The Board (Of Elders)

by Garrett Lambrev

When I first visited PT in the spring of 1966, the Planning Commission had not yet been created because the need for such a large and diverse body serving a rapidly-expanding community had not yet arisen. There was, however, an entity called the Board, comprised entirely of males, over which Jim, who had appointed everyone, presided.

Its original name, the Board of Elders, from which the last two words had been quietly but understandably dropped, reflecting changed circumstances, was clearly a carryover from the evangelical Protestant culture of the Bible Belt. The men who constituted this Board were individuals of stature in this tight – though never airtight – immigrant community which functioned as an extended family, and was certainly able to welcome me, a middle class Californian whose life had so far been lived in a quite different world. That all but one board member, Archie Ijames, were Caucasian, reflected not so much any prejudice or discrimination as the still relatively small percentage of African-Americans in the group as a whole.

Despite the male membership of the body, strong and intelligent women wielded considerable and evident influence, and a few particularly invaluable women functioned as ex officio members of the board itself. Helen Swinney, in whose home the Board normally convened each week – in part because her husband, the bland but fiercely loyal Cleve, served as Chairman – was able to listen in on the discussions as they progressed and contributed directly during the coffee breaks. In her capacity as treasurer, Eva Pugh served as a consultant, no doubt much of it off the record and not necessarily within the purview of every board member, but her vigilant devotion to our cause was felt especially where investments were concerned. Ironically, Patti Cartmell, the woman who enjoyed perhaps Jones’ greatest confidence and who had served as my own doorway to the temple, was kept at a comfortable distance, in part because she was viewed as a competitor by some of the key men. Playing on such subtle but real antagonisms, Jim managed to maintain real power – even at that early stage – in his own hands.

My first encounter with the board occurred several months after my first visit to PT. At the end of the first of a two-part Sunday meeting, sensitive, retiring Jim Pugh, who served as secretary, approached me to ask if I would meet with members of the board during the several hour long intermission between services during which most members ate and socialized. I knew, of course, the question they intended to address, which was the nature of my relationship with the organization. And so, surrounded by a group of half a dozen mostly middle aged men – all white except for Archie – I was asked if I intended to become a member. Jones himself, perhaps to spare me extra pressure, had absented himself and it was through Jim Pugh’s voice that the question was posed. All eyes were on me. Nobody said anything. I hesitated as I was to hesitate for years

to come, a person perpetually on the brink but not really crossing over. Nevertheless, I cleared my throat and agreed that the time had indeed come for me to make a commitment to accept the discipline of the group and its leader who was, I too believed, God Himself, returned to earth to save, if not the multitude, then a socialist remnant of which I wanted deeply to be able to become a care giving part.

My next encounter with the board took place – not surprisingly – on the occasion of my first decision to seek a trial separation from PT. Joe Phillips, who served as second in command to the chief, ran the meeting with an informal but practiced hand. Through him, Jones again communicated his unfortunate inability to join us and sent me a message of his good will and deep concern, respecting whatever decision I might make but urging me to take the high road. There was consequently no effort either to browbeat or to win me over. I was encouraged to remain a friend in informal fellowship, particularly with the many individuals with whom I’d already developed strong personal relationships. The meeting which had no other agenda than my decision, broke up with coffee and donuts, jokes, and stories of the bad old days in the Bible Belt, battling racial bigots. Implicit in the terms of this, my first of many departures, was an open invitation to reconsider and come back. In those days there was still time. Leaving as I was doing in no way branded one a traitor—merely a coward.

A year later in the course of a general meeting Jones publicly invited Linda (known to history as Sharon the Babykiller) Amos and me – long since returned from the blind alleys adjacent to Haight Street – to join the Board as full members. She and I were the first “outsiders” – folks who had not grown up on cornbread and scripture – to be ushered formally into the upper echelons of this still very tiny organization. In the process, we would set an important precedent for a group whose leader clearly looked forward to a radically different future. That future – the doorways to which had already begun to open – included a vastly larger proportion of African Americans. In the persons of Linda and myself, moreover, it also included the taint of the political counterculture which was at that moment spreading like wildfire not only through the United States but throughout the developed world, ignited by what had begun in the nearby San Francisco Bay Area where Linda and I had both come of age.

