November 18th, 2003 will be the 25th anniversary of the tragic Jonestown communion-mass-suicide, which claimed the lives of almost a thousand people.
I was a pastor of the Los Angeles branch of Peoples Temple on Alvarado and Hoover. I left Peoples Temple in protest of power trips, humiliation tactics and sexual improprieties. I was hunted down twice. As a result of my confrontation with the church. I lived in fear for 24 years, thinking I was wanted by the law.
I joined Peoples Temple in 1971 in San Francisco at the Benjamin Franklin School auditorium. When I met Jim Jones, he believed in helping people, and he did not yet think he was God. That day I traveled back with some of Jim’s followers to the church on Ukiah and moved into Professor Dick Tropp’s house. Different than many, I was not on drugs or alcohol. I was a young idealist who opposed the war. I had left the racist south and come to California looking for people that were humanitarian. First I joined a monastery, but I thought they were disingenuous. Then I joined an East Indian Temple, but I thought they were disingenuous as well. Then a girl on the street told me of the human service work Jim was doing. I was impressed and I went right away. Peoples Temple was genuine.
I worked hard, two jobs at a time. I slept during the lunch breaks. I worked at the Masonite Corporation, at different sawmills, and at Sears, where I moved furniture. I gave all my money to the church and still managed to donate extra time to church projects.
I met a wonderful girl named Maryell Norris while peeling peaches at Archie Ijames’s house. We got married with Jim’s approval. My new wife and I moved into a charming little house surrounded by vines and gardens. Although I worked round the clock, I remember our life as being like heaven.
Jim had a unique program through which he paid for students to go to college to become doctors and lawyers. I visualized that I could make my greatest contribution if I became a church lawyer. I entered college and moved into the church dormitories. I had the bunk above Larry Schacht who later became the Jonestown doctor. I never dreamed that in less than a year, a tragedy would take Maryell away and I would be single again.
About that time, Jim asked me to give up the goal of becoming a church lawyer, to leave school and to become a minister for Los Angeles Peoples Temple. I agreed.
In Los Angeles, Jim announced that he had surveyed the whole world and that I was the best man for the job. I became the resident pastor who helped set up the L.A. church. To my knowledge I was the only pastor other than Jim whose name was ever on letterhead and business cards. Jim took time to teach me how to do these things. Frankly, I never heard of him training anyone else. However, I was to learn three or four years later that he became neurotic and felt threatened when I was doing too good of a job. I think that part of this may have come from trouble he had in the past with people turning on him.
I served from 1972 until late 1976. I did the things pastors do. I conducted many funerals and weddings. I visited the sick. I stopped people from killing themselves. I stayed up late listening to Peoples problems on the phone. I set up housing programs. I set up transportation programs to and from church. I held little old ladies’ hands. I picked council members like Florida and Vee and was in charge of departments and programs. The membership program, which became the model for San Francisco, was headed by Juanell Smart, whom I later married.
I met with L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley and with the heads of the Disciples of Christ and made donations to them. I was pictured in Beat magazine, the publication for the Ramparts Police Division for helping make peace between the black community and the police. As Jim directed I made donations to their slain officer’s fund.
Jim was extremely gifted at raising the level of faith, no matter how questionable his methods, and yes, his methods were often very wrong. Of course, in the end, the wrong means destroy the right goals. Nonetheless, Jim certainly possessed an unparalleled talent for building faith. Nearer the end he had an equal talent for, unwittingly, tearing faith down.
I remember standing in the emergency room beside a young black man who had been shot in the head in some senseless street violence. I remember telling his mother that he would not die. The doctors disagreed. The young man would probably not live, they said, and if he did, he would be a vegetable. I looked up at the lit overhead transparencies showing the bullet in his brain and said calmly. “Jim asked me to come here and tell you that he WILL LIVE… and HE WILL BE NORMAL.” Of course, I had not spoken to Jim, but this was my job. The lady broke down in tears, said, “Thank you Father.” The boy eventually regained consciousness, and recovered normally.
