Were We Special? Are We Still?

Were we special? That is, were we in Peoples Temple more progressive, caring, humanistic and revolutionary than others? We were often told we were. I found it easy to believe. It seemed obvious, in fact, and was reinforced by the reactions of guests and visitors who all seemed inspired by our ardent integration, impassioned focus and seeming unanimity of purpose. It won us many friends and effectively steamrolled any potential doubters and detractors among the observers.

Of course, what visitors saw was a well-rehearsed show, with various members posing both as the needy and those who were serving them. When the guests left, life resumed: the multi-layered, humming, monumental enterprise that was Peoples Temple. There were echelons, but they seemed unavoidable. Within the collective, the ardent integration and impassioned focus did not flag, but turned to the frenetic (and sometimes frantic) pace of being an integral part of a large family. (To give credit where it is due: It fell to Cecil Williams, whom Jim often derided, to actually deliver on the promise to feed, house, employ and minister to those who were really in desperate need, as he is still doing at Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin.)

The assumption that we were special, chosen, called to activism, was without doubt another brick in the wall of insularity that we managed to build, even as we directed our concerted actions upon the world outside. This was especially so after 1974, when the membership jelled, and the visitors who came each Sunday were patiently “greeted” for hours in the floor below the service until it was over or they gave up and left. Our specialness was only one of many secrets to be kept: that Jim was God (however you chose to interpret or rationalize that, it was not to be questioned); that we were communists posing as Christians; that “they” (the CIA) were after us, and their infiltrators were in our midst…

On a personal level, there were many rewards in the day-to-day intensity of living in close quarters — by and large platonically — with this rich and varied group. Our urgent, ongoing labors to target and maximize our impacts transcended surface differences and made the outside world’s attractions pale in comparison. We were obsessive about economy. Anyone reading this who remembers each communal member’s monthly allowance of $8 will agree. Yet we were rich, not only because our immediate needs of food, housing, education and medical care were met, but because we were fully engaged in speeding toward a glorious future in which we would make the difference. We would change the world, we were sure of it. Talk about being empowered! We were sure that, together, we could do anything. And when Jim said, as he often did, that one day the members of his church would dwindle to the number that originally met in his garage in Indianapolis, it was my only desire (wasn’t it everybody’s?) to be one of them.

Fast forward to 2006. The outside world, at least, has not faltered in just one respect — remember, there were no homeless on the streets then — but rather, it has fulfilled every dire prediction that Jim ever made about the dangers of the capitalist system and the impending descent into fascism. With the fine irony that often attends reality, the airtight garage is now the US, and the slavish devotees of the current president are said to have “drunk the Kool-Aid.” This against the background of a populace ostensibly benumbed or befuddled, but at least predictably distracted: the Divided States of America.

I periodically wonder, when thinking of other survivors, where they have come to rest on their own power, in their own propensities. Where on the spectrum of political thought and/or action are they? Have they eschewed all politics as suspect, attempting to blend seamlessly with the many who hasten to describe themselves unselfconsciously as “nonpolitical”?

As to any remaining illusion of specialness, it must have been jettisoned immediately after November 18, 1978, as condescending, if not ridiculous or even repugnant, as we scrambled for footing in the outside world we had once scorned. My informal tracking showed an almost uniform relaxation into previous habits, patterns, learning/earning ability, and political involvement as was true prior to our Temple lives, with some notable exceptions. And since my own conversations with some have indicated their politics are now the polar opposite of mine, I ask your tolerance and theirs, to inquire once again, were we special? Were we made special in those years spent under Jim’s teachings?

Let’s consider just a couple of examples. Take 9/11: can any of us forget the searing testimony of Chilean refugees who spoke to us of the torture they endured following that other 9/11, the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government, single-handedly orchestrated by the CIA, as subsequent revelations have confirmed. Or Hurricane Katrina’s laying waste not just a city, but national confidence in the government to deal with catastrophes. We knew, thanks to Jim – or should have known if we were listening – that FEMA, reinvented by Carter in the eighties as a disaster relief agency (to eclipse its sordid past), was all about building concentration camps for black people, not saving them.

I’d love to see a forum where we could share our current attitudes, opinions and takes on life today. One starting point could be the question: “Has the effect of 11/18/78 affected your desire to participate in political advocacy?” Offer the following multiple-choice responses, and a large field for comments:

+ Response –
Totally Agree
Agree Somewhat
Disagree Somewhat
Totally Disagree
Identify as progressive
Identify as conservative
More spiritually than politically inclined these days
Would not want to influence anyone
Try to stay abreast of news and current events
May have opinions, but keep them to myself
Once burned, twice shy. Plus, your categories suck.

I invite you to let me know if you think this would be a worthwhile endeavor. If you do, this website has offered space for such a forum.

