What I learned about Peoples Temple

I worked in television journalism through the 1990s which brought me up close and personal with floods, fires, riots and earthquakes. That experience endeared me to my adopted city, Los Angeles, and I eventually slowed down to raise my two children here. Now I write for a neighborhood paper and cover a lot about schools, traffic, housing developments and local events – the kind of news that has kept me in touch with the community.

Last March, my neighbor and friend Barry Isaacson called me when he found a cache of letters and articles pertaining to Peoples Temple at his home in Silver Lake. These items were left behind by Dr. Herbert Alexander, a former Los Angeles City College professor and his wife Freda who suffered the loss of their only daughter, Phyllis Chaikin, their son-in-law, Gene and two grandchildren in the Jonestown Tragedy. His discovery conjured up one of the most indelible news stories of my childhood.

I was 13 when the horrors of Jonestown swept across the San Francisco Bay community in hushed, shocked tones. I wasn’t sheltered from the daily newspaper delivery of the morbid discoveries of the mass suicides and murders of 900 men, women, and children at the order of the Rev. Jim Jones, a tragedy which began with the murder of South San Francisco Rep. Leo Ryan.

The loss had barely been absorbed when, 10 days later, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated in their city hall offices. It sent chills through the city in a period that now-California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who succeeded as mayor of San Francisco, described as “a bizarre period” full of hatred.

I recall the school concert that holiday season that began with a moment of silence in honor of those who perished, and with so many people around me sobbing openly in their seats.

The grim reality of Jim Jones’ impact and shame admonished our community to never forget the tragedy of what could happen. Even as a high school senior only five years after Jonestown, studying the unit “What You Should Know About Cults,” felt like very personal advice.

Now living in Los Angeles, I found it a strange coincidence that not just one, but two other sources of strong religious presence share the same residential street as the Isaacsons. Located within two blocks of each other on Micheltorena Street is the home owned by the early 20th century radio evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson, who founded The Foursquare Church and the 5,300 seat Angelus Temple; and the Canfield-Moreno Estate that had been a convent for Franciscan nuns from 1950 until it was sold in 1987.

I learned something else in researching my story on the Alexander family. As a teen I had always thought the Jonestown tragedy was fairly exclusive to the San Francisco Bay Area. When I pitched the story to my paper [http://issuu.com/losfelizledger/docs/lfl_apr08?, beginning on page 4; or view it as a pdf], I expected to write about the local relatives of Peoples Temple members who were left behind. I didn’t know that the Temple had a congregation in the heart of Los Angeles at the corner of Hoover Street and Alvarado Terrace. The more than 2,000 members recruited largely from the communities of Compton and Watts have been described as the more religious followers, the ones who saw Peoples Temple more as a church than a political organization. Some also credited them as being the bankroll of the movement.

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“This adherence to a religious oriented radical movement which isolates your children from the outside world and jams them on buses for a bi-monthly 600 mile trip to L.A. is not our conception of Socialism, Christianity, and social reform,” Herbert Alexander wrote in a letter to his daughter dated September 21, 1977. His words of disdain referred to the bus caravan of Jim Jones and members of the San Francisco Bay Area Peoples Temple used to travel for church-wide services in Los Angeles.

The letter was not the most chilling find among the many newspaper clippings, magazines and letters in the briefcase that had been discovered at the Isaacsons. Rather there is an ink drawing of what looked like the Alexander’s home on the hillside with red ink droplets dripping down the sides. The drawing wasn’t signed, but it remains in my mind an eerie reminder of a parent’s grief, which in its intimate view left me grieving for this local family, the Chaikins teens and the some 303 children who died in the Guyana jungle community.

In my need to make sense of the tragedy, I found a heroine in Christine Miller, whose story appears here.

I identified with Miller – like myself, a transplant to Los Angeles – who had been a loyal helper to Jones and gave regularly to the various projects funded by the Temple. But it was her protest on Jonestown’s last day that connected to me in an instant and left me hopeful for human spirit. I can’t help but believe that she spoke in defense of herself and others who did not want to die when she said: “Well, I don’t see it like that. I mean, I feel like as long as there’s life, there’s hope. That’s my faith.”

“A rainbow of friends. Friends of different colors, nationalities. The innocence and beauty of children. Children I had the pleasure and honor of growing up with. We were special, adored, nurtured and protected. We were the future; we were going to save the world.” That’s what the writer of Death of Innocence says about her experience in Peoples Temple, and my heart understands that. My heart understands what Peoples Temple represented to some – particularly the utopian view of socialism and the self-sustaining community – I daresay the kind of world I seek, by other means, to share with my children. Some 30 years later, I am still saddened by the devastation that occurred in Jonestown, but respect Peoples Temple members’ ideals and the costly lessons to learn from them that no one should have to pay.

(Kimberly Gomez is a reporter for The Los Feliz Ledger. She can be reached at kimberlyvgomez@mac.com.)