The story of Peoples Temple in 1978 has been told dozens of times, even if many fundamental questions remain. The story of Peoples Temple in 2008 – 30 years after the deaths in Jonestown – has not. But that’s what I hope to do.
I have embarked upon a book project to explore where the Temple – embodied as it is in Jonestown survivors, former Temple members, apostates and defectors, and relatives of the Jonestown dead – is today. Where are these people now in their spiritual/religious lives? How did their experiences in the Temple and in the tragedy evolve into their current belief systems? Are they religious/spiritual? If so, what religion? How is it the same or different from their beliefs of 30 years ago? What did 1978 teach them about the nature of God? Of good? Of evil? Of redemption?
And the big question: how does someone who survived Peoples Temple, Jim Jones and November 18, pick up and get on with living?
The genesis of this project came last spring, when I had the good fortune to see “The People’s Temple” at Berkeley Repertory Theater in Berkeley, California. As a reporter who writes about religion for the secular press, I thought the story of how the playwrights represented the religious and political beliefs of people – many of whom are dead – would make a good story.
Well, I was right, but I had no idea what I was in for. I had written about Jonestown a couple of times for various papers and thought I knew the story, knew what it was all about. In retrospect, I think I subconsciously thought of it as a story about “other” people – people who, because they were with Jim Jones, were not like me at all. But sitting in the dark, watching actors embody Tim Carter, Eugene Smith, Grace Stoen, and dozens of others, I was overwhelmed by how much “those people” were exactly like me. For the first time, I could see how I too could have easily ended up, in the words of Denice Stephenson, “giving up too much for a dream.” I went back to see the show two more times.
So if you are a survivor or a family member and have a story to tell in the present tense, about what your experiences with the Temple taught you about the rest of life and the world, I’d like to hear from you. I’ll be glad to answers as many questions as you have about my own perspectives and approach to this work, and assure you that – no matter what your own perspectives are – you will be treated with respect.
I know you all have something to teach the rest of us.
(Kimberly Winston is a religion reporter and writer who recently won the American Academy of Religion’s 2005 award for in-depth reporting on religion for large news outlets or on the web. A review article by Ms. Winston is Voices of the Dead Haunt Pages of Dear People: Remembering Jonestown. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her telephone number is 510-724-3679.)