The last time I was in Berkeley, I was fortunate enough to have been able to catch the play about Peoples Temple. I was reminded of just how important the issues are that orbit around the events associated with Jim Jones and Jonestown, and I was encouraged by Fielding McGehee to continue to pursue another book.
What? Another Peoples Temple book?
Well, it’s like this: I opened my big mouth in last year’s review of Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America (here) and said that a non-academic discussion of the issues which it opened up needed to be stimulated further. The play has succeeded in doing that to some degree – and there is an important television production in the works as well – but there needs to be a strong, literary articulation of the Jonestown experience within the context and understanding of black America.
We know that Jim Jones sought to model himself after Father Divine, even as he lambasted Divine’s wealth and lifestyle. We know that Jones appropriated the rhetoric of the Black Panther Party, even though he redefined the group’s revolutionary language to suit his own purposes. We know that the Temple celebrated black diversity, championed black causes, cultivated black leaders. We know that Peoples Temple’s congregations in California’s largest metropolitan areas purposefully located themselves in black neighborhoods, provided social welfare, even basic survival needs, for the surrounding black populations, and drew members from established black churches. Yet, with a small handful of exceptions, these stories have been told from the perspective – the knowledge, the experience, the language – of white scholars and former Temple members.
We believe this is a shortcoming that has gone unaddressed for far too long, and we’d like to change that. We’d like to consider Peoples Temple from the viewpoint of African Americans whose number gave the church – and its predominantly white leaders – its power. We’d like to re-examine what American society thinks it knows about the Temple from the cultural, social, political, and religious perspectives of American black leaders and thinkers. We’d like to start a conversation that contemplates and challenges, one that places the Temple in a new light, one that understands the church and its members in the context of a different history.
This book would enable some nationally-known black voices – as well as local ministers, political figures, and educators who were personally familiar with the Temple during its years in the Bay Area – to comment how they viewed Peoples Temple then and now, how they understood the ministry and personality of Jim Jones, and what lessons they think the Jonestown tragedy have for our society.
We’d be delighted to hear what questions you’d like to have answered, and even more delighted for your thoughts on any of these issues. Send us a note. Thanks.
(Rev. Richard Lawrence is a retired Methodist minister, and a longtime civil rights and community activist. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)