Honoring My Duty to My Family

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Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society

At the age of 24, I married Betty Leon Carter. It was 1973, I was 24, steadily employed, and ready to take on the world. The only thing I had been missing was a family of my own.

I had grown up in San Francisco with my mother Dorothy Lee Daniel, spending alternating years working on my father’s farm in Texas. I loved my father, but every year I dreaded the loss of friends, loss of my routine. That disruption taught me the importance of stability and security in a child’s life. That and being actively involved in your child’s life.

I came from an extremely close family. We walked right in each other’s houses. There were no knocks, no calls for permission first. We meddled in each others lives, we argued, we disciplined one another’s kids. We were family, and as far as we were concerned, that’s what families did back then. There were no prearranged play dates, or invitations to family meals. Your best friends were your siblings and your cousins. If you had a problem with one of us, you had a problem with all of us. Betty immediately fit right in laughing, and gossiping with the ladies. This included my Aunt Verdella Duncan, her husband, Uncle Walter, and their children Sonje Regina and Tyrone. I was the youngest of four boys, and they all loved my wife and our boys as if they were their own.

Betty already had two sons whom I fell in love with instantly. Marcus Emile Morgan was two years old, and Maurice Chaunte Carter was a newborn. The following year, we were blessed with Steve Nathaniel Daniel III. I knew the first time I held Lil Steve in my arms, my heart no longer belonged to me.

I was working at the SF Water Department at the time, and Betty stayed home with the boys. I would come home to all three kids anticipating my arrival. Even before I got through the door, I would hear them heading for me, each one louder and faster than the one before, ready to tell me all about whatever adventures had unfolded for them that day. I made sure to give each one the undivided attention he deserved.

* * * * *

When I look back now, it feels as if there should have been an exact moment that stands out when Peoples Temple became a part of our lives. It was not like that. As happens with so many things in life, it was very gradual.

My older brother, Charles Wesley had been in some legal trouble and wanted to get himself back on track. He had heard about a church up in Ukiah that was really welcoming to those in need of a second or third chance. Feeling as if he had few options, he went up to check it out. When he returned, he seemed like a different man, more reserved and serene, filled with a new peaceful energy. He was convinced he had found something life changing. Curious about the source of the glaring, yet subtle change in Charles, my family started tagging along with him on his visits up north. Just like that, right before my unsuspecting eyes, my family had become members of Peoples Temple.

I was not what was considered religious, but I was a God-fearing man. More than that, however, I supported the people I cared about. Sometimes that support was from a near distance, but as long as they were happy, I felt that I was honoring my duty. I knew that when it was your time to step up to the plate, that is exactly what you did. You didn’t demand explanations, reasons, or anything like that, and – having been the baby of the family – I also knew you especially did not dare question your elders.

I would drive my family up to Ukiah on Saturday nights for services. One time my mother asked me to go in and just sit with her. She insisted that it was going to be a welcoming environment and there was nothing for me to worry about. At that time, I really didn’t believe I had a reason to worry. They were, for all intents and purposes, going to church.

Walking up to the front door of the Temple, though, I have to admit I was a bit taken aback at the sight of guards. Even more alarming was having to show my ID before I could enter. The doors were locked behind us, and would not be unlocked again until the end of services at 3 am. I kept my word to my mom, and sat through the ceremony. I really did not know what to think about the whole production. There was a lot of Jim Jones preaching, and then more of him. I remember thinking that this guy was full of himself, that he seemed to like the sound of his own voice. Realizing that I was in what was supposed to be a place of worship, I silently scolded myself for judging another, especially a man of the cloth. I spent the rest of the night trying not to look at my watch or think about the drive that I had ahead of me. There was nothing remarkable that stuck out during that trip, no secret meetings, or code languages or anything close to a few accounts I have heard about over the years.

But that became our life. During the week, I would work at the Water Department and come home in the evening to soak up as much time as possible with the boys before their bedtime. Betty would spend a good amount of time studying the Bible and working with the boys. She would meet up with some family members to have “discussions” a few times a week. It was our routine that we had slipped into, and everyone seemed to be doing their part. Then every Saturday night, I would make the two-and-a-half hour drive to Ukiah to drop everyone off at Peoples Temple, and when services got out – around 3, sometimes 4 am – I’d turn around and drive another two-and-a-half hours back home. The Temple would not allow me to park on the property while I waited, so I would find side streets to park and nap.

