I will admit that there were many things that I didn’t know about Jonestown before I started transcribing the tapes of the community’s meetings and of Jim Jones’ sermons. I was born after the events of November 18, 1978, but maybe that means that I viewed this tragedy without all the biases that people who were alive at the time have today. I can’t say for sure. I do know that when I started listening to the tapes, it was like arriving in foreign country. At first all I could do was absorb the atmosphere, writing off any inconsistencies with my prejudices. After a while I slowly begin to listen to the conversations they were having. The words stopped flowing over and around me, and start speaking to me. Then I was able to separate the personalities and begin to treat the people with a certain level of companionship. Only when a person stops judging their surroundings in a country do they begin to gain a level of understanding. When I let go of any previous assumptions, I found that I could grasp why the people were there and what was actually driving them.
Most people will tell you that people join small religious groups because they are missing something in their lives. These same people have never really tried to understand why a few of their neighbors, friends, acquaintances, or even family members flock to such organizations. I used to hold that perception, but after listening to the tapes, I discovered that I had been misguided by psychological babble. People who join utopian organizations have something rooted in their nature that should not be perceived as a mental deficiency in themselves, but rather as a deficiency in the society in which they reside. The followers of Peoples Temple saw a nation characterized by discrimination, a lack of health care, and poor education. They saw a society without spiritual or moral regard and saw that society needed a vast improvement. They wanted to be in a society where people cared about each other, and when they couldn’t find one, they created one. The irony is only in our own ignorant efforts to cure them of this passion as if it were the flu. Most of us sit at home complaining about our job, our neighbors, our family, or “the way things are,” but we never try to change it. We never decide to take the homeless person we see on the street to our house, invite them to dinner, and share what is more than enough space with them. We never fight for the rights of others. We never try to bind the wounds of our families. But those individuals drawn to Peoples Temple did.
This perception would not fully come into bloom until I actually had the honor of meeting some of the survivors. They have gone on to become teachers and religious leaders even in the face of their catastrophic tragedy. What I came to understand after my quiet observation is that their need to change the world around them for the better was so great, even the death of their then-family could not drain it from them. I know that some of them cursed their survival and wear it as more of a reality than any physical scar, but I am glad that they did survive.
My appreciation for them is based upon my belief that the people we lost at Jonestown are the people we need if we ever hope to create sustainable life on this planet. I don’t believe that they themselves know how much the world needs them, but I know how much we need them. A world without their conviction, ingenuity, and endurance to change the world around them – faulted leadership included – is a lost one. I am reminded of what a former Peoples Temple member said during a forum: “At least we tried.” From that alone we have something great to learn.
(Seriina Covarrubias can be reached at email@example.com.)