(A second article by Leslie Wagner-Wilson in this edition of the jonestown report is He’s Able: They Live On. Her complete collection of articles for this site appears here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
As it happened, my book Slavery of Faith (available through my website) became the turning point in which I found the “peace” that had eluded me for so many years. It helped with the healing of my heart, mind and soul. The journey continues to transcend to a deeper spiritual understanding. For that I am eternally grateful. If this life ended today – with the closure, forgiveness, joy and such a love of God as I have found – I would leave with all this in my heart and soul. My God, could I ask for more? Certainly not.
The reaction to the book has been humbling and has definitely changed the direction of my life. Its message has carried itself across a range of institutions, from churches – which I expected – to the military, civic associations and other organizations that I did not anticipate. The people I talk to are amazed to hear that 33 people walked out of Jonestown, and that nine of them were African American.
The reader demographics of my book sales show that people are of all ages and have come from all walks of life. Many responses have told me that they have found hope and forgiveness. My forgiveness of Jim Jones and the freedom it allowed is encouraging for most. I explain that forgiving him allowed me to forgive myself. If we have been forgiven, how can I not forgive?
I remember at one gathering of over 200 people this past year when I opened the floor up for questions. For me, it is not just about sharing my testimony, but it is to give the audience a chance to have a conversation with someone who actually experienced the Temple and Jonestown. At times the questions have been raw, but that is exactly what I desire, for the audience to comfortable enough to ask the questions that they had.
The questions I fielded at that gathering and that seem to be the most common wherever I go:
1). How could so many people follow this man?
2). Did they not see what was happening in the United States?
3). Were people happy in Peoples Temple and Jonestown?
4). Did they all commit suicide?
At no time do I answer for anyone but myself. I do not begin to try to represent 918 lost souls. Everyone went to Jonestown for different reasons, suffered through for different reasons. My responses are from my understanding and experience alone. I speak of being so tired of the madness that I had to hang on to the strength of a God I did not even know. After all, we had a man we called “Father” who called himself God. Would God even hear me, as I had committed blasphemy and turned my back on him? He was a myth at that point – a thought like the thin light that comes through the sky at the time of sunrise, that you catch in a glimpse out of the corner of your eye. That was the amount of my understanding, but through that foundation of my grandparents’ faith and exposure to God, that allowed me not to give up. When I prayed, I wasn’t sure if my prayers would ever be answered, but I kept myself focused on knowing somehow God would hear me and respond.
My position of faith is humbling and oh so awesome. The comments I receive are praises to me for being so young and being so brave and having Faith and coming through 31 years of pain, and finally finding redemption. And I always reply, the credit does not go to me. All the credit goes to the love of God, for if you ask, you shall receive. I can say in this Faith walk that those that were left behind lost the connection with the true God years before. We can not have anything without knowing God – whether you call it the Universe, the Creator, pure unconditional love – and we will not excel nor exceed without it.
The people of Jonestown laid their faith at the feet of a maniac. My Jonestown family – even my mother – turned their backs on God a long time ago. The lessons of Jonestown were brutal. The reality can not be sugar-coated nor can the people be considered martyrs to anything, for that is not so. They died because they believed in a man – a human – and they disconnected with God. Do I blame them? No! The strategy to break the human spirits was swift and calculating. Humans can not be mentally tortured, physically starved, and emotionally turned upside down, and still continue to think clearly.
My speaking engagements focus on Faith, Love and Forgiveness. I speak to God being all inclusive, non-judgmental, unconditional and selfless. It is my responsibility to speak to that. One woman came up to me and asked me in the most humbling voice, “Can I just touch you?” I wanted to cry and I said to her, “Can I just hug you?” We embraced and I whispered in her ear, “God loves you.” She held tight and so did I.
There are many encounters such as that. When people email me and send me their phone number, I try to call them back. One woman emailed me a beautiful message. Of course I responded. However, one evening the spirit placed her on my heart and I called her. Her answer machine came on and I left a message for her – something to the effect that God placed her on my heart and I just wanted to give her a call and tell her she was loved. She called me back and said she could not believe that I had called at that particular moment, because she had had the worst day ever. I told her that God is awesome and I listen when he instructs me. There are many instances of this. And I am grateful to be able to listen and encourage.
The responsibility is great. It has changed my life forever. It has made me aware daily that I was spared for this very purpose. I go to bed praying for God to continue to use me and work every day to represent in a way that is pleasing to God. My daily bread is the love of God; my thirst is quenched living a humble life, to serve.
Does it get lonely? Absolutely! The beauty is that during the time of my self-destructive life, I was blessed with two additional children and I now have three grandchildren. I miss my mom, sister, brother, niece and nephew every day. But in those moments of solitude when the tears still flow in remembrance, I look up and say “Thank you for loving me. Thank you, for you saved a wretch like me.”
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I’d like to share with you a few of the messages I have received:
I dvr’d the Jonestown Documentary with Soledad O’Brien. I was deeply moved and inspired by your courage and will to endure and escape. I made my teenagers watch, and it was good to finally have the truth be told, as opposed to the way history painted the ordeal.
I purchased your book and read it in two days. I thought it was a very good read. When I was reading the parts where you hid your glasses and then the day of the escape, boy, I felt like I was there with you all. At one point I had to put the book down during the escape and catch my breath.
I remembered this happening as a little girl and was always interested in those that got out. Your story is one that needed to be told. Great job!!! Love-Peace-Happiness
Thank you for the powerful email. Your words touched me so much and I have to be honest and tell you that I haven’t been thanking the Lord for what I have. It made me think and it made be grateful that whatever small things I have, I am thankful. Life is really rough for me right now but I now, like you said my blessings will continue. Your quote from Martin Luther King was awesome. Really lifted my spirits. I knew the day I saw you on that show and I contacted you, you would change my life. I am not telling you this to just speak, it is from the heart. I’m not that type of person to just speak, I speak words of truth. I know God has brought us together for a reason and I treasure that. One day I will meet you! I know it in my heart and it will be my goal. You have touched my life in so many ways. Just know that. I can only imagine what your life was like in Jonestown, but I believe you are one of God’s messengers.
I saw a movie not too long ago and a woman in the movie would always talk to everybody and treat everybody special, homeless people, etc. One of her family members gave her a hard time for being this way and she said “You should always be nice to everyone, as you never know who is an angel.” And you are one of them!
I hope you have a blessed day. Thank you for words of kindness and wisdom!
Your story will help me to grow stronger Blessing be upon you My Sista. Love Ya Sis
I just finished your book, and I’d like to first express my deepest condolences on the loss of most of your family, and for what you’ve experienced. However, your faith, will, and intestinal fortitude are a model for many. Albertina Walker once sang a song called “I’m Still Here,” even with the same old enemy. You’re still here, and doing well. Keep doing your thing, and my prayers are with you and yours always!
You raised an interesting point in your book at the very end. I often wondered myself what would have happened had the adults survived. With Congressman Ryan and the members of the news media being ambushed, would the US Government charge all of them as co-conspirators? In 1978, that would have been a certainty. Even today, the pressure would have been overwhelming, probably moreso. The children would have been placed in foster care living with an unbearable stigma, especially since until recently, the depiction of Jonestown was bunch of people who just lined up and willingly drank poison kool aid. I’m glad the truth has become known, and also because of the fact eloquent surviving voices are still able to tell the story.