The Peoples Temple Planning Commission

by Laura Johnston Kohl

What was the Planning Commission? Who was on it? When did it get started? What was its function? What power did it have in the Temple? Over the years, there have been many questions about the Peoples Temple Planning Commission raised by former members, survivors, relatives, researchers, and the media. In an effort to address and clarify the topic, I gathered information from seven other Peoples Temple survivors, added my own perspective, and would now like to present what I learned.

Jim brought the Peoples Temple church from Indiana in the late 1960’s. Fairly soon after landing in Mendocino County, California, he gathered a small group of members to be kind of a “kitchen cabinet.” Although it wasn’t called the “Planning Commission,” it was similar. It provided a more personal setting for Jim to interact with the most active – and at times, the most cantankerous – members, and gave him a chance to gather his flock in a more intimate setting, and get a good look at everyone. It was a compliment to be included, and demanded a new level of commitment. The group discussed schedules and the logistics of the Temple’s daily work. They resolved conflicts and took care of day-to-day issues. This group was active through the late ‘60’s, and then stopped.

In the very early 1970’s, Jim gathered another group, but it didn’t necessarily include the same members as the earlier one. The group met in Redwood Valley in the homes of the long-time members, many of whom had come with Jim from Indiana. Their homes were in a rural setting, where the numerous cars parked outside a house until all hours of the night would be less conspicuous. The group included Jack Beam and Archie Ijames, Jim’s Assistant Pastors, all the main record-keepers and money collectors (Eva and Jim Pugh and Helen Swinney), many of the Indiana core group, and a lot of the new members who had joined in California.

When the Planning Commission (PC) started in Redwood Valley, it consisted of almost all of the Redwood Valley members. As we began our travels to San Francisco and Los Angeles regularly (every Friday in SF, and alternate weekends in SF and LA), more members from those cities were asked to join. Meetings were held many Saturday nights until 3 a.m. or later in the Temples in SF and LA, as well as Wednesday nights in Redwood Valley.

In terms of numbers of PC members, there were about 37 members in 1973. By the time PT moved to Guyana there were about 100 members. Most of them moved to and died in Guyana. About 20 survived: either they were still living and working in the US; they had already left PT; or like me, they were Guyana but not in Jonestown on November 18, 1978. I will not attempt to name all the PC members, in part because, as far as I know, there is no complete list, but we can make some general statement about its membership.

The Planning Commission included many of the hardest workers in PT, but that was not the qualifying criterion, since a number of people who gave their heart and soul to the Temple were never put on PC. It included many of the professionals – lawyers, teachers, nurses, care home managers – as well as many of their spouses and family members. It included all of Jim’s personal secretaries and his staff, whose lives were consumed by his needs. He had no intention of giving them a night off! And it included a lot of the young, eager visionaries who were looking for a way to make the world better, and were delighted to work long hours to bring it to fruition. The Planning Commission was integrated yet disproportionately white, and Jim’s inner group of private secretaries was all white. As with the earlier incarnation of the group, the PC also included people who Jim wanted to keep a closer eye on, those he didn’t trust fully, or felt needed the added “position” within PT to feel important. PC meetings were not public, and the information was never shared outside of the meeting. To help ensure that, oftentimes couples and family members would all be on it. In the end, though, because Jim was a micromanager, he had the final say about who would be on it and not on it.

Being on PC was considered a status symbol. People were offended by not being asked to join it, especially if they felt they were hardworking and dedicated members. During its early years, people were really anxious to be given the opportunity to be on PC. Later on, when they saw the exhaustion and bleary-eyed PC members, many decided that they were indeed the lucky ones. Jim was a master of “divide and conquer” strategies, and played up the division between PC and non-PC members. PC members had a different position in the Temple. The prestige of being on it made some PC members abuse it, and some non-members envy it.

Marceline and the Jones children would often come through the PC meetings, making it feel even more like a family. The PC experience was unlike anything else in PT. PC generated a camaraderie, a time to slow down with friends, that we never had time to do outside. Many of my best friends now were PC members who survived. When a PC meeting was called, there was a certain buzz, and it wasn’t from the coffee! In fact, we didn’t have food there, as I recall; we just took care of business. That is where we saw the hearts of people like Helen and Rheaviana who were so hard-nosed in public.

Many of PC had jobs outside the Temple to bring in more money, but we had to schedule our work so that we didn’t miss – or even come in late – to PC meetings. From 1970 until I left for Guyana in 1977, for example, I worked full-time in the Mendocino County Welfare Department as an Eligibility Worker. When I joined the Planning Commission in late 1972 or early 1973, I had to ensure that the job which I’d already had for a couple of years didn’t conflict with my new responsibilities.

The Planning Commission meetings looked something like this: Jim would sit in a chair in the center of a semicircle, and most or all of the PC members would be on the carpet or floor. This was the case in the homes in Redwood Valley, in the back rooms of the Temples in San Francisco and Los Angeles, or on the stage at Ben Franklin High School, in San Francisco where we had some services and some PC meetings. Wherever it was, Jim was strategically sitting above us. When we discussed an area that a certain person or group was “in charge of,” that person or group would stand and address the group. We would have regular reports about files, finances in general terms, people who needed help in some areas, letter-writing, communes, security, and counseling. But the meeting wasn’t just about the nuts and bolts of running PT. We also met to discuss the philosophy behind our plans. We could better understand where we were going because we’d have this caucus.

