I was a bit apprehensive about attending the May 29th memorial dedication. The last service I had attended was for the 25th anniversary of the Jonestown incident. My feeling of discomfort was still with me. Hate and prejudice had seemed to be the message at that service. Hate for Jim Jones, some members of the Temple and of course whitey. The tension in the air had been palpable. The negativity was so out of character for those we were memorializing. I just could not bring myself to attend another November 18th service.
I had vacillated on attending all week prior to the memorial. All the way to Oakland, I didn’t know what to expect. Four and a half hours of waiting for more of the same. I had told my brother I would attend. So attend I would.
We arrived early. The gate was still closed. I had lived just a few blocks away. The neighborhood seemed a little less friendly, more dilapidated. We drove to the 73rd Avenue side of the Mall. I had lived across the street when it was built. Then we turned down a residential street. Neat, well-kept homes definitely predominated the neighborhood, their owners’ pride apparent.
My memories were so close to the surface. The small quiet cemetery had been a refuge from the city for me. I had used it as a shortcut for three years. In fact, I had cut through this very spot on my way to school. Most kids were afraid to venture there. How could I ever guess that less than a decade later all the people my father had lived with, had laughed with, had loved, would all be buried here. How strange coincidence is.
As I waited for the service to start, I gazed out over Oakland. Such a beautiful day had arrived for our memorial. The warm sun was very welcome. A soft light breeze ruffled everyone. It was a welcome change from the months of late rain. I don’t care what anyone has to say about Oakland, I like it. It still amazes me that Evergreen Cemetery was the only place that would inter the people from Jonestown. And people they were. People with a great vision, a wonderful dream, people who were tired of the status quo.
There were a lot of people at the cemetery, and most seemed to know each other. I was growing more nervous as time crept forward. Not wanting to hear the things I had heard before. A knot in my stomach was working away at me. Then a very handsome lady came up and asked me if I had lost a loved one. I replied “Donald Robert Bower, my father.” She introduced herself as Laura Johnston Kohl and told me that she had been a member of Peoples Temple herself. She introduced me to Don Beck, who had known my dad. He described the person I thought he would have been: Hard working, quiet, dedicated to his principles and ideals. Of course it was what I wanted to hear, but I also knew it was the truth. Finally after all these years I had met someone who knew my dad. I actually started to feel I was in the right place.
The service was about to start. I was prepared for more of the rhetoric I had listened to before. What a pleasant surprise. Everyone who spoke said something positive. It was the service I had waited to hear for 32 years, a memorial service to our loved ones. Everyone was represented, from the youngest to the oldest. All were memorialized. All of their pictures displayed. All of their names were listed on the tasteful granite plaques, even that of Pastor Jim Jones.
The day was about saying goodbye, a day to let the bad feelings go, a day of reconciliation. Speeches were given by survivors and family members. The Guyanese Ambassador, Bayney Karran, gave a nice speech about the things that had happened in Guyana that fateful day. He also informed us of the progress achieved by his countrymen since the Jonestown incident. Flowers were laid with loving care. Someone had been thoughtful enough to bring paper and crayons so we might capture the names of our loved ones from the stones, although a fairly aggressive media presence made the rubbing of the names difficult. I guess it is necessary to indulge the media to keep our story alive, but I was not happy with their indifference to us.
The service was winding down. I had my rubbings of my dad’s name, his partner/wife, Naomi, her children and grandchildren. I had photographs of the granite plaques and of all of the pictures of the people lost. I was feeling a sense of relief sweep over me. These people here and I had connected somehow. I did belong to this small group. We are a group of people who will forever think of that fateful day in a jungle in a small South American country.
Seeing Jim Jones’ name on the memorial made me reflect on the strife this had caused and how we should have decided who deserved to be on the plaque and who did not. Who am I to say his name should not be there? He died right along with everyone else. If we only put the innocent on the plaques, the only names would be the very young children. Who am I to judge the members and followers of Peoples Temple? I am sure no one planned on dying that November day. No amount of bad mouthing is going to change anything. They will still be dead; we will still miss them. No amount of negative rhetoric will bring anyone back, but it can turn those who cannot let go into prisoners of their own hate.
I cannot change the past, but I can change how I deal with it. Let go of the negative and embrace what happened with a positive outlook and attitude. I can do nothing to change history, but I can give respect and honor to those who perished. Give them a thumbs up for their quest to find nirvana, to live for and with each other regardless of their color, race, national origin or political view points. Whether they were rich or poor, man, woman or child, these people gave up everything to create a just and caring world.
I still have mixed feelings. Grief is still with me, but also hope. Hope that our loved ones dreams of utopia will someday be a reality.
(Sarah Anne Bower is the daughter of Temple member Donald Bower who died in Jonestown. Her story about the continuation of the day appears here.)