Her arrival on the scene – much more than my own – portended big changes. She was the first woman to be admitted formally to the Board and certainly the first Jew to join the organization itself. It was on the occasion of her first meeting with us, in fact, in the old schoolhouse at Ridgewood Ranch, that Jones came out of the closet and declared himself the reincarnation of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, whose teachings and living flame would henceforth guide us into to the future. If nothing else, it was clear that the same old Board needed to get hipper, to reflect fresh opportunities.

I vividly recall my first meeting as a member of the Board. It served primarily as a get-acquainted session. When Linda’s turn came to speak, she offered as emblem of her gratitude an avid desire to put her three children, including two infants, on a diet of birdseed so that the money thus saved could go towards the building of socialism. There were unconcealed looks of shock (and possibly even disguised horror) around the long table at which we were sitting. Nobody said anything at first, perhaps because nobody had anticipated this response or could think of anything to say. Jim Jones, smiling sphinx-like, no doubt enjoying the moment to the utmost as sign of his power over another vulnerable and in this case demented human being, continued to say nothing. Jack Beam finally found words: “That won’t be necessary, sweetheart, but I know Jim sure appreciates your commitment to the Cause.” We all nodded or grunted while Jones followed up, purring his respect for “the childlike trust” of this certified or certifiable psychiatric social worker who had grown up in a Stalinist household in the Richmond District of San Francisco and served her apprenticeship as a mother hen and dumping ground for many of the original North Beach beatniks.

After the meeting adjourned several hours later, I drove home with Jack Beam, who suggested we stop somewhere for a cup of coffee. I had said much less than Linda and in truth was only beginning to recover from the horror of her offer, while Jack, no doubt trying to feel me out as well as lend support, made small talk. I could only wonder if they expected the same degree of masochistic devotion from me as from Linda.

Something basic in me felt simultaneously awe, respect and utter disgust. Was such degrading devotion an augury of the brave new world, parading as socialism, that our GodMan was leading us inevitably towards, a land of planned starvation in our own barely visible gulag, a penance – as Linda would later explain to me – for all of our individual sins in previous incarnations on earth?

The year 1968 was a time of precipitous and indeed unprecedented changes in the development of Peoples Temple as in the culture at large. The spring had witnessed the assassinations of King and a second Kennedy, both of which Jones had predicted. A revolution broke out in May on the streets of Paris, instigated by students temporary and perpetual. During this same period the elders of Christ’s Church of the Golden Rule expelled us from the edenic garden of Ridgewood Ranch where we’d met each Sunday for several years. We even lost the support of the presiding superior court judge, Robert Winslow, who had appointed our master to the foremanship of the Mendocino County Grand Jury but who was defeated for re-election over the issue of capital punishment which he and Jim had stopped the use of in local sentencing.

Where such major setbacks occasioned new opportunities, one might have expected the Board to have played an actively consultative role, even taking the initiative at times. Few, however, of the decisions I can recall emanated from our deliberations. In each case, it was Jim Jones who came to us with what seemed a firm decision, waiting for unanimous consent. Whether the decision had to do with reaching out to the black community of San Francisco or building our own church in Redwood Valley, the final decision had been made before we were consulted as a group.

The one exception I know of is instructive. It took place in the context of an ad hoc sub committee set up by Jim to consider emigration to the Soviet Union. One if its members, Joe Phillips, who to all purposes had appeared to be our God’s best friend, thought it made no sense to leave the only country in which we could ever have influence. Within two months this potential source of competition found himself entrapped in a sexual liaison which he thought his master had authorized and was forced out of the church through a carefully orchestrated public expose. Once Joe Phillips had departed, the real reason for the committee ceased to exist, and it collapsed for lack of the master’s attention which was also about to turn to women other than his wife.

The Board remained in a vestigial form until it was resurrected several years later by Jones under the Chairmanship of Larry Layton. But that is another story best told by others still alive.

(Garrett Lambrev is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His other article is A Tribute to Michael Bellefountaine. His complete collection of writings for this site is here. He can be reached at garrett1926@comcast.net.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on June 17th, 2018.
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