Smiling Through the Tears

30 Years After JonestownSome people wear their smiles like a disguise. Those people, who smile a lot, watch their eyes. I know ‘cause I’m like that a lot. You think everything’s ok, and it is…’til it’s not.

Ani Difranco

When the heart weeps for what it has lost, the spirit laughs for what it has found.


God, who foresaw your tribulation, has specially armed you to go through it, not without pain but without stain.

C.S. Lewis

It has been thirty years since the loss of my family in the massacre in Jonestown, Guyana on November 18, 1978. There have been a lot of tears shed in my life since that fateful day. I have heard that the story of Jonestown is dead, but I do not agree with that and neither does the History Channel. They rebroadcast a program a lot. I feel that everyone should remember what happened on that horrible day when more than nine hundred precious souls lost their lives in the sweltering heat of that jungle by a man we called “Father.”

Many lives have been lost in cults since the incident in Jonestown, Guyana: there was the incident with the Branch Davidians on April 19, 1993 in Waco, Texas with their leader, David Koresh; and Heaven’s Gate on March 23, 1997 with Marshall Applewhite. People – especially those who are spiritually illiterate – need to know they are vulnerable to false leaders.

People who are lonely or misunderstood by family members or church people are also at risk. When their hearts are hurting and they have no one to turn to for help or comfort, they will take the hand of anyone who reaches out to touch them with love and ease their pain.

You may be wondering how I survived the massacre. I believe it was the providence of God. I tried on three separate occasions to go to Jonestown. I wanted to be with my mom, but when Jim Jones’ staff approached him about it, he said, “No, let her stay there and continue the work she is doing, let someone else take her place.” Someone else did take my place, but I am reminded of the One who truly did take my place. Jesus Christ.

I became part of this infamous cult group and it cost me everything. I did not turn to the One who could have helped with my problem. Using my own efforts, I tried and I failed. It took a while to believe that Jesus would help me after I had listened to Jim Jones all those years. I remembered that there is a God in heaven who hears and answers prayers, a God who loves me so much, He sent His Son to die on a cross for all of my sins.

I remember Jim Jones saying there is no God up in the sky to answer your prayers. I remember Jim Jones saying I am the god who will provide all of your needs. I half-heartedly believed him and sometimes I stopped praying. How foolish was that? How could I have believed a man like Jim Jones could ever be God?

I can smile again, I do not know how, but the one thing that has made is easier is my trust in Jesus who said, “Cast all your cares on me, for I care for you” (1 Peter 5:7). I pray that you and your loved ones are kept away from cult leaders and false preachers like Jim Jones. Yes, even though Jonestown itself is dead, cults are alive and well, and they are actively seeking someone to devour. I pray that your eyes and ears will be open and alert to those wolves in sheep clothing.

My life changed in 1982. I became friends with a Christian lady who lived in my complex, and she invited me to church with her. One night two ladies from the church came to visit me and shared the Four Spiritual Laws tract with me. They asked me which throne represented my life, the one with me on it or the one with Jesus on it; I said the one with me; and they asked which one I wanted to represent my life; and I said the one with Jesus on it. I prayed and invited Jesus into my heart and my life has never been the same. He has forgiven me of my sins and given me a new life. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature, old things have passed away, behold all thing have become new.”

I was still struggling with a decision I had made in my past, and every time Pastor Rob preached on that subject I cringed. I wondered if God had really forgiven me. One night during the Christmas season I came home from church and a musical angel figurine had fallen off the table and the wings had broken off. There was no way it should have fallen. I looked at it and smiled, almost laughing, because Satan’s hold on me was broken and I was free. God had forgiven me and I had forgiven myself, and from that point on I did not feel condemned. God convicts us of our sins so we can repent; Satan condemns us of our sins so he can destroy us.

God also helped me forgive those who hurt me. I heard this quote on Oprah, “Being unable to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”  That is so true: you cannot hold onto anger, bitterness and hatred and not have it affect you. Jesus says in Matthew 6:15, “But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Psalm 66:18 says, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” I want God to hear and answer my prayers.

I have experienced sexual abuse, deception and the murder of my family. I had to learn how to trust and believe in God and man again. It was not easy to let someone into my life after experiencing so much pain and heartache, but with the Lord’s guidance I have been able to put the pieces of my life back together again. It took many years and the love of many people to accomplish this difficult task.

For a number of years I concealed my participation in Peoples Temple. It wasn’t until 1985 that I told someone I had been involved with Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. I was not sure how they would react, but all I received was love, and from that time until now I have shared my testimony on national television, church services, youth, singles and women’s retreats.

When I joined my current church, one of my brothers said you are again following a man like you did with Jim Jones. I said, no I am not, I am following Jesus Christ. The lessons I have learned are to know who I believe in, what I believe, why I believe it, how to find the answers and when to walk away. If you are in a church and something does not look right or sound right, you have to question it and inquire about it to make sure it is not something that will harm you or your family.

The thing that has made it easier for me to survive is my friends, and my five brothers. I still get sad on the anniversary date, especially during the holidays, because I miss my parents and other siblings.

* * *

Yes, there will still be storms and tears in my life and some in yours as well, but as far as I can see, it is better to be in the boat during the storm with Jesus than “safe” on the shore without Him. Read the words of this song. I cried all the way through it, knowing what Jesus did for me.

“I’m Amazed”

No one knew how alone I was feeling
And the emptiness I tried so hard to hide
Though I laughed and said my life was fine without You.
I was covering up the secret tears I cried
Then one day someone told me of Your mercy
And the love You showed on a hill called Calvary
There you died and purchased my redemption
When you broke sin’s power and set my spirit free

I’m amazed that You love me
I’m amazed how You care
Through Your precious blood
I’ve found pardon
And my sins are washed,
They’re all washed away
All my sins are washed away

It’s true there have been days when I’ve failed You
Lord, You know the many times I’ve gone astray
But I’ve learned that Your love is stronger than my weakness
And your ear is open every time I pray
No one else has ever cared for me like You, Lord
Other friends could never be as close to me
I’m not afraid to face the problems of tomorrow
Knowing You are everything I’ll ever need

I’m amazed that You love me
I’m amazed how You care
Through Your precious blood
I’ve found pardon
And my sins are washed,
They’re all washed away
All my sins are washed away.

Song written by Carol Cymbala. Lyrics used by permission from ICG Copyright.

(Hattie Newell is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her complete collection of writings for this site may be found here.)