I remember on two separate occasions when women called me about domestic violence. In one incident I lovingly took a 30-06 Winchester from a black man in the middle of Watts. I mention color because I am light skinned and this was Watts, after all. In the other incident in Compton I took a 12-gauge shotgun from a black man who had it pointed right at my nose. I never thought of calling the police. I must say, I do not believe I would take a rifle from anyone’s hands these days. I was in some kind of a fearless faith-filled daze then. I suppose this innocent daze kept me alive in those situations. Once a gang was going to beat me to death with a stick, but I talked them out of it. Once in Watts I was robbed. I gave the two men all I had and told them if I had known I would have brought more money. I have thought about it a lot through the years.
I established a relationship with HUD and filled three large apartment buildings entirely with L.A. church members. I will never forget the wonderful black man in charge of the HUD program. In our visits he would tell me how Jesus was a black Ethiopian. You would think he would have been perfect for the church. However, I never invited him to the church because I had watched Jim actually “run off” different folk and I wanted the tenants to have secure homes. In addition, the manner in which Jim was claiming this as “his” miracle, made it hard to invite the guy without worrying about losing his enthusiastic support. If not for Jim’s eccentricities we could have built a huge national membership. As it was, 2000 people filled the sanctuary to capacity each week, and we stopped passing out flyers and other such outreach efforts. This is never good, because behavior is always better in groups with their doors open compared to groups with their doors closed.
Irene Mason was a sweet and feisty member. I moved her out of a dangerous bullet-ridden part of town into one of these federally-subsidized new apartments right down the alley from the church. In the meetings Irene Mason always sat on either the first or second row. She was bold and enthusiastic and dedicated. She donated every cent she could put her hands on. One day while making my pastoral rounds, I opened her cupboards and discovered that she only had a few cans of peas and corn. I was devastated. I could see that it was up to me to follow up on Peoples donations to make sure they were not going without food. I filled Mrs. Mason’s cupboards from the church pantry, which had lots of donated food, and encouraged her to come use the church kitchen anytime.
Later this down-to-earth, wholesome woman told me how my good friend, Sharon Amos, had stayed overnight at her house one weekend that Jim came down. She alleged that Sharon drugged her, and that she woke up with a cast on her arm and Sharon telling her that she had slipped in the tub and was taken unconscious to the hospital. She went along with equal enthusiasm in public as Jim removed the cast, just as if she had really slipped and broken her arm. I resented the abuse of this very sincere woman’s faith. Mother Mason’s faith was hurt not helped by dishonest tactics. As far as healings are concerned I could see that if Jim were to play it straight and if there had not been a bottle of amphetamines in his pill bag there would have been more miracles…. not fewer. Mother Mason died in Guyana.
In Peoples Temple there was great good mixed with improper means. However, I should note; this is what most all the other “acceptable churches” do also. That is, they use dishonest means. People got used to doing all kinds of things for “the cause,” and as tests. Of course, this was all male bovine feces. Along this line of foolishness, in Jonestown, rehearsed suicides in the form of a communion became acceptable… with a lot of help of course.
However, to be completely fair, as I write this, I also think of this one quiet female usher who had a pendant which stayed stuck to her chest, right below her clavicle. It was a picture of Jim. There was no chain holding it up. There was no adhesive. I would sometimes pull it off her chest, look at it and put it back. I could see no explanation of how it stayed there, unless she had a plate in her chest and a refrigerator magnet on the back of the pendant, but she had no scars in the area to indicate such a possibility. I can not describe the level of faith that Jim was able to generate and I don’t think you can get it by just listening to a tape. He used many tools. You had to be there, but like all healing ministries, he got the people around him to generate miracles left and right.
With a busload of Temple members from northern California, Jim came down to L.A. and did a service every two weeks. Each time after Jim left to go back to San Francisco, the church looked like a whirlwind had hit it. I would be in my pastor’s robe with people still gathered round stating their needs and problems. When everyone had finally left and I had locked the doors, I would take a walk outside down the alley, and stop at a long row of geraniums growing chest-high and breathe in their magnificent fragrance. I remember my ears whirring and I was light headed, as if I were on drugs… yet I was not. I was naturally high and now had to wind down. For years the smell of geraniums brought this memory.
