A few months ago, I received a call that my son Jakari – my three-year-old son whom I carried out of Jonestown on November 18 – was in trouble again.
Jakari has spent the majority of the last 34 years in prison. Most of it was attributed to his trauma from his year in Jonestown. Our children suffered from the lack of nutrients in their diets, from the early mornings when they were pulled from a deep slumber and late nights when they could not go to bed, from the White Nights that Jim Jones called, when they crouched behind toppled-over tables to protect them from a possible battle against outside forces.
Our children were damaged. They were taught violence. They were brainwashed into thinking that Jim was Father and their very existence depended upon him. That tragically ended up true. They would have taken up arms and killed anyone – even their parents – if they thought they were traitors to what we called the “cause.” We see the same type of abuse in the use of child soldiers in armed conflicts around the world today.
Raised from within and outside the womb in violence, my son is a victim of this. My pregnancy while in People Temple was full of stress in itself. I was in hard labor for 23 hours before they decided to perform a Cesarean section. My child’s heart stopped. He fought for life from the beginning and continues to fight for his life 36 years later.
Jakari has been in trouble before, but this time it was really serious. The day I waited for the verdict of this last situation, I was anxious all day, trying to prepare myself for whatever I would hear. I was walking down Seventh Avenue in Manhattan and had almost reached the corner of 35th Street, across the street from Macy’s, when the phone rang bringing up the all-too-familiar 866 number of Inmate Calling Solutions. I took a breath and answered. “Mom, are you okay?” my son said. “Yes,” I said. “Mama, they found me guilty on all counts.”
Immediately, I stopped by a newspaper stand trying to regain my balance, feeling my breath begin to leave, my legs weakening as I fought to stand up – but what I really wanted to do was to curl up in the fetal position. My tears began to flow as they have so many times. “Mama,” he said, “don’t cry.” I took a deep breath and said, “I’m okay,” but I wasn’t. I was sobbing, but had the phone on mute. As I leaned over the newspaper stand, a man came up to me and said, “Honey, are you okay?” With tears flowing like a river, I said “yes.” New Yorkers have gotten a bad rap for being uncaring. On the other end of the line, my son was trying to soothe me. “Jakari, we will get through this,” I told him, “we have been here before.” As if to reassure me, he replied “Mom, I have spent most of my life in prison. This is like going home.”
He was right, and hearing the resolve in his voice reached to my very core. As much as I fought to control the tears, the flood gate had opened. My child that I carried through Jonestown to freedom, had never really been free. The scars of me and the scars of him sometimes would expose themselves. “He told me the sentencing date would be October seventh, and tried to assure me again that everything would be all right. We ended our call the way we always do – “I love you” – and disconnected.
I finally moved to the three seat bench in front of Macy’s. There stood a well-dressed woman smoking a cigarette, her blond hair perfectly coiffed, strands of pearls around her neck. “Ma’am, may I have a cigarette please?” I asked. Cigarettes in New York are almost $14.00 a pack, you don’t bum cigarettes. She looked at me with empathy and said “Of course, dear.” My tears were still flowing even though Jakari and I had hung up the phone. Sitting on that bench in the middle of rush hour, not concerned about shedding tears was another type of freedom. My thoughts went to his seven-year-old daughter, my granddaughter who would never have the father daughter relationship. The school plays and events, her birthdays, they would all pass without seeing his smiling face. My tears kept flowing. Jakari had grown up without a father. It sealed the determination to do what I could to ensure she has a good life. I am the Matriarch of the family, I reminded myself.
I called my daughter and cried out, “Guilty on all charges.” Her voice sank. “Oh Mom, where are you?” she said. “Sitting on the bench in front of Macy’s.” I responded. Sitting there, I felt so free. I didn’t care that my mascara was running down my face, it felt quite normal. Crying for me was always considered a weakness, remnants still of indoctrination by Jim Jones.
Still, the feeling that washed over me was one of pure weariness. Okay, Father, I began to whisper, we will get through this one. Please protect your child, I whispered and provide me with the strength to see this through. You see, I realized many years before that my children are his children. God does not create anything to hurt us. When I think of Jakari, I know that he has been caught up with the mess, but I also know that he can change, that he can become the man he wants to. He will prevail even while he is behind bars. This mother’s prayer is said daily.
I found comfort that evening in the presence of Nicci, my daughter, Jakari’s sister. I called her and we met at a restaurant. I didn’t care that my mascara was running down my face. Crying for me was sometimes considered a weakness, and there are only a few times I have ever shed a tear in public. But on that day, I let it all hang out. For days and days I searched for calmness and quiet.
Knowing that I had laid his fate on the altar, I felt relief, confirmation and even peace. For I knew that if he submitted to God, he would be able to make it through.
Jakari’s case is on appeal, so I don’t feel at liberty to go into detail about it. Suffice it to say, prison in California is not meant to rehabilitate, only to incarcerate. I have further understood, it is a system set up to ensure that those incarcerated are likely to return to the cells in which they left. Why? Because ex-cons can’t get a job. Why? Because they have a record.
This is wrong, spiritually, morally, and logically. We can’t expect former prisoners to become productive citizens if we continue to punish them after they serve their time and rob them of any options. We are a nation of people proclaiming our faith in a loving God, yet we have such unforgiving hearts. We go to church and praise the Lord, but when we walk out, we won’t even help the next person. This is not the picture of “doing what Jesus would do.”
I do believe that there has to be punishment for crimes committed, but I also believe that we should be able to give second chances. God knows that if people had not stood by me and given me more than a second chance, I may have turned out differently. God allowed me to make my choices, as detrimental as some of them were, but I was also given Grace.
Colossians 3:13, Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (NIV).
Remain blessed, and remember that God loves you. Continue to pray for us.
(Leslie Wagner-Wilson was a child of Peoples Temple living in Redwood Valley from age 13. She lived in Jonestown until escaping with her two-year-old son and several others the morning of November 18th. Her husband, mother, sister, brother, niece and nephew died in Jonestown.
(Leslie is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other articles in this edition are This Season, Wayne Pietila – Giving Us Fond Memories, and FLIGHT (Finding Light in God’s Higher Truth) Prison Outreach Takes Off. Her earlier writings are collected here. She is the author of Slavery of Faith, available through her website, and can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.)