Naturally, I was excited when Peoples Temple finally moved to San Francisco and moved into the church building they had bought on Geary in the Fillmore, if for no other reason than it meant the late night drives were over. But it also meant that my family could really throw themselves into the work of the church. During the next year or so, my family went on church-organized bus trips to Los Angeles on weekends, which was in addition to the regular services. Then my wife started going to what she referred to as her security shift. When I jokingly asked her exactly what she did on this security shift, she brushed it off with a remark about doing the work of God. I couldn’t begin to imagine what that entailed, but she was very serious about her commitment, and I respected that. I knew that anything that Betty believed in, she believed in wholeheartedly. The possibility of my family keeping secrets, even from me, never entered my mind. They never told me what took place during these services or trips, but I didn’t think much of it. I simply couldn’t imagine that a church would require this form of secrecy, or have cause to. Now when I run through it in my head, I realize, I never heard my wife recounting the day’s details with me or anyone. The same was true for the rest of the family. It was just never discussed. They displayed an intense loyalty and unwavering dedication to the church. They had changed ­– I could see that – but it wasn’t the kind of changes that you could really put your finger on. Nothing obvious, very subtle, it was an almost tangible feeling that had permeated the house and the family. The feeling wasn’t reassuring or comforting, but it also wasn’t quite sinister. In the past 30 plus years, the best way I can describe it was inexplicable.

I never worried about my sons’ safety or well being. They were with their mother. I felt being in the church was the safest place for any child. And they always came back home full of excitement, singing and playing. They were joyous. Even later, when I began to hear rumblings about threats to Jim Jones’ life, and word began to spread that people were getting suspicious of his increasingly paranoid behavior, I trusted my family’s word. When I did casually ask them about the accusations I had heard, they were quick to put me at ease. It was just the mainstream media and public, they assured me, which weren’t aware of the truth; they were perfectly fine and in good hands.

I had never had a reason to doubt my mother or my aunt or anyone in my family my entire life, and I was not about to start now, despite the tiniest of knots beginning to form in the pit of my stomach. I would remind myself that no one in my family would never put themselves – let alone any of the children – in any sort of jeopardy no matter what the reason. This thought is what helped me numb that stomach knot.

And then Betty approached me going down with everyone to Guyana. I knew about the community they had down there, and in fact my Aunt Verdella and Uncle Walter had already gone. He had returned alone, but said there was nothing to worry about, that everything was fine down there. He was just ready to be back into city life.

But there’s a difference between when your aunt and uncle want to go and when your wife and kids do. Betty told me that the church had to get out from under the scrutiny of the government and the judgment of the American public. If they were to be truly free, they needed to experience this chance of a lifetime. They might be down there for up to a year, but the benefits to the kids would last them a lifetime. Naturally, I didn’t want to miss any part of my boys’ childhood, and I tried to see if there was any compromise. However, the look in her eyes made me realize quite clearly what was taking place. She was asking my permission as a formality and appeal to my male ego. I envisioned coming home after work one day to a note and empty closets. Not wanting her to feel that she had to sneak off, leaving no place to return to, I proposed a deal: She could take the boys and give them the experience of a lifetime, but after a year – at the outside – they would come back. In the meantime, there would be visits, calls, updates, pictures, anything to maintain contact with the family. She agreed, then produced the permission slip needed for Lil Steve to leave the country.

I was most likely trying to cope with my life as if nothing had changed – trying to trick myself – so I didn’t experience many genuine emotions leading up to and after my family’s departure for Guyana. I spent as much time as I could with my boys before they left, trying not to make a big deal about it, reminding myself over and over that I would be visiting them soon and that in any event, the year would fly by. I kept a stiff upper lip as I hugged my wife, niece, and brother and wished them a safe journey. Marcus and Lil Steve looked like such big boys in their brand new matching outfits. I swear they were standing a bit taller as if they were already assuming the protective, head of the house responsibility in my absence. It made me chuckle silently, but mostly it made me proud.

Then just like that, they were gone.

My mother had stayed in San Francisco along with a small handful of family members. The idea was, we would all be reunited in the not-too-distant future. Whatever it took for my family to be together, happy, healthy, and – most importantly intact – is what I was willing to do.

* * * * *

I received brief letters from Guyana every now and then. Each letter felt a little impersonal and almost generic to me, but I was also so happy to hear that everyone was well. Not too long after, I happened to be talking with my Uncle Walter about his trip down with my Aunt Verdella, but as he told me his story this time, he starts muttering something about his passport. Confused, I asked him what he was talking about. In order to enter Jonestown – not generally speaking, but specifically during your first contact with the guards at the front gate – you were supposed to surrender your passport. He had flat out refused, and since he made such a scene, they reluctantly agreed to let him keep it.

I started to feel physically sick. This time there was no attempt to put on a brave front. I felt completely powerless. I was like a scared kid who didn’t know what was going on, but knew he had to get somewhere safe or else the evil was going to get him. Oddly enough, even in my state of despair, I was mindful enough to not lash out at my uncle for leaving out such crucial information. I would like to say that it was an intentional act of understanding and maturity, but that was not the case. That was a moment in my life that is forever etched not only in my memory, but in my soul.