I have had periodic encounters with former PT members, outside the Rainbow Coalition headquarters in 1983, for instance, or across the auditorium at another gathering for the same campaign. Laura, always a friend, has found welcoming and astute friends, and a new, loving husband and family, among the Quakers. I wonder if they miss — as I did in my intermittent attempts to become active in Amnesty International, in anti-apartheid committees, and most recently with the Gray Panthers — the tightness and discipline that made us sure we were such a force for change in the Temple. Do they miss the vital connection that ensured we could devote ourselves to actions without having to make room in busy lives and conflicting schedules? Do they remember when our lives were the actions. This is a far cry from the weak and oblique connection that is felt by participants at a rally or a vigil, who are either strangers, or casual acquaintances, there for the best of reasons, but living private lives to which they are anxious to return, whose participation may be requested, but cannot be required. It’s then, and at all those moments demanding immediate, strategic action and decisive follow-up, that I miss Peoples Temple the most. I ponder how different it could have been if they had not been killed, leaving a vacuum that seemingly no one can fill.

Disclaimer. I must admit here, I am prone to delusions of grandeur in contemplating the possibilities that might result from my own involvement, the flip side of which is absolute horror at my own impertinence. My zealous advice got people killed once, I reason, so I flake more often than not, even as I am passionate in seeking the pulse of the moribund body politic, or finding out what is really happening and, when I can’t help myself, joining the fray, mostly verbally.

Last year, on the heels of Leigh Fondakowski’s play about PT, some felt reborn. There was general celebration that the sympathetic portrayal of our long-lost family (the entire script was composed of letters from Jonestown and other pre-Jonestown writings of PT members, in addition to more recent interviews with survivors) constituted a validation of their lives. It was healing to see them portrayed with such care and their deaths mourned in light of their great character, uniqueness and individuality. The play struggled to create understanding and, for a moment, it felt like redemption. However, sitting there in the theatre, I realized that it was too much to ask of the play, that all of that honesty could as easily be used to support a scathing condemnation of our efforts, and that if we wanted to redeem the dead, it would have to happen through our redefining Peoples Temple, which could only be accomplished by we, the living, regrouping and mounting an effective opposition to the neoconservative Christian right. A decade after November 18, 1978, a headline in a local news magazine charged that “Jonestown was responsible for the death of the left in San Francisco.” It was an awful indictment, but it seemed true then and seems even more so today. So by extension, we could let the mantle of the left lie there, or we could take it up and breathe into it new life.

Of course, it is a blatant presumption on my part to write as if the left that existed before, during and after Peoples Temple, and which has continued to argue, teach, advocate and work for change, were immaterial or nonexistent. (Even as the mass media environment over the same elapsed time has progressed from disapproving, to inhospitable, to today’s ritual scrubbing of anything remotely resembling social consciousness.) However, PT’s strength was that we were crossovers, activists (seemingly) by enthusiastic volition, purporting to represent a random, vibrant slice of humanity, with all the potential that implies to spark a popular movement for change. Was all of that only Jim Jones’ well-crafted projection??

Is it time to regroup? In recent months, I’ve heard that the Temple community is experiencing a thaw, and that there is a joy and a solidarity in reunions large and small that are thrilling to see. These are not activist cadres reforming, just reunions of people who once had a great deal in common, and are renewing their acquaintances and finding unexpected joy in that simple process.

It is a healthy and a healing step; will any of us want to take it further? Our cooperative skills may have slipped into latency, but they were once a vital tool, which can be reforged and honed to meet the challenges of today, or perhaps simply to survive in a communal, sustainable environment, as some are reportedly contemplating, because it is a fulfilling lifestyle in and of itself. Indeed, simple survival in years to come may be a stronger motivator than altruism. The depredations of the Gang of Three (Cheney/Bush/Rumsfeld) have taken the US from world power to world pariah. The US’s current headlong rush into financial instability should be a sobering prospect for all of us, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (i.e., worst-case scenarios that can develop when your government really doesn’t give a rat’s ass).

Were we special? No. That is the beauty of it. Like grass sprouting after winter snows, the consciousness we embraced has manifested far and wide, and may be clearest beyond our nation’s borders, as the UN Security Council’s session just ended which was unlike any other has proved. It has grown, matured and been improved on, been updated and become current. The challenge was never more immediate or crucial. The battle rages on, fought by others, now; it is not won, and may, by the time you read these words post-election, be set back by electronically thrown elections and other desperate means of the government by and of deception to ensure its death-grip on power. On the other hand, we were made special, by our unique experience of communal living, cooperating to achieve results, and therein finding a measure of security and fulfillment that many still miss. If you, dear reader, are one of them, please let me know.

(Kathy [Tropp] Barbour joined Peoples Temple in 1970 with her companion, Richard Tropp, and was living in the San Francisco Temple on November 18, 1978. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report can be found here.)