In late 1977 after my wife Rhonda and our young son Hue Ishi Fortson left for Jonestown, I was asked to live and work in the San Francisco Temple. And I was considered to be one of the many “associate” ministers. Boy, was that a far cry from real ministry!
One of the main things we did not do was to pray for those in need. Instead, we tried to make sense of the situations that people were faced with. We took people to the passport office to complete their paperwork. We helped them move out of their apartments or houses. And most interesting on Sunday mornings, we still conducted services for those who were still coming, even after Jim Jones and the major portion of the group had gone south to Jonestown. We would hang a large picture of Jim Jones on the pulpit for the people to see and we would sing our made up songs. They were not songs about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but songs that had either had the words changed to fit into our brand of “new” religion/socialism/everyday life. There weren’t any crosses within the stage area either, only that lone picture of Jim Jones with his sunglasses and that toucan bird.
We would sometimes show Super 8 movies of the latest developments from Jonestown to inspire the people to continue to give of their monies. And believe it or not, I can remember raising an offering of about $300. Even though that was a lot of money, I can also remember the many times that Jones himself would rake in $25,000 or more on any given Sunday in Los Angeles. And if he came up with any kind of plea for extra monies, there would always be a large group of persons that would give an extra hundred dollars.
On a typical day for those of us in the Temple building, you would get up at daybreak and head for a space in one of the restrooms to handle your business and get out of the way for someone who may have to go to an outside job in the city. Food was always in the kitchen and dining area for you with willing workers always ready to take care of you. It was like everybody had a place and a space to operate in. Depending on what was on the books for that day, you either helped out in the crating area or went to the hardware store to purchase supplies. Sometimes there would be a letter-writing campaign going on and then you would be part of that. Lazy people were always singled out, and someone would make it their point to keep them motivated and moving!
When lunchtime came around, most, if not all, of the people within the Temple grounds would stop and take lunch. And most of the conversation around the tables was about what Jim Jones had already done for them as well as others. Work would then resume and people would continue to keep up the pace until dinner time came around. Once again we gathered around the tables with one another or anywhere we could find space in the Temple. After dinner most of us would find out what other projects needed help and make ourselves available, way up until midnight or so.
We still had a feeding program in the San Francisco Temple where people would come in off the streets and get a free breakfast or lunch or dinner. At one time a couple of us would drive down to a very unique live-in drug and alcohol rehabilitation center south of San Francisco. They were in the process of shutting down and they had offered us tons of items that we could come and pick up with our trucks and busses. We appreciated their generosity, and on any given Sunday the stuff we had picked up could be found in the flea market where it would bring in around $500 for the Temple.
In most cases, the Temple members living in the Bay Area were people who either were next in line to be shipped to the project in Guyana or who had decided to come and live closer to those of the like mind. In Los Angeles people would still meet on Sundays, but the talk was less about going to Jonestown, or rather, about not going to Jonestown. I think that many were scared to give up their homes and other possessions. Maybe deep down inside, they did not really believe in the dream like Jones had portrayed. At that junction of my life I had to believe because my wife and son were already down in Jonestown living day to day.
Even with Jim Jones out of the country, there was always a project to keep you busy and keep your mind from thinking of anything other than Peoples Temple. In some cases the tension was building within the people and every now and then there were fights. But it was interesting that even after an argument, they in fact would listen to each other and repent to one another and go on with work as usual. Many times Jones would send a taped message that would be played to those that came out and they would be inspired to work even harder to bring in income to help support the project.
Looking back on those years, I fondly remember Archie Ijames, or AJ, as we called him. He was considered the senior minister not only in age, but in his relationship with most – if not all – of the people. He was also instructing the people who wanted to be part of the “crating crew,” which made wooden boxes that would be used to carry personal items to Jonestown as well as huge crates for machinery and supplies for the project. AJ was a master builder. Years later, after the end of Jonestown, when I was in the process of putting my life back together, I received a call from AJ and his wife Rosie. They came by my apartment in Los Angeles and AJ shared with me that at one time while he lived in Jonestown, he had begun to distrust Jim Jones. Later he had opportunity to put his hands on $30,000 cash money, and he kept it to see if in fact Jones would know of the cash by divine revelation. Jones never said anything about the cash, and AJ knew then that he was in the wrong place. Later on he and his wife Rosie gave their hearts to the Lord and began to evangelize the country up until they both passed away. They wanted to make a positive change in the world.
I believe we all did.
(Hue Fortson was the Associate Pastor of Peoples Temple in Los Angeles at the time of the deaths in Guyana. Hue is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His previous articles are here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)