When I told friends, family, and coworkers that I planned to attend the Jonestown Memorial service in Oakland on May 29th, their reactions ran the gamut: I heard everything from the supportive “awesome” and “have a good time!” to the judgmental “creepy” and “why would you want to do that?” The answer was simple: I had to be there. As a graduate student with a more than passing interest in Jonestown, I have come to realize that the only way to understand the subject is to understand the people of Peoples Temple. And what I found was perhaps unexpected. Rather than a morbid or depressing affair, the service itself and the attitudes of the survivors were surprisingly uplifting.
Hope is a curious thing. The word “hope” was thrown around so much during the 2008 presidential campaign that it almost lost all meaning. Those who believed in their candidate, in particular, Barack Obama, fought with a zealousness and ferocity that some called “cult-like.” However, less than three years after Obama’s victory, many have lost that same hope. Blue districts have turned red, the Tea Party has thrust itself upon the political scene, and Obama’s approval rating has fallen drastically since his inauguration. How quickly the general American public forgets!
However, for a small group of remarkable individuals, hope still exists. While I cannot speak for all of the survivors of Peoples Temple, I can give you my impressions after listening to and conversing with some of the former members. Some survivors and their family members spoke of feelings of sadness in their memories of lost loved ones, and some even expressed feelings of anger towards Jim Jones, but the overwhelming emotion I came away with that day was hope. Even after undergoing horrible tragedy and loss, this group of people still believes. They believe in racial equality. They believe in social justice. They even believe in the power of people to do good work in this world, despite the failure of Jim Jones to realize the dream in Jonestown. After almost thirty-three years, these people still carry on with the same hopes and dreams.
When I returned home to San Diego, those same friends, family members, and coworkers wanted to hear about my experience in Oakland. My answer was simple: I came away feeling very hopeful about the future of mankind.