In the past few years I’ve come to know many people who were involved in Peoples Temple. From Jones’ only biological son, to my relative who housed PT members in a church when they visited the pastor’s hometown in the mid-1970s, I have never seen a more diverse group than those who belonged to the Temple. There were lawyers, businessmen, housewives, working class, even some preachers who closed the doors to their own churches and cast their lots with Peoples Temple.
What did the Temple mean to these people? What drove them to commit their lives and resources to this Cause? Many folks shared a collective belief in the healing or clairvoyant powers of Jim Jones, and even those who knew that many healings were faked, believe to this day that some were real. Some people came to help. Some came to receive help because the Temple was there to provide after so many doors of services were shut to them in various arenas in California and other areas. The Word was brought to life in Peoples Temple for many members. One member who died in Jonestown wrote to her family that Peoples Temple was the only church or group truly practicing the Teachings of Jesus.
While most churches were Sunday and occasional Wednesday meetings, Peoples Temple was a life commitment. Members lived communally. They turned over paychecks and resources to a Cause they believed would take care of all of their needs and all of their loved ones. For these members, there was no other avenue to bring about the change that society seemed to be starving for.
In the early days, it appeared the Spirit was alive and a true Utopia could be found in Peoples Temple. But, like with all authoritarian structures, absolute power corrupts absolutely. People gave too much love to Jim Jones and turned their backs to reason and independent thoughts and ideas. Dissenters – even the people who attempted to bring another point of view to a member – were cut off as enemies. The Spirit of Love and Utopia that appeared to envelop the group gave way to Jones’ degeneration, drug use and severe paranoia. In the largest peace time death of Americans in recent history, the dream was crushed, the Spirit extinguished. Surviving Temple members hid from fear of alleged hit squads, unwanted media coverage, and the utter embarrassment from having belonged to a group which had decayed until it erupted into the worst cult violence in history. Most survivors would not attend the annual memorials on the anniversary of the mass deaths in Jonestown, until around 1993 after the Waco disaster. Slowly, cautiously, some former members came out to the services and saw others they had not seen in a decade. Some who were labeled as enemies by Father Jones now stood side-by-side at the services with members who remained until the end. Former members began to keep in touch, not only on the anniversary of the tragedy, but throughout the year.
The fear, embarrassment and pain has greatly subsided for most. Now they can come forward to be with those they had once joined in Temple services, swaying to music and feeling the Spirit sweep throughout the Temple. Now, nearly thirty years later, former members, relatives and friends of deceased, and those who just come to understand and desire to belong are uniting to share memories and goals they once shared so long ago.
Peoples Temple rotted from within. There were no conspiracies or monsters who wanted to destroy it. The enemy stood at the helm of control. Most of the true egalitarians, most of the true socialists, fell that day as victims of his disease; the remaining gather today.
The Spirit is not dead. I saw it at the PT gathering here in San Diego in July. The Spirit of desire to make a change and to do something with their lives still exists. With the passage of time and the real enemy removed, the Spirit of the remainder of this group has been rekindled…
(Roger Stacy is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His complete collection of writings for the site may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)