Joe Phillips: A Reflection

by Garrett Lambrev

The person most critical to an understanding of how Peoples Temple devolved has been almost entirely left out of the narrative to date. Except for a brief mention in an article by former Temple member James Blanton that appeared two years ago, the complex role of Joe Phillips as advisor to Jim Jones and his position as second-in-command in all but name during the mid-1960s has been completely overlooked. If we are to understand how this experiment in social justice called Peoples Temple turned into a grotesque caricature of its supposed aim, we need to understand Joe and recognize his significance in the way the Temple came to define itself. Only then can we realize that there might have been an alternative to the “revolutionary suicide” model ultimately enforced by Jim Jones.

The reasons for the apparent oversight are a consequence of various, mutually entangled, strands. One has to do with the fact that Joe departed (or was deported) before most PT members, including the vast majority of those who survived, had even heard about Jim Jones and his work, much less joined our movement. Another, equally determinant strand, has been the continuing reluctance of those few who do remember Joe – myself included – to reopen wounds carried by other members of his first nuclear family, all of whom ultimately defected, and all of whom, to my knowledge, are still alive.

The issues raised by the involvement of Joe Phillips with Peoples Temple and Jim Jones, nonetheless, are much too critical to be ignored. Together they provide a very important, heretofore missing piece of the never-to-be finished puzzle which opens up equally communitarian possibilities that were never pursued. As the only close friend with shared experience who remains alive, I find myself tasked with the responsibility of bringing into the public domain something about the life, character and impact of this complex man on PT’s experiment in social justice.

* * * * *

I recall the first time we met with exceptional clarity. It was a Friday night in mid-March, 1966. Patty Cartmell, whom I’d met two days before, had invited me to meet her family, which turned out to be a very extended one. As she opened the door of her Ukiah, California house, smiling ear to ear, the half dozen people in the room slowly rose to their feet. The first to introduce himself was Joe, a sturdy, ruddy faced man of medium height and straw-colored hair just shy of forty. He was smiling too, but it was our eyes that hooked up. They were small but wide on a large face and not so much intense as good-humored and profoundly curious. Despite the deep cultural divide between us, I immediately felt a spiritual kinship. Many years later, Joe confessed that he and Archie Ijames, the African-American elder presence who towered above all of us in that room – and who didn’t smile at all – had been dispatched to assess my potential before clearing me to meet the master later that night.

Joseph Phillips was born into a large, staunchly Methodist, lower middle-class family in Charleston, West Virginia in December 1927. When he was only sixteen, he lied about his age in order to join the US military. Sent to Midway Island too late to participate in the famous battle that turned the tide of World War II in the Pacific, he spent the rest of the conflict isolated and under-stimulated. With time on his hands that he’d never had growing up, the expanse of ocean on all sides reaching out to abundant or destitute shores, he had the opportunity to think about the direction and meaning of this, his little life in the context of such a vast dynamic universe of dire realities and open possibilities, particularly in the light of the approaching victory over fascism.

Returning stateside after the war, Joe did what countless young men of his victorious generation did: he landed a job and soon found himself – doubtless because of talent matched with diligence – working as a low-level manager in the trucking industry. He also married Clara, his long-term sweetheart, and they soon started a family. Janet was the first child: she resembled her mother not least in the sense of responsibility she apparently developed early. Danny followed three or four years later, born into this world with a serious heart defect and a spirit as independent as that of his dad. Half a dozen more years passed before beautiful blond-haired Laura arrived with her infectious smile. In the meantime, Joe’s financial success permitted him to purchase a small working farm not far from Columbus, Ohio, where the family spent most weekends.

Some time in the mid-1950s, encouraged by what they’d heard on a religious radio station about an evangelist/healer passing through town, Joe and Clara took Danny to a church where Jim Jones, then about 25 years old, was scheduled to preach. In the course of the meeting, Pastor Jones called out somebody in the audience whose child suffered from a heart defect that would certainly shorten its life. Joe immediately raised his hand in acknowledgement. Jim regarded the couple with penetrating eyes, then told everyone that the situation had been taken care of, because the child had been healed forever. Joe and Clara were elated, but they nevertheless took little Danny to specialists who confirmed that all signs of the previous ailment had disappeared without any explanation the medical specialists could offer.

