This past May, I witnessed the long-awaited closure portion of the Peoples Temple story. As an outsider, I can’t know the emotional wounds and grief experienced time and again by survivors and family members of those who were lost, but I can say that I saw the bond you have with one another. It surpasses that of most families that are tied by blood, and it is enviable.
I knew the names and faces of many of those who attended the dedication service because of the many documentaries I have seen and the books and articles I have read. I knew I was a stranger to many who were present that day – I was drawn to attend out of my own interest to understand and because of an art series project I have been working on – but everyone welcomed me, and I didn’t feel like an outsider. There were so many people, that I didn’t get a chance to meet everyone. I was impressed with the arrangement and design of the new grave site marker and the four plaques which reminded me of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. During the ceremony, service, and speeches, I could actually feel the common experience of relief and closure that the victims were finally afforded their due respect and recognition. The strong sense of family I felt reminded me of my grandmother’s funeral in 2006.
Later, at the backyard gathering at Jordan Vilchez’ home, I found everyone to be lively, upbeat, and interesting. At first, I was a little tense – since the only times I had seen them were on television documentaries or in various news magazines – but it didn’t take long for me to realize that they are just regular folks like myself. Though they hold a variety of different worldviews, they maintain a very close knit and tight bond with one another, stronger than anything I’ve seen in mainstream church denominations and other organizations. I came away with the realization that this group represents a surviving remnant – perhaps a scaled down cross-section – of what once was. This is the surviving legacy of what Peoples Temple as an organization accomplished in bridging economical and racial social barriers in this country. They have been denied the credit due them because of the tragic outcome in Guyana, but they demonstrated how perseverance and a deep sense of kinship can breathe new life into those pioneering goals.
I thank everyone for making me feel a part of you.
(Daniel Russell’s previous article for the jonestown report is The Miniaturization of Jonestown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)