I was an active member of Peoples Temple from July ‘67-June ‘69. My introduction to PT was through my paternal aunt, Laura McQueen, in Hamilton, Ohio, in the late 1950’s. Along with Jack and Rheaviana Beam, Jim and Marceline Jones would often stay at my aunt’s home when Jim conducted services at various churches in the Cincinnati area. I was four years old at the time, and according to my aunt, Jim took an immediate liking to me. He always had an affinity for small children and young people, and would often befriend them.
My aunt first met Jim through PT members Joe and Clara Phillips with whom she would attend services at the original Temple in Indianapolis. She also donated money in support of Jim’s missionary trip to Brazil several years later.
After my parents divorced, I moved to Florida with my aunt and alternated living with her and my paternal grandmother. By that time, Jim had relocated to California, but my aunt kept in contact through the years and was invited out for a visit in the fall of 1966. During her visit, Jim told her that he had a revelation that I was on the verge of an emotional breakdown because of my dysfunctional family situation. I needed a masculine figure in my life, he said, and strongly suggested that a stay with the Temple would provide the stability and structure that I needed during my adolescent years.
Arrangements were made for me to fly out to California the following summer to get oriented and enroll in school with other Temple youth in the fall. During my first year I lived in Ukiah, California with the Phillips family – Joe and Clara and their children Danny, Janet, and Laura. I attended Anderson Valley High School in Boonville, 20 miles from Ukiah, during the ‘67-’68 school year with Danny Phillips and 10 other students from the Temple. (Jim taught at the local elementary school in the same community.) The following year, I went to Ukiah High School. I lived with the Phillips family for my first 13 months in California, until Joe and Clara divorced, and Jim forced Joe to leave the church. Jim then arranged for me to live with Jack and Rheaviana Beam and their children, Jack Arnold, Joyce, and Eleanor. During my 23-month stay, I attended Temple services every week, sang in the choir, and participated as a member of the youth group. I also assisted with the construction of the Redwood Valley Temple during the summer of 1968.
By December ‘68, I noticed that Jim’s sermons had become increasingly ominous and bizarre. He claimed he was the physical embodiment of Jesus Christ on earth, and because Jesus had become God he himself had become God. He also claimed to have lived as Buddha, Karl Marx, and Vladimir Lenin in previous lives. He became increasingly paranoid and warned all the Temple young people to associate only with other Temple members. It was around this time that he began to brag about his sexual prowess and claimed he routinely made love to his wife as many five times a night. He attributed such stamina to the fact that he was no normal man, and because his desires put such a physical demand on his wife, she had consented that he seek fulfillment with other partners. I found such claims to be narcissistic and self-indulgent and had absolutely nothing to do with establishing an egalitarian society free of bigotry and social injustice.
By June 1969, when my aunt and her sister visited, I was more than ready to return home. Jim found my decision to be tantamount to betrayal and disloyalty. He reminded me that he had been a ”prophet and shepherd” to me, and warned that I would face certain nuclear annihilation with the rest of mankind if I did not return to the Temple in the future. I told him the reason I was leaving – besides being homesick – was that because I perceived the ministry to be more focused on him and not the ideals of socio-economic equality. Over Jim’s protests – and despite his warnings – I did return to Florida where I graduated from a small Catholic high school in 1970.
Despite the passage of time and the tragic events of Jonestown, I still have many fond memories of former Temple members both living and dead. Even to this day I can honestly say they were some of the most highly principled individuals I have ever been associated with. Until earlier this year, the only contact I have had with anyone associated with the Temple during my stay was Mike Cartmell, who I spoke with by phone back in late 1998, but more recently, I have been in touch with several others, including Garry Lambrev, Ron Crawford, and Laura Kohl. I ask that anyone from the Temple’s days in Redwood Valley who remembers me to get in contact with me at email@example.com.
(Bernie Blanton lives in Tampa, Florida and is employed in the financial services industry.)