If you believe, it can be done. That’s my motto!
The determination of having the victims of the madness recognized, restoring their individuality, dignity, honor and erasing the stigma associated with the tragedy has turned into a crusade for me. Letting the world know that family members who loved them were left behind, that’s my mission. It is not my intent to cast blame, but rather to unite all of us related by the tragedy, to come together and to speak the names of our loved ones. This year will mark the 30th year of their demise.
Thirty years seems like a long enough time to go without establishing some sort of permanent memorial, one that will list the names of all 918 people who died that day in Guyana.
I have done other things these past 30 years. I have gone through the emotions most of you know: disbelief, acceptance, pain, guilt. I have done other things, too – established a foundation, helped people locate the graves of their loved ones who died in Guyana, even written articles for the jonestown report – but in the end, I always felt empty. Happy, yes, that too. Gratified, undoubtedly. But still empty.
Working on a memorial has both energized and drained me. It has been a huge task, finding a permanent location. I contacted libraries, museums, parks, city halls… I heard the word “No” an awful lot.
For months I wrote letters, telephoned and met with city officials from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento. I shed many tears, heard many cruel words, but throughout it all, I consistently prayed for God to give me strength and guidance. And one day it hit me like a punch to the stomach: “’No’ is not the final answer.”
Within the past year, a new and complete list of those who died in Jonestown has gone online. We now have all 918 names. That meant my work could begin in earnest. Next on the list was to find someone to make the memorial, which I have also done. We came up with a design, he agreed to payment installments, and I took the leap of faith!
Still without a home for the memorial – but with a serenity that cannot be explained, because it was faith that guided me – I continued. And sure enough, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors helped me find a home for the memorial!
The decision seemed to trigger a landslide of support. There are now Senators, Governors, Mayors, City Council members, and Boards of Supervisors which have all expressed an interest in helping me. Hallelujah!!!
Most importantly, friends and families of the people of Jonestown are contacting me, showing the hunger within the Temple community for this to happen and the strength of the network of mutual support.
Hearing from people who had never spoken about their loved ones, asking if their children’s, fathers’ and mothers’ names could be included, makes it all worth it. I no longer have an empty feeling.
My family thought I was crazy for not requesting donations, but it was faith that made me understand everything would be taken care of. Faith is something that cannot be explained, it is something you believe in. It is faith that has kept me and allowed these plans to move towards fruition.
Plans for the memorial will be revealed on November 16 at the Speaking Their Names service.
(Lela Howard is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other articles in this edition are An Invitation to “Speaking Their Names” and Los Angeles Peoples Temple May Become Historical Site. Her complete collection of writings for the site may be found here. She can be reached at email@example.com.)