On November 18, 1978, I was in the pulpit at Peoples Temple in San Francisco, preaching the good fortune of those who were living in the “Promised Land,” when I was called upstairs to hear the news coming in from Georgetown about the tragedy that was still unfolding in Jonestown.
The first word that comes to mind about that first week is hectic. I tried to go on working like everything was normal, like nothing really happened, but that was nothing but denial of an incomprehensible tragedy. I spent most of my time at the San Francisco Temple consoling people and trying to explain to the congregation – and myself along the way – what had happened in Jonestown. I was busy with the media pounding on the Temple front door looking for a story, not to mention the crowds of Temple members and relatives hanging around the back gate looking for news of the individual people who lived in Jonestown.
It took a few days for the initial shock to wear off. I found myself going into a fog. The world as I knew it had ended – what we all had been working for had ended – and hardest of all were the deaths of family members and so many friends. I was out of it, to say the least. If it wasn’t for my job as a Probation Officer, I most likely would have gone over the edge. As long as I had my job, I could hold onto some reality that there was life-after-death, so to speak.
The first year was tough. When I allowed myself to dwell upon it, I wondered if I would even survive it. My father informed me that I was responsible for the tragedy. I was fired from my job, thanks to the FBI, the Contra Costa County Probation Department and the County Board of Supervisors. The media and the FBI continued to harass me until – unemployed and cut off from family – I went into hiding. A close friend – a man not associated with the Temple – and his wife took me in. At one point I tried my best to drink myself to death but couldn’t deal with the hangovers.
About three, maybe four years later, Stephan Jones persuaded me to come to work with Service West, an installation company in Oakland with a bunch of former Temple “kids,” including Tim Jones, Mark Cordell, John Cobb, and maybe one or two others. Years later, Tim and I started our own installation company and a few years after that, Stephan and I started another company called AEI. We lasted until the middle of the 90’s before we went our separate ways. We had a great ride. It’s sort of spooky when you think of all the fun we had together, and how it all came about on the heels of a horrible tragedy.
There have been times over the years when it was difficult to go on. I guess I’m a proverbial optimist, though, believing that there is always hope for a better tomorrow. I’ve always tried to maintain that mysterious determination to carry on.
The one thing that has made it easier is discovering after thirty years that there are former members like Pinkie Jones, Bunny Jackson and her two sisters, Jordan Vilchez, Andy Silver, and others that have chosen fields to serve others. That’s the “principle” we were taught in Peoples Temple. I am very proud of the people from the Temple who are still my friends and who have shown me, by their example, how not only to survive but to thrive once more.