I was a young white minister in a nearly all-black church. The only Spanish folk were the Sanchez family, a husband and wife. There was a white janitor and a few other white folk that would occasion the meetings. When Jim came down from Ukiah or San Francisco, he brought white folk with him. Other than that we were all black.
Peoples Temple Christian Church on Alvarado and Hoover was a historical landmark. It was like a castle. It was my home. On Saturdays and Sundays, 2000 people filled the sanctuary. I would come around the winding rotundas in my pastor’s robe and greet newcomers in the pleasant Southern California weather. These were highly spirited, love filled, Pentecostal-type healing services with powerful social messages thrown in.
These were the days of Malcolm and Martin and John. These were the days of resistance to the killing fields of Vietnam. As a pastor, I had the FBI come around and show me pictures of members of the Black Liberation Army and ask me if I could identify any of them. They knew we were a radical church. We didn’t really hide it.
Jim was a self-appointed “Spokesman for the People.” Since there typically aren’t any such creatures as a “Spokesman for the People” (surely, not something you can find in the yellow pages) we seemed to be willing to overlook Jim’s eccentricities. Jim seemed to flout those eccentricities as if he was breaking the rules for all of us. He was taking on society. He championed our desire to change the world, to save the world. Everyone thought he might make a real difference in the world. Before he went to Guyana he was seen as a winner. When he was in Guyana he was actually wanted by the law in the States. Of course, no one wanted by the law is seen as a winner. I ought to know.
Was Jim paranoid? Yes. Severely so. Still, there is an old saying on the street; “Just because you are paranoid does not mean that they are not really out to get you.”
Once Jim asked me to put bars on his windows. After I had done so he harassed me in a Planning Commission meeting, saying, “Why did you put bars on the windows? What if there was a fire?” It was after that incident that I decided to look in his pill bag. I found amphetamines. Of course, in those years doctors were prescribing amphetamines (diet pills) to housewives like they were M&M’s. No one seemed to know at that time that the regular use of amphetamines creates mental-ward type schizophrenia. The pills also help to explain his megalomania. Speed and megalomania seem to always go hand in hand.
A year before the deaths in Jonestown, another speed-addicted demigod killed himself. His name was Elvis. Like Elvis, Jim eventually became a drug-sick image of his earlier self. “It is hard to be an image,” Elvis said, after someone commented that he was more famous than Jesus. “It is hard to be God,” said Jim Jones.
As we prepared for the meetings, Jim would peek out to see the crowd filling up the sanctuary. The energy was building. People on the welcoming committee were screening everyone at the door. Some of what they learned was sent to Jim. He was always trying to learn things about people as they came in.
Backstage Jim combed his black hair in the mirror. Then he took one lock and pulled it down onto his forehead as if he was Elvis getting ready for a show. Once Elvis commented, “It is true that I am aware of every move that I make.” Jim’s charisma was similar. Or rather, it was not so much charisma, as a conscious observance of the connotation and the implication of his body’s every movement and his voice’s every inflection and tonality. Of course, it was a big help to train everyone else to walk behind you and make a big racket over your every gesture. Having a few people appear to “drop dead” is a powerful thing too.
It is not much different to hear former Benny Hinn security guards tell how they rehearsed falling over or going into jerking motions. It worked really well for Jim when Rheaviana Beam pretended to drop dead in Ukiah, because she fell under the table and no one could see her. I had just come into the church and I was so scared I could hardly eat my green beans. When Jeff Carey pretended to drop dead in Los Angeles, it was pretty clear that he never rehearsed. I simply could not believe the poor acting. I was all the way in the back of the sanctuary, and I could still see him breathing. At least he could have fallen under a church pew, for goodness sake.
Wearing sunglasses makes people who are already afraid of you think you are quite charismatic also. Like Rasputin, Jim had a mystical stare. He once said, “I think I am going to go blind wearing these sunglasses.” Jim Jones would have liked to remove the glasses but he thought his eyes appeared too humble without them, so he created mystery with his sunglasses.
