About a year ago, I moved from Los Angeles to my hometown in Louisiana. Much of the circumstance of the move was not by choice, but doing so made it possible to frequently visit the grave of my aunt, Mary Pearl Willis. It was the work of me and my son that led to the placement of her headstone, and I still beam with pride when reflecting on that accomplishment.
The town is a very small town. You never meet a stranger, you’re either related or a family friend. When you do meet someone new, the two most common questions asked are, “Who’s your mama?” and “Where do you go to church?”
As in most southern States, religion is vital in Louisiana. There is a church on every other corner, and every third person is a minister. No matter what your behavior is Monday through Saturday, you must be in church on Sunday. It is considered blasphemy if you are not.
Since religion is such an important part of people’s lives here, I wanted to know how they viewed that other religious group – Peoples Temple – so I questioned the locals, listened to their opinions, based equally upon media accounts and gossip, and answered their questions, with hopes of enlightenment. The people I spoke to ranged from early teens to mid-60s, and included my aunt’s peers, ministers, children of ministers, college and high school aged.
In general, I found the college and high schoolers to be in disbelief, since they had never heard about it. For them, wars or maybe September 11th were the only events resulting in many lives lost in a single act. There were a few who answered my questions with a dismissive “Oh, those people who killed themselves…” oblivious of the impact of their words. It was interesting to hear such questions as, “How could one person make them do that?”, since that is one I have tried to understand for myself.
But since religion does play such a major role in the South, one would think they’d ask the same questions of themselves, or see themselves mirrored in the faces of Temple members. How does anyone convince others to join their organization? To insist their interpretation of a book readily available to all is the only interpretation they need? To use their position as power? To use their power to persuade? To convince their followers to worship them and not God? To persuade others to finance their organization? These are the questions still being asked 32 years after Jonestown, about Jonestown. But not about their own institutions.
Those I spoke to were highly devoted to their beliefs, church and clergy, and a few were able to acknowledge flaws with the same. However, they would do anything to obtain a place in heaven. I explained how those in Jonestown had the same dedication, but we are so far detached from these people that their lives are reduced to a cliché, their organization condemned, the possibility of a personal connection dismissed.
It is their blindness, and it is their loss.
(Lela Howard is a frequent contributor to the jonestown report. Her other article in this edition is A memorial that stands. Her complete collection of writings for this site appears here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)