A Child’s Life in the Temple

I was one of the original members of Peoples Temple who migrated to California from Indianapolis. My memories of Peoples Temple go back to when I was just three years old. Even though I was very young, my memories are still vivid of those early days. Jim was full of energy, fun, and mischief. Whenever I got his attention, he would come over, pick me up and make such a fuss. I was hooked by his attention and charm from my youngest years.

I can still picture my mother and several of the other parish women working in the large kitchen preparing meals for the Sunday services. Usually, halfway through the preparation, the women would kick off their high heels and make themselves more comfortable. On one of those days, Jim came into the kitchen to dote over the ladies and taste the goods being prepared. However, being the prankster that he was in those days, once the women went back to their duties and were distracted, he stole their shoes. Of course, once services were ready to begin, the women scrambled about in stocking feet looking for their footwear, only to find that Jim had strategically placed their shoes in various places throughout the hallway and interior of the church. My mother found her shoes hanging off the hallway wall lamps.

My fondest, but most bittersweet, memory of those early years was my friendship with Jim and Marceline’s adopted daughter, Stephanie. She barely spoke English, but we managed to communicate in a way that was very sweet and pure. To me, she was like a beautiful China doll, and I adored her. We spent every other weekend at each other’s homes. I remember the excited anticipation I felt knowing that I would be spending time with my dear friend. We often exchanged little gifts. Once she gave me a pair of pink silk oriental pajamas, and I gave her a pearl necklace and bracelet. The weekend that she was killed in the car crash coming back from the Cincinnati zoo, was supposed to be our weekend together at her house. Even though I was invited to make the trip to the zoo, at the last minute I was unable to go.

I remember bits and pieces of Stephanie’s funeral. It rained so hard that day. The sky was as black as the sea of umbrellas that shielded us from the downpour. Back in the 50’s cemeteries were still segregated, and Stephanie, being Korean, was not allowed to be buried in the white section. The gravesites reserved for non-whites was on a lower plane of ground, and was prone to flooding. I remember my mother taking my hand and walking me up to the coffin to say our final goodbye. As we placed our hands on the coffin, I remember looking down into the grave and seeing the water seeping into Stephanie’s final resting place.

I also remember Marceline telling us that the night that Stephanie was killed, she had a premonition of her daughter’s death. It was pouring down rain the night of the accident, and around the time that she would have been expecting Stephanie to return home, she heard a knock at the front door. Standing at the front door was Mable Stewart – Loretta Cordell’s mother – and Stephanie soaked to the bone. Marceline motioned for them to go around to the back door, where she would meet them with towels. However, when she went to the back, there was no Stephanie or Mable. Confused, she returned to the front door to see if they were still there, but they were not there either. It was shortly afterwards that she was notified of the horrific car accident that had taken her precious daughter from her.

Jim and Marceline often told the story of how Stephanie would beg them to save her older sister in Korea, but the adoption rules only allowed for two children and they had already adopted Stephanie and Lew. Shortly after Stephanie’s death, the Jones’ petitioned to adopt Stephanie’s sister. Suzanne was brought to America at age seven, the age that many young orphans in Korea were put out to the street to fend for themselves.

Stephanie was buried with my pearl necklace and bracelet. Knowing that comforted me, even as a child. My bond with Stephanie felt magical, and I have treasured it my whole life.

When I think of those early years, my heart fills with an ache that is almost unbearable. I find it so difficult to wrap my mind around the changes that took place that led to the tragedy of Jonestown. Those radical changes that began in the early 70’s set off the alarm that ultimately caused me to leave my beloved friends and the only life I knew.

My life has taken many turns since that time. Although I have some wonderful friends in my life now, we don’t have the same depth of connection that I had with my friends at PT. The trust we shared was unique and driven by our desires and dreams of a better world. We were optimistic, and we loved each other deeply for it! I miss that kind of enthusiasm and wide-eyed innocence of thought and deed that we shared. For one brief moment we came together with the belief that we could create an ideal society free of the burdens of prejudice and greed and inequity.

I suppose over the years I have become too pragmatic and jaded for such naive thinking. Even so, I still believe in the power of good that exists within each of us to make a difference. I am grateful to have recently discovered that some of my cherished friends from my youth survived and have managed to move forward with their lives. It helps to soothe the ache I feel for those who were lost.

(Denise Davenport Fabrizio can be reached at denisefab1953@gmail.com. Her complete collection of stories for this site may be found here. She would love to hear from her old friends in the Temple.)