On occasion I am reminded that November 18, 2013 will mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of when I could have been dead. My name would be listed on a slab of stone, along with those of my first wife Rhonda and our son Hue Ishi Fortson, as well as hundreds of other people who perished in 1978.
I remember what Jonestown was supposed to be: a brand new world to us and the world, a model that would have shown that we, as black and white people, could in fact live together in harmony. What I didn’t appreciate was what we were giving up when we moved there. I had enough responsibilities within the church that I was allowed to go back to the States. My wife and son, once in the remote jungles of Guyana, were not. For several years afterwards, I could hear the words of my father-in-law, Sam Mathis, asking me when Rhonda and Ishi would be coming back home? And I remember telling him the lie that they would be home soon! And I’ll never forget his response: “Whatever decision you make, you will have to live with it.”
That comes back to me at times 35 years later, but I have managed to transform it into a good thing, in that I am very careful to guard my loved ones from anyone whom I feel could be a danger to them. And all of the people that I have the privilege to speak into their lives from a ministerial arena, I make it my business to let them know that my job as a Pastor is to get them back in relationship with the Father and to encourage them to make their own decisions for themselves and their family. I can only give them information to help them make a decision. Even to this day, I find many people who aren’t willing to take that step out of fear of making the wrong decision.
I am sure that many who are reading this piece are saying to themselves, why is it that when people have major tragedies in their lives, they often turn to the Lord. I can’t speak for anyone else except myself, but I have found out that this is what I was placed here on earth to do, to be – as one friend put it – a “spiritual coach,” to assist other people to find out who they are, and most important of all, what their purpose is for being here in this earth. Through being made to think that I was less than I really was, I now know that I am blessed with many spiritual gifts that are designed to be a help to others, and not to make me a “wonder” in the eyes of my fellow man.
Over the years I have come to take many of the phrases that I learned from many of the people who perished and use them in my life to share with others. Even now, whenever the door is opened, I go through it and tell of my life experience in hopes that the people who hear won’t make the same mistakes that I and so many other people did. Life is for living, and one can enhance other people’s lives by giving of oneself to assist others in this journey we call life.
I hope and pray that there will never be another Jonestown. Perhaps I should say, I hope there will never be another Jim Jones, because, after all, Jonestown itself was a place that could have been extraordinary. It wasn’t to be, though, because of negative attitudes of its leader and even his internal fears as a man.
It’s strange to think, I once looked to Jim Jones as a man of strength. I also remember when that changed. I was standing on a dirt pathway near the pavilion in Jonestown with Jim and a few other people. We could see this middle-aged black woman in the distance, heading in our direction, and she was extremely mad, cussing and fussing out loud! She hadn’t wanted to come to Jonestown, and now that she was here, she was letting everybody know how angry she was about it.
So why was she there? A few weeks earlier, her 17-year-old son had broken up with a young lady whom he thought he loved, and his ego was damaged real bad. He had headed for the jungle threatening to kill himself. The situation seemed serious enough that Jim called a major meeting for just about everybody in Jonestown to let people know what was going on. It would also allow him to put himself in the best light, to show that he had more love and compassion for all people. But the meeting wasn’t going to help in finding the young man, and the attorneys on Jim’s staff told him they’d be better off to keep up the search. One of the attorneys, Gene Chaikin, also said that Jim needed to get the mother of that young man down there right away, because if they found that kid dead, they were going to have a lot of explaining to do. Jim didn’t like the idea and tried to talk around it, but then Gene said, “You are crazy if you don’t get that mother down here.”
Jim blew up like a bomb. In an extremely loud and aggressive voice, he told the attorney, “Don’t you ever call me crazy!!!”
Gene couldn’t apologize enough, but the damage had been done. A very short time after that, Gene – who no longer had a relationship with his wife Phyllis, even though she was also living in Jonestown with their children – found love with a middle-aged black woman. The problem was, Jones had sent the woman into the relationship to keep an eye on Gene and to report any negative statements he might make about the Temple leader. Later, Gene spent time in the medical bond under heavy sedation – undoubtedly due to his dissent – although Jim periodically brought him out of the twilight to use his brilliant mind for legal work.
As a result of this emergency meeting, though, the boy’s mother was brought to Jonestown, but not by her choice, and she was very angry. And as she approached closer and closer to our small group at the pavilion, I saw Jim Jones turn around to hide his face from her. More than that, he hid behind us, using us as his shield. And he did not come back around until she had passed by and was escorted to her cabin.
It blew me out of the water. This was the man who had publicly made threats to anybody in authority who was not serving the people as he thought they should. He would cuss them out and dare them to come and confront him on one on one! But this was a different side of the man.
I did have enough wisdom not to discuss this, even with those of us who were there. But what I had just witnessed shook me. He was yet still a man with fears and other emotions just like us. Yet neither did I confront him personally. Because of me not knowing who I was, I did not approach him or come against him. I did not have the courage to ask him about my concerns that I had.
Learning of the deception that had been played on all us made me angry at first, but I made a promise to myself that if and when I came into a position in life where I could influence other people by what I say or do, I would be fair with everybody and not lead them astray.
I also remember that one afternoon when Jim called a “White Night” after one of his lovers defected to the American Embassy in Georgetown. She reported that Jim had people locked up in a makeshift prison in the ground, and that one day, he was going to kill all of the people. We sat under that pavilion from around three that afternoon up until around 5:45 the next morning, going over plans of escape that were all just lies, and lies on top of lies. We were all supposed to be going to Angola or Russia, where Jim said he had connections. There was even a plot of land in the Soviet Union, he said, where we could all settle. And don’t forget, there was also a place of refuge in good old Cuba.
Later in the wee hours of the morning, we made declarations of our support for Jim and the Jonestown community. It was so easy to be deceived and try and live this thing out. However, by the very grace of God, that self same night, Jim had a change of heart, as he called it, after an “out of nowhere” storm blew through and stopped just as soon as it came. He declared that we had hope in all of our sleeping babies laying on the floor in front of us, and that we would never have to talk about the so-called “White Night.” With that breath of relief, I hoped for a new vision for us in Jonestown.
Jim divided families in Jonestown, and Rhonda and I were no exception. Whenever I went into Jonestown, he would send Rhonda to work in the Georgetown headquarters for three or four weeks, and when she came back to Jonestown, I would then be sent to Georgetown to work for the same length of time. As it happened, a short time before I was to travel back to the United States, I had my last conversation with Rhonda in Georgetown. For years afterwards, I was haunted by the fact that I did not encourage her to take Ishi and run into the jungle if anything went down. I realized that I wasn’t acting as a man should as the protector of his wife and family.
For my own therapy, I continue to share my experience with any church, school and or university that will listen in hopes that it may help someone else make the right decision for themselves.
* * * * *
On November 29, 2013, I will mark my 27th anniversary of marriage to Linda Denise, the mother of our six children. I had repented to God for my trying to do it my way as a mere man that had issues his own self. Even though I was forgiven, for a long time I felt unworthy to even have another relationship because of my failure. However, God had another plan for my life, and I am in the process of doing just that. I just love the fact that people trust me to speak into their lives.
My main focus remains to get people to see what a gift they are to the world that we live in today! Even with that very negative experience behind me, I am a very happy man.
(Hue Fortson was the Associate Pastor of Peoples Temple in Los Angeles at the time of the deaths in Guyana. His wife Rhonda and his son Hue Ishi died on November 18th. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)