Most PC members were the counselors at the different Temples with twice-weekly nights to talk to church members who were having conflicts or problems in some aspect of their lives. I considered counseling PT members about things going on in their lives to be one of the perks for PC members. I really liked these sessions, listening and getting to know other counselors and getting to understand others in the PT community, sharing any insight I might have developed in my life. We PC counselors developed a real friendship and learned a lot from each other. We were counselors at some times and “counselees” at others! Some of the other survivors hated this counseling and would arrange scheduling conflicts so that they didn’t have to do the sessions.

If/when a PC member had been caught making a questionable or lousy decision, that person would be called “to the floor” during a PC meeting and had to stand while Jim and others spoke about that. The person would get confronted and reprimanded, and then sit down. Then we’d move on to the next item. Most of the time, this confrontation was verbal. A few times it went further. At least one person was beaten. Another time, in the Los Angeles temple, I was asleep in my chair. Jim told me that if I fell asleep again, he’d shoot me. He had a gun, and pointed it at me. I managed to stay awake another two minutes or so. It must have been brutally obvious to him that threats were not going to work, especially with the bus drivers – me and others. So then he let all the bus drivers leave and go to sleep. I got to leave. It never occurred to me that he would really shoot. Never, never, never. I’ve since spoken with others who were there that night, nodding off. All of them were threatened, too. None of them were scared enough to stay awake or worry about Jim’s words. None felt that Jim would shoot a gun.

Looking back now, 29 years later, I think Jim had a lot of things he wanted to teach, share, spread and talk over, and he was frustrated that we’d fall asleep. We understood his frustration, even as we fought off our waves of exhaustion, and he eventually understood our need to sleep. If he had been a raving lunatic then, we wouldn’t have been understanding. We knew where he was coming from, so there were no hard feelings. We just couldn’t always do it.

But also as I look back, I realize I shouldn’t have been so sure about what Jim would or wouldn’t have done. He certainly had minions who would have cleaned up anything he did.

My sense of Jim was that he was first a committed, dedicated humanitarian and socialist, and second a thespian. I always felt that he would dramatize an issue to get our attention and understanding, and I never felt fearful. Others did fear him. I was never afraid in PT or in PC. Jim was superb at “dramatic play,” and, most of the time, he was after an affect. Although I wasn’t delighted at being “on the floor” for my various mistakes in PC, I appreciated that everyone had his or her time up front, regardless of color or connections. (This did not apply to Jim’s inner circle of secretaries – I think they too were reprimanded or confronted, but it was in a more private setting, not in front of the rest of us – and, of course, never to Jim himself. We saw the faults of those closest to him, but never his.)

I loved PC meetings. I loved knowing what was going on, where and when things would happen, and why. And, in these settings – not so much intimate as close – I loved talking, hashing things out, and seeing Jim, who had a hilarious sense of humor at times.

For me, it was safe and interesting, and I really did feel that I was on the inside. In the course of putting together this article, though, I got some different feedback on this issue. Several people said that PC was Jim’s way of really controlling those of us on it – by keeping us in the spotlight and keeping us exhausted. We each knew that he could know a lot by looking at us, and that scared some of us into behaving better. Others on PC, and in PT, took chances anyway. I have learned that several who were on PC went out for hamburgers, went to movies, and did other “unacceptable” things – but did it under Jim’s radar. I wasn’t afraid, but I didn’t stray from the party line. I had strayed enough before joining PT. I had no desire to water down the message that we were making a difference, and needed our energy, focus and money to continue to make it happen.

Jim also used PC for his very first white night. During one meeting, he handed out wine for us to drink. He had set up some PC members ahead of time to fall off their chairs, or somehow to look poisoned. Then, after we had drunk the liquid, he told us we had all been poisoned. People screamed and fell off chairs, and a few ran from the room. That’s when he told us that it was just a drill to see how dedicated we were. I didn’t believe it for a moment, so I didn’t have the sense to be scared of what might come of that charade. I think that I had seen Jim in so many personal settings, and show such wisdom and insight, and humanity, I just never let myself distrust him. Even after that. Looking back – 30 years later – it is unimaginable.

In December 1973, Jim took all of the Planning Commission to Guyana. Norman Ijames flew our plane into Guyana. We got to see what Jonestown looked like as a rain forest. It was exquisite. The rain forest was wonderful, the climate heavenly, and the people gracious and lovely. I had never been anywhere like it! After that, people who had building and machinery skills were sent to Guyana, beginning in 1975. The Touchette clan (most of whom were on PC) went, as did others who had the skills we needed.

I went to Guyana to live in 1977 at the beginning of the big push. While there, I spent the first year mostly in Georgetown. I remember three or four PC meetings in Jonestown when I went in during that year. We would gather in the main pavilion where all the meetings were held, but didn’t use mikes, so it wasn’t heard throughout Jonestown. We had reports from the different committees and got an overview of how the community was growing. The tone of these meetings was different, though, since they focused on the growth of Jonestown. There was a lot going on in Jonestown that never was brought up or discussed in PC or any other public setting, but rather in Jim’s cabin. The overwhelming majority of us were not privy to those conversations and secrets. We were busily building the community.

In Jonestown, Jim had started having meetings of a different group called the “steering committee”. According to Edith Roller’s journals, they really did plan for the future of Jonestown. That was very different than PC, and dealt with numbers, real data, and preparations for the influx of people. And of course, it was Jim and members of this group who set in motion the plans – the decision to die, the ordering of the means to die, and the storage of the poison in the midst of our community – that became all too apparent the final day.

(Laura Johnston Kohl is a former member of Peoples Temple and a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other article in this edition is Why Study or Reflect on Peoples Temple? Her previous writings appear here. She may be reached at ljohnstonkohl@gmail.com.)

Last modified on May 20th, 2014.
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