Joe believed to the end of his life that the healing of his son was entirely authentic. The rest of us can pacify ourselves with the views of the larger American society about the numerous fake healings, and thereby dismiss the possibility of others which were truly miraculous and reflected Jim’s profound gift as a channel of healing energy. But this was one of those miracles whose authenticity to my knowledge has never been seriously challenged, even if we persist in ignoring it and thousands like it.

Joe did not have to be told that Danny’s healing was the sign he’d been waiting for since his return from the war he never saw in the Pacific. The source might be unexpected, but he knew immediately that it pointed the way to a new and very different sort of life than the one that had brought him to this place. Fortunately, Jim did not need to convince him – as he did so many others – that the real transformative work of any church that mattered was the construction of a new society based on solidarity rather than selfishness. Though Jim’s church was several hundred miles distant in Indianapolis, Joe didn’t worry much about the miles that separated them. There was intimacy in the dream they shared that overcame physical distance. Besides, Joe’s work as a transportation manager facilitated travel. Even when he wasn’t able to bring his family to meetings, he was often able to bring himself. More and more, the two men found themselves in each other’s company, and a deep bond of brotherhood seemed to develop between them as they shared their thoughts in the context of their developing collaboration.

Recognizing Joe’s gifts as an orator who knew how to gauge a fundamentalist crowd almost as well as he did, the Master asked Joe to accompany him on a trip to a Christian fundamentalist convention in Los Angeles, the birthplace of Pentecostalism. Joe introduced Jim to a crowd that had already heard from a full range of hucksters, including the likes of Rev. Ike, each focused on making money in the name of the Lord. The scene seems to have revolted both men who had something very different in mind. For Joe as much as for Jim, miracles and matters of discernment were only to be used as tools to command attention to what should matter to real Christians: the creative construction of a new world order based on the placing of all things in common as described in the second chapter of the Book of Acts, what the earliest Christians, meeting on the original day of Pentecost, had realized they needed to do after the spirit had descended upon them and everyone began to speak in tongues.

While it remains unclear when or how Jim Jones discovered and began using the incomparably sophisticated metaphysical framework that classical Indian thought provides in order to make sense of his own revolutionary mission, one matter is certain: Joe Phillips, a natural philosopher with a visionary perspective, played a perhaps oversize role in helping Jim develop his own understanding of how the laws of karma and reincarnation work in order to explain, not only the destiny/dharma of individuals, but that of our group as a dynamic force of collective consciousness trying to make a quiet revolution in the most dangerous of nuclear-armed times.

In order to explain their special bond, Jim “revealed” that Joe had lived one life as Ananda, the first among equals of his disciples when he, Jim Jones, became known as the Buddha. God also revealed to Joe that he had lived in another body as Asoka, the quite astonishing Buddhist emperor of Mauryan India who chose the path of non-violence after following that of a warrior; also as Akbar the Great, further establishing my friend’s fondness for the subcontinent, record of toleration and – most important of all – leadership credentials. Beyond the litany of lifetimes in which he supposedly exercised great power, what’s most significant to note is Jim’s acknowledgement that Joe possessed comparable gifts, including the ability on frequent occasion to read the pattern of other’s lives and consequently to offer appropriate sage advice.

After a meeting in Indianapolis sometime in the early sixties, Jim advised Joe that he would soon receive confirmation that he had spent his previous time on earth as Sun Yat-Sen, the founding father of modern China. This confirmation, explained Jim, would take the form of a particular and rather unusual phrase used by Sun that he would soon encounter. Not too long thereafter, returning by Greyhound from a job-related mission west of the Mississippi, Joe suddenly woke up from a dream and looked out the window. At just that moment he saw this unique, rather complicated phrase (which he later confided to me but which unfortunately I don’t recall) flash by on a billboard. Years later, following his defection from Peoples Temple, Joe experienced a confirming thunderbolt when one of Sun Yat-Sen’s grandsons, together with wife and kids, moved into the apartment unit just below his in San Pablo, California.

