On Sunday, May 29, 2011, I had the true honor of traveling from my current home in Cleveland, Ohio, to be part of the Jonestown memorial at Evergreen Cemetery and the gathering afterwards at Jordan Vilchez’ home. The day was one of the most moving, rewarding, and unforgettable of my life. I will be forever grateful to the Temple family, particularly survivors and relatives, for allowing me to invade their emotional space on such an important day. Although I am not directly involved in the story of Peoples Temple, I felt completely welcome and accepted.
My first recollection of hearing about Peoples Temple, like most people, dates to November 1978. I can see a small group of us in Mr. Patton’s 6th grade class in Redondo Beach, California, gathering around the teacher’s desk one morning and “discussing” the headline of the day: a whole bunch of people had killed themselves in some far-off country. It was very strange, more than our 11-year-old minds could comprehend. As kids do, without actually saying so, we figured it must’ve been something only adults could really understand.
When my mom and dad divorced, my dad, an idealistic, liberal, white social worker who requested to be assigned to the Watts area in the 1960s, enlisted an elderly, black woman named Mae C. Brooks to help care for me. She took in foster kids in her Compton home, and my father met her in the course of his work. She was the rock in my life, and I spent much of my childhood in her home, eating her grits and award-winning peach cobbler. I was a pale redhead and everyone else was black, but I felt more accepted and at peace when I was on that block of W. 131st Street than I ever did at home in my suburb by the beach. She and I remained very close even after I outgrew the need for her to watch me, and when she died, I was devastated. A few years later I moved with my dad to Indiana, and Indiana became my adopted home state.
Jonestown and Peoples Temple had found a place in the back of my mind. I felt no personal or emotional connection to those who were part of the story. In my understanding, they were a homogenous group of nameless and faceless people who did a really bizarre thing for some incomprehensible reason. That was until I saw Stanley Nelson’s documentary. With Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, the Temple story moved to the forefront of my emotions and thoughts. For the first time, I saw footage of real, three-dimensional, “normal” people joyfully engaged in activities like picnics, bus rides, singing in a choir, etc. Everyone had a unique and captivating life story, and a different experience in the Temple, and I wanted to hear them all. The early years of Peoples Temple in Redwood Valley seemed especially idyllic in many ways. This seemed to be an amazing bunch of people, and there was much more to the story than just Jim Jones or the deaths in Guyana.
Through the film I also learned that there was a major Indiana connection, which pulled me in further. I was fascinated by every detail of the story, and deeply moved. I also have no doubt that a major reason for my deep emotional connection with the Temple story had to do with my old friend Mae C. and the wonderful times I spent as a child in her house and playing on her block. When I learned of the L.A. Temple, I realized that her Compton home was just a few miles to the south. I could relate to the Temple folks I saw in that footage from the late 1960s and early 1970s. They reminded me of the most important adults of my own childhood.
On the day of the memorial, I arrived at the cemetery early. A small group of people were already there, and I immediately recognized Laura Johnston Kohl among them. It was a pleasure to talk to her for a few minutes before I found a quiet place to sit and observe and reflect. More people arrived and I was struck by a couple of things. First of all, I didn’t pick up any “tense vibes” between the Temple folks. What I saw was warmth, seemingly unconditional acceptance, and a comfort level you’d expect to find among people who have known each other for a long time and been through an awful lot together. Second, while there was sadness and grieving, I felt a lot of happiness and positive “healing” going on. Yes, many people were lost in Guyana, but they were remembered fondly, lovingly, even with humor. They are not forgotten. It seemed like closure – not the re-opening of wounds – was the order of the day.
The memorial dedication was beautifully done. One of the most moving moments was when an older white man came forward to speak. He had been the boss of Temple member Roosevelt Turner in a small construction company in the mid-1970s. He recalled the day Roosevelt Turner announced he was leaving the job and heading for Guyana. Because he was so skilled at building homes, Roosevelt Turner had been part of the first Temple group to go down to Jonestown. Now his former boss had traveled to the memorial, just because he wanted his former employee from over 35 years ago to be remembered as very talented and hard-working. I was also impressed by the poise, confidence and centeredness of Leslie Wagner-Wilson’s daughter who spoke along with many others.
After the ceremony, Jordan Vilchez hosted a get-together at her house. There, acceptance, forgiveness and even some happiness intermingled with the grief and loss. I felt so privileged to be able to share in terrific conversations with former members. At one point, someone did a marvelous, comically exaggerated impression of Jim Jones’ famous quote to the NBC news crew, “What can I tell you, brother? People lie, they lie…” and we all laughed. I will treasure that memory forever.
When the evening was winding down, I was given a ride to the BART station by a group of former members. I was quiet and just listened to the conversation. I thought about the day that had gone by and the warm, accepting people whom I had so enjoyed spending time with. A few descriptive words formed in my mind: ”normal”, decent, well-meaning, dedicated, kind. Above all, “normal” and decent. This is what I want the world to know and understand: Temple members were and are wonderful human beings. Perhaps they are best described as passengers on a train of good intentions, which was run off the tracks by the conductor.
As I was driving home from the Cleveland airport on my return from Oakland, a familiar song came on the car radio. “That’s the Way of the World” was not only a hit by Earth, Wind and Fire, it was also the song that Diana Wilkinson sang in the Jonestown pavilion the night of November 17th. The words seem even more appropriate for May 29, 2011:
We’ve come together on this special day
To sing our message loud and clear
Looking back we’ve touched on sorrowful days
Future pass, they disappear
(Mike Lieber is a statistician and lives in Cleveland with his wife and two daughters. His other article in this year’s edition is On the Meaning of “Ordinary”. His articles for the jonestown report are collected here. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)