Within a week of the Jonestown tragedy in 1978, my wife Barbara said, “Jim Jones killed Carolyn, Annie and Kimo. I will not let him destroy me!” About the same time, our daughter Becky wrote in a letter to us, “We will seek the shelter of truth in our quest for understanding.” I did not ask God why God let this happen, but I did ask myself, “What will I do with what life has given me?” These words of the Apostle Paul came to me: “We know that in everything, God works with those who love him … to bring about what is good…”
I chose to work in doing that which is good as best I understood this. Barbara, Becky, her husband Mac, and I resolved to affirm the humanness of all who died.
Barbara and I began attending November 18th memorial services in the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland in 1989 or 1990. Bishop Jynona Norwood, who was a pastor in Los Angeles and had lost many relatives in Jonestown, organized and directed the service in 1979 and every year following. We attended the service every year until we moved to San Diego in 2002.
Dr. Chris Hatcher, a clinical psychiatrist, had been appointed by San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein to work with survivors. He gave an update on survivors at every service. Later Chris told me that shame was the most common experience of survivors. They knew that wherever they applied for a job, they would be asked about the kind of work they had been doing recently – of course the employer would need references – and that a truthful reply would likely cost them the chance at the position. That sense of shame and stigma extended to families both of the deceased and surviving former Temple members as well.
I served on at least two committees whose task was to erect a marker on the burial site at Evergreen Cemetery. After a meeting of the first committee, I rode with Jynona to Marin County where we talked with the manager of a firm that made monuments. I had an uneasy feeling when we discussed costs. It seemed to me that Jynona was ready to sign on the dotted line, so I asked the manager about a down payment. He said what I expected that he would say: one-third of the total cost had to be paid when the contract was signed. The committee didn’t have that kind of money, so we declined.
Jackie Speier, a state legislator, chaired a second committee several years later. At our last meeting the committee had enough cash on hand to pay for a monument with all the names on both sides of the monument. Jynona wanted all of the names to be on one side as they are at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. All of the members of the committee, except Jynona, favored moving ahead with the names on both sides. Rather than yield to the wishes of the committee majority, Jynona made it clear that she would sue us if we adopted the motion. That ended the meeting, and the committee soon disbanded. The committee members had volunteered to erect a marker, but not to defend ourselves in a lawsuit. I said to Jynona after the meeting, “As long as there is no marker at the cemetery, you will be responsible.”
I think that it was on the tenth anniversary of Jonestown when Jynona invited anyone who desired to say something to come to the microphone. Stephan Jones stepped forward for the first time and talked about coming to terms with his anger toward his father. He acknowledged all that his father had done. Nevertheless, he said, “I love him.” I had often thought how difficult it would be to be a child of Jim Jones. I felt that day that Stephan was free of anger and hate and all the weight of that relationship. Several years later members of Peoples Temple invited all survivors together for a luncheon after the service.
I felt that the service of dedication of the marker on Memorial Day was a glorious event. Many people who came for the first time had been anxious until they had arrived and were grateful for the gathering. Whatever shame and stigma that lingered from the tragedy nearly 33 years ago has lifted, as we transformed the anonymous “victims of Jonestown” from the previous headstone into individual names, and as we professed and reaffirmed our love for those who died.
(John V Moore gave the opening prayer at the Jonestown Memorial Service. He is a regular contributor to the jonestown report.)