Joe carried the heavy-to-bear distinction of having been one of the few disciples who were present when Jim was suddenly convulsed by a vision of this world’s rapidly approaching thermonuclear end. Jim confided to the small group with whom he was driving one night in the country that the horrific culmination of human evolution, the consequence of our culture’s dedication to pursuit of self-interest with no thought of tomorrow, had just been revealed to him. It would take place at 3:09 on the 16th as the result of a thermonuclear confrontation between the Russia and the US. He didn’t know whether the time referred to AM or PM. Neither did he know what the month might be, though he suspected September. Nor had the year been disclosed to him. One thing he did know for sure was that the members of Peoples Temple, the chosen people of socialism, would have to be prepared to survive such an unimaginable calamity.

The trauma of this experience seems to have convinced Jim to take his family, and that of Jack and Rheaviana Beam, to explore Brazil as a possible sanctuary for his most committed followers. How Joe reacted to the prospect of a several year separation from his friend and mentor is nothing he ever shared with me. I do know that Joe took the frustratingly incomplete warning of nuclear destruction with utmost seriousness. In any event, he seems effortlessly to have maintained his independence from the PT mother church.

Without Jim’s vigilant leadership, however, the Temple hollowed into an empty shell. Several hundred miles of distance were welcome in that context. According to Joe, it became so torn by intrigue and mutual suspicion that – under the delegated leadership of the Rev. Russell Winberg, backed by the Rev. Ross Case – it had all but repudiated the social gospel, including pursuit of racial equality, and returned to what Jim and Joe both labeled “the vomit” of Biblical fundamentalism. Joe wasn’t surprised that the backsliders, who included prominent members like Jim and Eva Pugh, later returned, expressing remorse. He was shocked, however, that Winberg and his crew were so stupid as to cut off financial support to the mission in Brazil, which had served to keep their pastoral competition out of the country. The cut-off indeed forced Jim to close the mission and return home to clean out the Temple of its pious idiots. Joe looked forward to the prospect with relief and renewed hope.

Jim’s return certainly did lift Joe’s spirits. He had faith that his friend could reassert the singular authority needed to bring the babble of miscreants into line. Aided by Archie Ijames, Patti Cartmell, and a small cadre of loyalists – including Joe – Jim was indeed able to regain control without too much trouble. After all, no one else in the church could perform miracles or galvanize consciences. The big problem – compared to which leadership struggles seemed petty – remained: How could this small group of working-class Americans manage to find shelter from nuclear war as well as from the racism endemic to Indianapolis and the whole Bible Belt? Not having a clear answer himself, Joe waited for Jim’s guidance.

Thinking ahead even before leaving Brazil, Jim had dispatched Jack and Rheaviana Beam together with their daughter Joyce to Hayward in the San Francisco Bay Area to scout out a possible relocation there. Ecstatic that they wouldn’t be going to Brazil after all – where, among other things, he would have to learn a foreign language, Joe jumped at Jim’s subsequent request to join an exploratory real estate mission to the Ukiah valley of Mendocino County. An article in Esquire magazine had indicated that it was quite possibly the safest place in the USA, thanks to favorable wind currents and its distance from probable nuclear targets. Sometime in the winter of 1965, Jim and Joe flew to San Francisco, where Jack Beam met them and drove them north to the next possible Promised Land.

While eating and strategizing in the corner cafe of Ukiah’s historic Palace Hotel, the three men overheard enough of the conversation at the next table for Jim to decide to interrupt and introduce himself and his colleagues. These half dozen older people – more women than men – identified themselves, warily at first, as members of Christ’s Church of the Golden Rule. Jim, Joe and Jack quickly learned that they constituted the remnant of a much larger communal organization based, like PT, on the Social Gospel. In fact, these were the members of its Board of Elders who had come to town for provisions and possibly the sort of privacy that permitted serious discussion. Previously known as Mankind United, led by a charismatic founder named Arthur Bell, who had disappeared at the darkest hour of the organization’s trial, Christ’s Church was finally recovering, thanks to a substantial legal settlement, a much-deserved salvation from two decades of financial persecution that it had endured from the IRS.