One of the most important reasons for the sunglasses came into play when he had to look down at the black-and-red typed pages lying on the pulpit in front of him during the healing. It takes talent to hold your chin up and look down to read the names of people you are healing and to read facts about their lives. I can only think of one or two other people who are alive besides myself who have seen these pages. However, his healings were definitely not limited to these cheat sheets.
Once I remember him taking his shoes off and balancing in his sock feet on the slippery and thin top edges of the backs of the church pews, moving from one end to the other, right through the crowd. I am very coordinated but was not able to do it in the empty sanctuary the next day. He would give every single person in the room a chance to get to him.
However, Jim was not all show. When he built faith up high many people were really healed. Greatest of all he wanted to improve the human condition and he might raise the money to bond someone out of jail right on the spot. Once he paid for everyone in the audience to get a free sickle cell anemia shot.
On occasion, an elderly couple would face losing their house, and Jim would raise the money, then and there, to pay their mortgage. A truly dedicated senior named Hezekiah had his car stolen out of the parking lot while he was supposed to be guarding the place. No problem, Jim bought him another one. A year later the Mexican government wrote to tell me, they had the car. I went to Tijuana with my only Spanish member and brought the car back and drove it myself.
Poor folk who were not far from the streets had never seen anything like Jim. Reverend Ike only took their money, he never gave anything back. Jim Jones was like a black man’s Elvis giving away cars in the hood. So I tried to do the same thing. Cars were donated to the church and I would give them to single mothers with five kids. I think it’s true that Jim was not in it for the money. Even though the church had millions of dollars, he didn’t buy things for himself. He tried to be a man of the people.
But I could not believe that while the rest of us were struggling to stay awake in all night meetings that Jim was popping speed. Still, I will never forget the sweetness and the goodness of the dear members of the Los Angeles church. As long as I live I will be filled with fond recollections of my experiences as a pastor in Peoples Temple. In all I never dreamed that in a few years I would leave the church in protest of Jim’s divided mind and increasing demonstrations of twisted behavior.
During the time I was in Peoples Temple, I was married twice. Both women were very different individuals, although both of them were beautiful and black. My separation from my first wife, Maryell Norris, was a tragedy. My second wife, Juanell Smart, who headed the membership committee, was the daughter of Kay Enola Nelson who was our L.A. Treasurer. My new uncle through marriage was Jim McElvane, the head of Security for Ukiah and San Francisco.
I was forced to leave, out of principle. I owe it to Kay for making it clear after I left that I did not take a dime of Peoples Temple money. I truly believe that this bothered Jim, because I was a signatory of the account, and not touching a dime made it clear that I left the church out of principle.
Not long after leaving Los Angeles, people from the church found me and brought me back to San Francisco. My second escape was a little more of a dramatic one. I lowered my trunk down the three stories of the San Francisco church and walked out past the staff empty-handed, then told the security the trunk was stuff for a yard sale. Chris Lewis and Jim McElvane soon found me waiting for a bus out of “Grey Rabbit” bus lines, sort of a hippie version of Greyhound. When I refused to talk to Jim on the phone, they left and returned with what looked like all 60 members of the Planning Commission. I slipped past them wearing a long hair wig and a poncho, a disguise loaned to me by the very helpful people of Grey Rabbit.
The church continued to hunt me down. The second time that the church found me, they put pressure on me to hand over certain tape recordings, and a messenger for Jim whispered in my ear that a Mafia contract had been put on my life, because I had been “tape recording the church.”
I was in Denver, Colorado, at the time. Approximately one week later, an unknown California man filed charges against me, and I was subsequently arrested. My lawyer told me that all aspects of the case were very suspicious and that the judge was taking illegal actions, as if he had been bought off. That’s when I decided to jump bond.
After I left the church I got Juanell and the children out next, and drove them to Denver with me. My warnings failed to undo the children’s excitement for the church, and to my disappointment they went back to stay with their grandmother. Sadly, Juanell’s mother, her uncle and her four children died in Guyana.
