gross income. This left very little for daily expenses, and our requests to the Temple for the necessities of life grew into a disturbing dependency.
In 1973, eight members of the core group of college students secretly planned an escape and successfully pulled it off! We wrote a letter to Jim explaining our reasons for leaving and urging him to recapture both the ideals he had once espoused and the leadership example he had once modeled. We only hoped that others would garnish whatever mental strength that they had left and follow our lead. Unfortunately, the problems we documented in our letter only grew with time, and in 1977, when 1000 members of Peoples Temple migrated to Guyana, the hierarchies were set in stone. With spies at every turn, increasingly harsh discipline, and Jim’s surrender of authority to an elite leadership group, the events of November 18, 1978 were as predictable as they were tragic.