Letter from Dominique Z. Delphine

Dear Mr. Haulman:

I have just received word that Jynona Norwood has instituted a lawsuit against Evergreen Cemetery for its work with the Jonestown Memorial Fund Committee (composed of Peoples Temple survivors) in finally placing on the mass burial site memorial plaques with the inscribed names of the 918 people who died at Jonestown on November 18, 1978. I am very sorry that Ms. Norwood lost 27 family members, and I acknowledge her suffering, but she is not the only one who was deeply affected by the Jonestown Massacre.

I was a member of Peoples Temple Christian Church of the Disciples of Christ from 1970 to 1976. Our “cause” was a product of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and I for one became a member because I subscribed to the vision of brother- and sisterhood, and racial and economic equality for all people that Jim Jones set forth as his mission statement. I was there to help advance his efforts to create a place where these ideals could be practiced.

One of my duties was to head a household known as the Children’s Commune, where we (I, my husband Bob Houston, and a number of adults who acted as house-parents) cared for 14 Temple children who were living with us. Ten of these children and many of the adults died in Jonestown.

Children Who Died at Jonestown:

Patricia Houston and Judy Houston (my stepdaughters), Odesta Buckley and Frances Buckley, Dee Dee Lawrence and Ronald Lawrence, Jim Arthur Jones (Jim Jones’ grandson), Lerna Jones, Kirtas Smith, William Galley.

Adults Who Died at Jonestown:

Teresa King, Brenda Jones, Phyllis Houston, Luna Buckley, Marie Lawrence, Anita Ijames.

These people represent my closest Temple “family” members. In addition, because of my work with Temple seniors on medical issues, I knew several hundred other people with whom I had developed a warm and caring relationship.

Even though it has now been 32 years since this unspeakable tragedy occurred, hardly a day goes by that I do not think of these beautiful souls, and feel my heart wrench at the memory of their brutal deaths. I developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of this experience, and my life since then has been heavily impacted. I have received 8 years of counseling, and have spent 20 years in 12-step programs because of addictions I developed in an effort to lessen the emotional pain associated with the Jonestown Massacre.

I read a number of years ago about Jynona Norwood having blocked an earlier attempt by Temple survivors to raise money for a memorial. Because of Ms. Norwood’s actions, they returned to donors $5,000 in funds which had been raised at that time. I felt heartsick then, but realized that the Jonestown Massacre raised many conflicting emotions in survivors as well as family members who were not Temple members (which was the case with Ms. Norwood). I mistakenly expected the issue would soon be resolved. I believe it has been at least 25 years since that interaction took place.

Over the years I have attended Jonestown Memorial Services at Evergreen, although living near Seattle, Washington for the past 30 years has made it difficult for me to be present at as many services as I would have liked. For many years I was too traumatized to attend, but when I did come to my first service, I was shocked and dismayed to see that the only marker and memorial to the 918 souls who are buried there was one small granite headstone of a size most often used to mark the graves of one or two people.

I was extremely pleased to learn of the memorial plaques now being installed and of the memorial service slated for May 29, 2011. Unfortunately, I am presently visiting in Springfield, Ohio where I am helping care for my 92-year old mother following abdominal surgery. I was saddened to learn the service was scheduled at this time because there is no way that I can leave here now. Otherwise, I definitely would have attended.

My heart has been vexed all these years by the lack of a suitable memorial. This issue has been compounded by the fact that most of the people who died were African-American – folks who too often have been the throw-away members of our society. When viewing the former marker, anyone visiting Evergreen Cemetery to pay homage to the Jonestown victims would believe that they have been forgotten. I know that I am not alone in still grieving my loved ones who perished so far away from the Bay Area. I have always been utterly grateful that Evergreen Cemetery was so generous in providing us with a beautiful site for their earthly remains, and I know to the bottom of my soul that they will rest in greater peace when there are memorial plaques with their names inscribed on them. I will certainly be more at peace knowing they have been acknowledged in this manner. The victims of Jonestown were not an anonymous group of people but rather individuals who were cherished and loved by both their blood families and their “Temple family.”

The most painful part of Ms. Norwood’s actions has been her success in creating a deep division between blood family members of the victims (who were mostly African-American since the Temple was 80% Black) and the former Peoples-Temple-member survivors (many of whom are Anglo-American). Healing could have occurred much sooner if we all had been able to come together in our mutual grief, and work together to create a memorial that was acceptable to all concerned parties. Unfortunately, Ms. Norwood set herself as the spokesperson for the former, and treated survivors in an adversarial manner. Personally, I do not care who erects the memorial. If Ms. Norwood had succeeded in raising funds, working with Evergreen to design a memorial suitable to the site and having it built, more power to her. I would have gladly supported her efforts financially and in other ways. However, she has not been able to accomplish this in 32 years, and it is definitely time to call a détente and just get it done. All parties involved in this matter are growing older. I pray that the memorial is completed in our lifetime!!

Not only did the Peoples Temple family die in Jonestown, but because our social experiment in apostolic living came to such a horrendous and abrupt conclusion, all the principles for which we stood and all that we accomplished was completely obscured by the final moments. Moreover, it feels that by Ms. Norwood’s actions she has in effect rubbed salt in the wounds of survivors and family members alike. The publicized struggle over construction of the memorial seems to have underscored a message already put out by the media: “Black and White people cannot live and work together in harmony and love.” That is not the truth of the matter. The real message is that one cannot give away one’s power to a human being, because “absolute power corrupts absolutely“  Ultimately, one’s total allegiance and power can only be safely entrusted to a Higher Power – by whatever name one chooses to call it.

My great hope, and that of many survivors, is that because of this well-publicized tragedy, the Jonestown victims shall not have died in vain, and that others can learn of the danger of cults so that they can avoid becoming ensnared in this type of negative situation. This educational goal will be best accomplished when the memorial plaques are in place, and our loved ones are properly acknowledged.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Dominique Z. Delphine (formerly known as Joyce Shaw-Houston)
c/o Larry E. Hauf, 654 Lammes Lane, New Carlisle, OH 45344

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on December 9th, 2013.
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