Integrating our previous experiences with our current life is like pulling the thread of our past into the woven fabric of our present. For me, pulling this thread forward has taken the form of sharing of my Peoples Temple experience, not in a static way like telling a story fixed in time, but in a way that allows for new, emergent, and continual forms of understanding to surface about the past, in ways that can be newly expressed as time goes on. There is a way in which all stories continue to be written long after their primary time of existence, and with this approach it is always a pleasure to share not just some of the one-time facts but evolving thoughts and reflections.
This year, I was invited by the Griot Institute at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, to share my thoughts and experiences of being a member of Peoples Temple as a young person, as well as my evolving thoughts on the subject in the 35 years since Jonestown. It was both interesting and pleasing to see that the subject of Peoples Temple was a course on the curricula, and the subject of in-depth study for an entire semester. The focus of this course included the huge endeavor of accommodating various speakers, including three of us who were members of the Temple, from different areas around the country. The speaker series was also open to the public, which was an educational benefit extending beyond the parameters of the classroom.
The students and the public were eager to understand what Peoples Temple was all about. For me, accepting the invitation was a way of further stepping into answering a call of inquiry and assist others who desire to know more about Peoples Temple.
Not long ago, even as I recognized the value in helping others to understand the Temple in all of its many facets and complexity, speaking in such a way would have been difficult because of my concern about being judged and feeling overwhelmed at what seemed an enormous task. Now, however, I am comfortable knowing that showing up and sharing in earnest is enough.
I appreciate the interest taken by the university and the desire on the part of the students and faculty, as well as the many students that I have spoken to in recent years, to learn the deeper aspects of the Temple beyond what has been the popular and common (though decreasing) form of dismissal blind follower definition. It was – and still is – my hope to not just contribute to their knowledge but to also contribute to their own decision-making process in their own lives and their own involvement in groups and the varied social circles they will involve themselves in.
With each generation it seems to be true that individual paths that young people take will in some way be influenced by forms of indoctrination and strong points of attraction. Whatever form the indoctrination takes, there are always vital learning experiences occurring, not only for them singularly but for the entirety of humanity driven by the ongoing quests and summons to delve into the strange and often unusual offerings of the time.
What I try to stress to young people is that although choice sometimes seems slim, options do indeed exist and become known through heeding to the sensibility of the gut, our most valuable form of visceral intuitive knowing. Having said that, it remains true that regardless of how strong that knowledge of choice is, and our recognition of the internal red flags that try to warn us, the insatiable need for experience seems to have its way with us. Such is the compelling nature of the evolving human culture in which the greatest learning comes only after involvement with and through our personal participation in the things we become swept up in and are drawn to. Each generation seems to have its own form of enticement.
It is fascinating to see with increasing clarity how Peoples Temple, culturally speaking, was a weaving that emerged in a kind of true-to-its-moment perfection, a precise convergence of threads on a loom of time and place, threads from a far and wide spectrum of the charismatic, the religious, political, and so much more. And all of it was orchestrated through the individual desires of brilliant people on all levels attempting to have their needs met and to create meaning in their own lives. The end shows us that even in our strong desire for goodness in life, our ways of being in community can ultimately prove extremely maladaptive. And so we learn.
The Peoples Temple thread is woven into the tapestry of my life showing up, not only in my viewpoint about life and decisions I make, but currently through mentoring others who are ready to positively integrate loss in their life. Through my program entitled Alchemy: Creating Joy and Meaning After Loss, it is both exciting and meaningful to share powerful transformational perspectives and methods for moving forward positively after loss.
(Jordan Vilchez was in Georgetown, Guyana on November 18, 1978, but her sisters and nephews died in Jonestown. She was on the Planning Commission and is familiar with many inner workings of the organization. Her earlier stories in the jonestown report are here. She was also a speaker during the Griot Institute of African Studies lecture series entitled Jonestown: 35 Years Later at Bucknell University; her presentation appears on this page (scroll down the videos). She can be reached at email@example.com.)