From that moment forward, I could no longer convince myself that the gnawing in my gut was without merit. I never believed that my uncle’s absentmindedness was intentional or malicious by any means. It wasn’t until recently that I was able to say the words that I was really angry and confused, and felt almost betrayed. I never wanted anyone to think that I blamed him for anything, because truth is, I did not. I have let the “if only’s”, and the “what if’s” reside in my heart for decades without talking about it. I really believe that if I had known that piece of information, I would have never considered letting my children leave my side. The adults – of course – could make their own decisions and choices, and I would respect them. But my innocent little boys who just wanted to go on an adventure and see new and exciting things? There’s not a chance in hell that I would have signed any release. At this late date, it’s impossible to know what would have or could have happened? I certainly don’t, but that was the morsel of comfort I held onto whenever guilt, blame, or judgment dared to slip into my thoughts.

Even as my soul imploded, the world around me seemed to explode too. The media started reporting that people returning to the States from Jonestown were claiming that Jim Jones was a fraud, that he had turned into a different person with ulterior motives. His behavior now was greed-motivated and drug-fueled, and at this point he was making little effort to disguise it. The sermons he had given in the church were gone, replaced by community meetings about plans and strategies, and they were always on the defensive. There were drills, practices, punishments, and tests, and – for reasons unknown at the time – the remaining members seemed all too willing to indulge him. Though their loyalty may have started to waver, they still remained committed to prove their dedication to this man and the cause as he chose to define it.

The press was also reporting that the government was delving deeper into the finances of the church, and the more the government investigated, the more questions began to materialize. Simultaneously, San Francisco seemed to be going through its own political turmoil, and, depending on who you ask, this was or was not related to Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. All I knew was, the whole city was on edge. The mood was one of uncertainty and apprehension.

Little Steve’s fourth birthday was coming up, and I decided I had to see him. I was trying to figure out my next move, how I could leave work, how I could get on a flight out of the country. The situation with getting past the guards at the gate didn’t deter me for a moment. I had kids who needed to return to the safety of the only home that they had known. I cursed myself for not thinking of things like holidays when I gave Betty my okay. It was one of these moments when all you hear in the back of your head are voices asking over and over, what did you do, what did you do? They were loud, angry, accusing voices, and no matter what I did, they wouldn’t leave me alone. I was functioning in extreme primitive survival mode at the time.

I have little memory of the details of what I did around that time. I don’t know if that is my brain trying to protect me from the memories, or if my brain considered those details unnecessary and could only retain only the basic most important information.

But for whatever reason, I can’t account for my movements while making preparations to get my boys home. Thankfully my mom kept me updated on any report she could get from the news, and when she told me that she’d heard that our Congressman Leo Ryan was heading down to Guyana to find out what was really going on down there, I felt a huge sense of relief flood my body. All the recent stress and adrenaline that had kept me going on autopilot poured out of me. I started to hope again, to believe that I was not in fact entering a nightmare. I almost laughed out loud – due to delirium surely – thinking how silly I had been, overreacting and thinking the worst. Once Betty returned home, she would undoubtedly get a kick out of the image of me running around the city like a madman, ranting about going to South America. Tears streamed down my face as I allowed myself to release the pent-up and – as far as I believed – made-up emotions. I sat in front of the television to watch for any updates on the congressman’s visit. I even let myself entertain the possibility of catching a glimpse of my kids or wife on TV, waving at me, as they boarded the plane to return home with Ryan. As I let the exhaustion have its way with me, I had a feeling of being whole and loved, because I could feel the presence of my family. It lasted only a brief moment, but it was there. They were coming home, we had a birthday to plan, and the holidays would soon follow. Yes, we had a lot of planning to do, but I was going to make sure that this would be a holiday season we would remember the rest of our lives. With that thought, I fell into a much-needed, almost comatose sleep.

* * * * *

From the very beginning, the name Jim Jones was whispered in our community like it was a secret. For years, people would ask me why I didn’t join Peoples Temple. Without pausing for an answer, they would say that I was lucky, smart, or even blessed that I didn’t join, that I must have had a sixth sense, that someone was looking out for me. I know they mean well, but those statements, masked as compliments, are very cruel and barbed. The people who followed Jim Jones – including my own family – were people who wanted to be the best people they could be. They wanted to contribute something positive to leave behind. They wanted to be free, happy, and loved, to feel like they were a part of something bigger than they. This was never about money, power, or race to them. The words “cult,” “brainwashed,” “pawns,” these are not words you would use to describe my family if you met them outside of Peoples Temple. Like all the families who followed Jim Jones, they may have been oblivious or naive about what was going on in the church, but they weren’t ignorant or foolish or maladjusted.

It has taken a better part of my adulthood to be able to choose to view this tragedy and memory differently. I believe that my family – like so many others – was brave enough to uproot their lives, to give up every piece of security that they had known their entire lives in the name of what they believed in. These were the people that didn’t just talk the talk, but rather acted on their beliefs. I may never know what went on down there in the jungles of Guyana or who masterminded what. That may not be for me to know. I wish to God, it had been the answer to their prayers as they believed. I choose to think that it was only a stepping stone to where they peacefully rest now. The boys are still as loving, kind and hold nothing heavy or evil in their heart. I know that they are taking care of their mother because she always wanted what was best for them only, as did I.