The elders had invested the settlement funds into a 16,000 acre spread not more than a dozen miles north of town, the core of it a fertile valley between two ranges of mostly wooded coastal mountains. Invited to come up and see for themselves, the PT delegation was impressed. As a part-time farmer, Joe understood that this land would provide the perfect refuge, one in which Temple members could raise much of what the community needed and sell what it didn’t need for cash or, in times of crisis, via direct exchange for the commodities or services required. Even Jim Jones had not foreseen this serendipity, but all three men instantly understood its enormous potential. Moreover, Arthur Bell’s disappearance ten years earlier, whose role had not yet been refilled by anyone, provided the perfect opening for Jim to move into the empty space behind the pulpit. Finally, PT could offer a young and muscular membership which an aging, increasingly geriatric Christ’s Church needed to survive as anything other than a fossil. In short, amalgamation looked like a great investment plan for aspiring socialists. Joe returned home revved up, determined to take this opportunity to transform his life and that of his family.

The next step – the first of many equally formidable ones – wasn’t calculated to maintain any sense of euphoria. It required sacrifice of just about everything that Joe knew: all but the nuclear part of his family, his well-paying job, and the land in which he had invested more than money. This move may have provided the first real test of Joe’s faith in the vision he shared with Jim. Whatever the practical difficulties, he seems to have looked forward to the opportunity of fresh horizons and California’s reputation for tolerance. Radically American, he saw himself as a pioneer, though in this case of a new cooperative way of life and, in fact, doesn’t seem to have looked back once he helped pack the car and turned on the ignition.

From the moment Joe and his family arrived in Ukiah, they faced a challenging financial situation. Joe did easily land a job as an orderly at Mendocino State Hospital, but it paid very little compared both to his accustomed salary and to what he needed to raise a family as large as theirs had become. Fortunately he and Clara made what seems to have been a sound financial decision to invest their money and her unremitting labor in what was essentially a duplex on the top of Knob Hill, a beautiful spot overlooked by redwoods, that performed double duty as private residence and assisted living facility. The patients were largely aged and disabled, often former residents of the state hospital. Though she said little during my visits or at meetings, it soon became obvious that Clara did most of the considerable amount of work involved in simultaneously serving the patients and taking care of her family. In my hearing, at least, she never complained, in fact rarely spoke at all. Part of what made the situation particularly attractive to Joe was its closeness to his day job.

Jim relied on a small circle of advisors who also served as the chief executors of his decisions. Joe was perhaps the most publicly useful because he knew how to reconcile those with very different points of view and life experiences. Even in a group that numbered no more than a hundred individuals and was at this point still overwhelmingly white, temperaments, cultural and class backgrounds were hardly uniform. It should therefore come as no surprise that Jim relied on Joe to conduct meetings on those rare instances when he was out-of-town with his wife. As someone who also participated in them, I can attest that only Joe Phillips knew how to follow an act like that which Jim Jones put on at every gathering and to do so without a hint of competition. Nobody else could speak with ease for three to five hours and listen respectfully to others, often in spite of his own views which were sometimes as unconventional as they were strongly held. Though he lacked the charismatic passion of our leader and generally spoke in a relaxed fashion that was both humorous and reflective, Joe possessed an ability to hold together a diverse audience as neither the emotionally-supercharged Jack Beam or the unintelligibly-brilliant Archie Ijames could. His success in management owed a great deal to his detachment and respect for reality as others might experience it. His modest good humor might not have been infectious, but people left the meetings happy and confident that they had the resources needed to make it through another week working as slaves in the capitalist world of a small town where wages were low and the unemployment rate prior to the advent of the marijuana industry was perennially high.