I was exposed to the black culture in a way that probably no other Peoples Temple white-bread person saw it. No matter the color, some of us have no where to go but up. Some of us have little left to lose. Some of us really, really need help and hope. The Jonestown grave is full of hundreds of unclaimed dead blacks who literally had no one on earth to claim them. There is no one to speak for some of us. Jim claimed he was all that. Did he mean well? Let’s look at what has become of one of his most passionate issues.
Statistics reported in the New York Times show that over half of all black men between the ages of 18 and 40 will be in prison or in detention camps in only six more years. I’m not speaking just of men from Watts or Harlem, but of all black men in this country. Is this possible? Why aren’t all of us aware of this? Why isn’t this as pressing an issue as our nation’s war of liberation in Iraq, or even the 700 detained Muslims at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba?
With all his flaws, Jim Jones gave ghetto and urban blacks a voice. He often talked about Samuel Yette’s book, The Choice, which forecast that all blacks will be put in concentration camps or exterminated. This seems awfully harsh, and these days, it doesn’t look likely. After all, in the past 25 years many blacks have taken positions in government all across the United States.
However, living in the ghetto is a form of concentration camp… already. Unbelievable as it may sound, there exist tons of information on the Internet showing that the CIA began shipping drugs and guns to the ghettos around 1980, a practice that continued for over ten years. At the same time laws were passed making the penalties for crack up to 100 times tougher than the penalties for powder cocaine, the rich man’s drug. The U.S. prison population tripled between 1980 and 1993, and the Justice Department reports that that figure doubled again by 2002. The United States has 25% of the world’s prisoners and we are only about 4% of the world’s population. We have more people locked up than any nation on earth… by far. If prison is the opposite of freedom, then this is not the land of the free.
Former CIA employees have indicated that the agency wished to wipe out blacks. US Army CIA agent Albert Corone testified that, “there were some at the CIA that felt that physical slavery could be replaced by pharmaceutical slavery, and that’s why African American gangs, i.e. ‘Bloods’ and ‘Crips,’ were singled out for distributing the drugs brought into the United States by the CIA.” This information can be found on the Internet, or in books like Dark Alliance and White Out and others. Since this is exactly what Jim was talking about, we must now ask:
Was Jim Jones really a “Voice for the People,” or was he a con artist? With all of Jim’s bitter hatred for the government and his unparalleled emphasis toward raising money, you know he never planned to let the government come in and take it in the end. Of course he lost control.
I believe he meant to do good. But it is hard to be a “Spokesman for the People.” When we look at Medgar Evers, we see that standing up for civil rights can get you killed. When we look at Malcolm X, we see that being a “Spokesman for the People” did not turn out very well for him either. Look at Martin Luther King, another “Spokesman for the People.” Look at the Kennedys …all shot down. Being a “Spokesman for the People” appears to mean that you’ll have a very short life. I believe Jim let it work on his head. I remember him wondering if he should wear a helmet out back of the church so no one could snipe him from a distance.
In Guyana, the Green Berets, led by Bo Gritz, worked directly under the command of the CIA. You might remember Bo Gritz. The most decorated Vietnam veteran in history, Gritz later became famous as the vice president candidate on the ticket with Ku Klux Klanner David Duke. Gritz also garnered some publicity when he tried to intervene in a stand-off between the police and Randy Weaver’s White Supremacist group. Right in front of the press, Bo gave the skin-head Nazis who were gathered outside a Heil Hitler salute.
Bo Gritz said that the man he sent into Jonestown returned with the report, “The niggers are all dead.” That tells us a lot, doesn’t it? Charles Huff, one of the Green Berets in charge, said that following the deaths in Jonestown, 16 of the trained soldiers who were witnesses then committed suicide themselves. One of the soldiers who participated in the operation has spoken out about how they shot the survivors and how they were ordered to disturb the bodies.
