After the memorial service a reception was held at the home of Jordan Vilchez, a former member of Peoples Temple. Several people had come up and invited my husband and me to come. I was weighing the thought of going. I still felt an outsider, but I figured that if I really wanted to talk with anyone else, I should go. So we went.
It was a short drive from East Oakland to Richmond. We arrived in a nice well-kept neighborhood. The small Victorian house with a neat little front yard was a welcome surprise. We walked into the small yard and then onto a narrow sidewalk which led to the back of the house. There, to my delight, was a beautiful garden. I am a gardening fool; I love to play in the dirt. The garden was so inviting. There were beautiful specimens of plants that will flourish only in the mild climate of the Bay Area. My apprehension took a nosedive.
Inviting yard, inviting food, inviting people. I sat and listened to the people who had known each other for many years. The food was abundant and delicious. So much work, time and money had been expended. I felt a pang of guilt set in. I had not contributed anything towards this effort. I was so out of the loop about what had been arranged.
I was sitting close to Laura Kohl. I was eavesdropping as she talked with other guests. She took a break and asked if I had talked with Liz. Liz who? I had heard of Bea Orsot. I had heard of Naomi Johnson. No Liz, though. Someone pointed out a striking woman to me.
Liz seemed to know everyone. After she had made her rounds and visited her old friends, she finally sat down to eat. I just couldn’t wait any longer. After 30 years, I would talk with an individual who had been a personal friend of my dad. Not just someone who knew him, but an actual friend. I interrupted her meal, feeling a little rude. When I asked if she knew my dad, she lit up. I guess they had been good friends back in the day. She told me nice things about my dad, his love of books, his simplicity, his quietude. This short meeting had been worth the whole trip. Thank you, Laura, and thank you, Liz.
As I sat and listened to Liz, a lady about my age came and joined us. She had known my dad as a little girl. She also remembered his books. I remember going to a house up a long curving driveway. I was probably no older than 5 at the time. It was a very fuzzy memory. The house had sat atop a hill somewhere close to Richmond. I was only there the one time, as my visits with my dad were very infrequent. I do however remember my dad’s room with its book-lined walls. I remember him smiling. The lady told me she had also lived there as a little girl. I was almost jealous. I had thought it was my paternal grandparents’ home. I had no idea that the memory was actually of a commune. Memories are so funny. It seemed fitting that this was so after all of these years. It just wasn’t what I had pictured as a commune. The silly misperceptions we make about how others live!
A little later I talked with Liz’s son and did a short interview for a project he was working on. It is the first time I have ever willingly talked with someone who is on the business end of a video camera. My husband had gone to the car to rest before we made the trip home. I was trying to hurry so he wouldn’t have to sit too long. I was so involved listening to people’s stories I forgot to get anyone’s contact information.
I had relaxed and finally felt like a small part of this tight, close-knit group. I did have something in common with them. We had all lost part of our family. It made no difference if they were blood or not, they were still family. I felt at home here. My political beliefs were the norm among these people, not at all like the right wing conservative part of California which I live in. My feelings of social obligation and justice to those less fortunate than I were the feelings of most. My belief that the followers of Peoples Temple were more social than religious was verified. I was my father’s daughter, a socialist by conscience, a pacifist after many years of violent thoughts and actions, a completely different person than the one who learned that her father was dead in a jungle in South America.
I must say that the event that day in 1978 has changed my mind forever regarding political and social responsibilities. It has taken 30 years to actually see the dreams that the members of Peoples Temple envisioned. It has taken 30 years to admit that those dreams could so easily have been mine. They are dreams I still hope will come to fruition some day. Equality for all. It will make no difference what our skin color is, our national origin, religion, sexual orientation or our political affiliations. Poverty will be a thing of history.
A wise man once said, “Every society is judged by how it treats its least fortunate amongst them.” This should be what we as human beings are striving to accomplish, but greed and power are still considered admirable traits. I know I won’t live long enough for balance to be achieved.
It is a shame on our society that a thousand people were so frustrated with the status quo that death was a welcome alternative. What a waste of precious, caring human beings.
Rest well all, a lasting memorial has finally come to fruition in memory of each and every one of you. May all of us remember that all our loved ones wanted was a better world. Peace to all of you.
(Sarah Anne Bower is the daughter of Temple member Donald Bower who died in Jonestown. Her article about the Jonestown memorial is here.)