When I first moved into my apartment three years ago, a neighbor asked me one day what I did for a living. I happily told her that I worked on audiotapes for the Jonestown Institute. She asked me about what the Institute did, but when I told her that I basically transcribed Jim Jones’ sermons, she became quite irritated. She proceeded to inform me that the only reason that people would join a group like was because they were weak-minded. I politely informed her that such was not the case with Peoples Temple, nor has it been the case with any small religious group I had studied or encountered.
This lady was not just some uneducated person off the streets. She had at least a bachelor’s degree and specialized in rare book preservation. She made more than enough money to have a comfortable living. And to this day she avoids me acting as if I’m going to proselytize her about Peoples Temple even though I’m not even a member of a religious group or was ever a member of Peoples Temple.
I’m pretty sure that the reason for such widespread ignorance has nothing to do with how hard the people who write for the Jonestown Institute or artistic efforts like Stanley Nelson’s Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple or countless others’ have worked to educate the public on what really happened. It seems to me that it is far more symptomatic of the American public’s lack of an adequate education. (I would make comments about other countries, but I honestly feel I only have the right to comment about mine.) My fellow Americans have been living in a vacuum for 30 years, so our comprehension of religious groups or even social groups is, to say it tactfully, lacking.
What we need to take from what happened with Peoples Temple, not just as Americans but as human beings, is that just because they failed does not mean that we won’t eventually succeed. Peoples Temple wanted things that we all want as human beings: equality, healthcare for everyone, care for the elderly and young, and spiritual substance either through debate or prayer. They wanted many good things and tried to do many good things if you actually look into their history. What went off the deep end, unfortunately, was their leadership.
I sit here and I look at what’s going on in my country and look at what I know from the history of Peoples Temple and the parallels are everywhere. It seems like we learned nothing from that microcosm that was Jonestown. What happened to that group of well-meaning people is now happening to a country of well-meaning people. There are those of us in this country that want to make the world a better place but we’re doing it while our leaders destroys nations and cultures in misplaced retaliation for the actions of a few, while we torture in the name of national security, while our media outlets become mouthpieces to spread constant terror and fear.
It’s not that we were brainwashed or crazy, we just didn’t understand how to read the warning signs. We were too busy concentrating on fixing the little problems in front of us to see what is really throwing kinks into our progress. We have each made our small attempts at making the world a better place, but we can’t deny that as a nation, we have gone disastrously wrong.
What will we do? Will we end up going down the path that Peoples Temple went and march ourselves to our death either by drinking cyanide or going to war? I hope not. I hope that we learned something from those people that survived Jonestown. I hope that we learned something from those who still work so hard everyday to make our world better. They faced true horror and hardship when they lost their friends and family and still went on. I think it says something about our nature. I think it says something about our enduring spirit.
It is difficult for me to say that Jonestown was a positive event in history because of its outcome but I will say that it was not a wholly negative event if we choose to learn from it. There were many good people who died that day in November, and there were a few that did not. Those that survived have continued to change our world for the better. Calling them crazy – then or now – seems a preposterous notion to me. The craziness would be to deny that Jonestown is the macrocosm of the United States. I can only hope that the end is not the same.
(Seriina Covarrubias has transcribed numerous tapes for this website, and is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. complete collection of writings for the site may be found here. She can be reached at Seriinac@gmail.com.)