I lived as a fugitive until the year 2000, when I was thoroughly investigated by the FBI. They informed me that I was no longer “wanted” anywhere. Apparently charges against me were dropped after the Jonestown deaths, and I never knew it. Over the years I had done some research to find out what parts of the Jonestown story were true, and which were not, since I hoped to confirm that no Mafia contract had really been taken out on me. I was especially interested in the involvement of the FBI or the CIA. By providence or by fluke I eventually made personal contact with some of the Green Berets who landed in Jonestown and finally felt I had most of the story.
After the FBI gave me the third degree I felt that I had nothing to lose by taking my name back.
As I look back over the past 24 years I have worked nearly every job you could imagine under a variety of names. I did most forms of blue collar work as well as white. I am a carpenter, plumber, electrician, mechanic, etc. I was a dance teacher and I was a stunt man. I did a Las Vegas show as a singer, but I sang in many other places as well. I was the manager of a radio station in Maine. I was the news director of Kansas radio. I did a health show on the radio. I did health research for life extension doctors. I did free paralegal work for the poor. I am the inventor of a variety of world improvement technologies.
I have been in the newspaper many times around the country, for my world improvement technologies, as well as for singing at the county fairs. I was on the front page of the Salt Lake City paper for winning rights to defend tenants from slumlords. I was on the front pages of Maine newspapers for setting up an alcohol fuel plant that turned waste potatoes into Made in Maine Windshield Washing Fluid. I also demonstrated how by using a catalyst called zeolite the nation’s farmers could turn this alcohol into gasoline. I continue to demonstrate my high mileage devices, which are unique fuel vaporizers that would end the greenhouse effect and reduce our need for foreign oil. I continue to work for world improvement. At one website, you can learn about cures for diseases and energy answers the monopolies have kept off the market.
One of the FBI agents informed me that I was the most colorful individual that they had ever investigated. They ought to know, they read through my files and personal notes, they went through my audio tapes, they watched video tapes of me singing at clubs as well as singing and preaching heaven on earth in churches.
The FBI even took samples of my hair and my clothing. Then just in case I were to turn into a sociopath some time in the future, they gave me a lie detector test asking me odd questions like; “Would you ever lie to the congregation?” and “Would you ever do anything to hurt the congregation?”
Still, no matter what I have gone through, I am deeply grateful for my years in the Temple. Before things began to go over the deep end, I must say, I have never since met or known such people, trying together, sharing together, and caring together for a better world.
Personally, I see the larger society as the biggest cult. The word “cult” is used against anyone who chooses to create new rules or establish new ways. New ways, of course, stand a greater chance of being accepted if they do not involve force or coercion. I suppose everything is a cult that does not empower people. Usually no individual or group is all good or bad, but a combination of both.
For almost five years in Los Angeles I went to a variety of Socialist bookstores and provided Jim with Socialist magazines and newspapers. In the end Jim did not seem to grasp that you can have dictatorship under both this-ism or that-ism. He was misled by the oxymoron “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” I understand it was the height of the Cold War. Dialectical Materialism meant basically that you believed in cause and effect. Jim wanted to control the cause and effect and he copied anything that worked. He copied the cult of the army, the cult of the police, the cult of the CIA, the cult of American politics, the cult of American business, the cult of advertising and the cult of the American churches.
All of these groups believe that the end justifies the means. They all use divide and conquer methods. In fact the wrong means always leads to the wrong results. A good goal will be undermined and destroyed by the wrong methods. In the beginning Jim admired the historical Jesus and Martin Luther King, and he even gave his son the middle name, Gandhi. You have to be pretty sincere to name your son after your belief. But there were two Jim Jones: the one that I met and the one that I got away from. He eventually became more bitter and hardened. I watched as he changed more and more to believe in Malcolm and Che Gueverra and Mao and “by any means necessary”.
My last conversations with Jim were over this very thing. I said, “Jim, you used to be dead set against ‘guilt.’ You knew how disabling it was. You said how bad it was. Your paper which I distributed in L.A. spoke clearly against it. Now you openly use guilt.”
He replied, “Some of us have found that guilt is useful.”
I said, “I believe whoever ‘some of us’ may be, are dead wrong.”
(David Parker Wise is a former member of Peoples Temple. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. His website is JonestownLegacy.com. Mr. Wise can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)