During the mid-sixties, when PT was developing new root structures in rural northern California, Joe remained not only the man God chose to represent his authority when absent, he was also the friend with whom he spoke by phone almost every evening that they didn’t actually meet. There is no reason to doubt this claim of closeness. It certainly makes sense that any merely human God might have needed some help, particularly that of a friend whom he could trust to provide honest feedback, even if the reality therapy sometimes proved painful. Otherwise life at the top might be overwhelmingly lonely and solipsistic, leading to potentially disastrous misjudgments such as those that occurred in quick succession after Joe’s enforced defection… But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Another confirmation of the value which Jim attached to Joe was his choice of Joe as the sole companion to accompany him on roads trips in search of alternative refuges from nuclear war that might exist outside of the USA but were nonetheless on the North American continent. Indeed, when I first met Joe, he was preparing to drive with Jim on one such trip, in this case to Guadalajara in Mexico’s Jalisco state, the other potentially nuclear safe area in North America, also, according to their research, gifted with a natural updraft. Had the nearly six thousand mile road trip been completed, it would have been the longest that either Jim or Joe would had ever made with any companion.

Three days into the journey, however, while they were driving south by night along the Sea of Cortez, a powerful intelligence revealed to Jim that a plan was afoot to disrupt the first march and rally against the Vietnam War in Mendocino County, one that he had authorized two of us to organize in his absence with marginal support from the half dozen professionals who belonged to the local peace group. The march had been scheduled to arrive at the steps of the county courthouse at high noon on Good Friday, 1966, no more than 36 hours after the revelation. The danger, according to what Jim referred to as a “messenger,” arose from a possibly psychotic right-wing loner determined to use violence if necessary to stop the protestors from reaching our goal.

Joe didn’t have to be told that they needed to turn around immediately and break every speed limit in order to get back in time. But first Jim stopped to phone Marceline to let her know something about the potential danger facing us so that she could assure my co-organizer and me that we would have nothing to worry about. Joe knew Jim too well from experience to doubt his prescience. He told me later that they alternated driving, one sleeping while the other kept his eye on the road. According to him, they stopped only to get gas, use restrooms, or pick up convenience food. Thanks to their determination not to be late when God/Socialism’s energies were needed, they pulled off a small miracle, managing to pull up to courthouse square just as a crowd – consisting mostly of our folk – was gathering at the foot of the steps and the rally itself – facilitated by me – was just beginning to get under way.

Ninety per cent of the marchers, in fact, were active PT members, most of whom had never before participated in a public protest, certainly not one against a war that still enjoyed overwhelming support in the ingrown rural community into which they had just injected themselves. With or without Jim and his lieutenant Joe, this remained a brave enterprise. It’s historically significant in that it represented our first public political statement, amplified by numbers, of the activist nature of our mission since the arrival of the PT community, mostly by car caravan, the previous summer.

Both Jim and Joe clearly understood the potential danger, so much so that it may have blinded them to the historic opportunity which this intensifying moment presented. Observing the crowd were two individuals who would make an enormous difference for the future of our work: one was Robert Winslow, the presiding justice of the superior court whose chambers lay inside the building to which we were briefly and non-violently laying siege. Impressed by Jim’s strength of conscience as evinced by his quiet leadership of the protest, Winslow shortly thereafter not only appointed Jim to the county grand jury but also made him its foreman. The other man in the crowd who was to have much impact on the future course of Peoples Temple was a lawyer named Tim Stoen, who ran the legal assistance office across the street and who in time would become PT’s lead attorney.

As I was making opening remarks from a landing, a short, stunted, utterly colorless white man began heading up the marble steps towards me. His eyes struck me as empty. Several others say they saw him reach into his pocket as if to pull out a weapon. One, now deceased, later claimed that she saw the revolver. Whatever the case, I couldn’t have felt safer, because I had glimpsed Jim arriving at the foot of the stairs, Joe just behind him. The protection I felt was like a wall of steel.

Jim directed laser-like eyes at the back of the zombie who stopped with a look of shock on his face, staggered slightly, then turned around. When he saw the Master, he rapidly descended towards the opposite corner from which he’d first emerged and disappeared into and through the crowd, never to be reported again by anyone I know. Not only cynics but righteous skeptics might bridle at my interpretive description as unduly naive. How could this not have been stage-managed by Jim, the master magician/trickster? Until the end of his life, and despite a falling out with Jim that could never be repaired, Joe didn’t doubt the power of Jim Jones to alter reality, especially if he got more than a little real help from friends like himself. This may or may not have been one of those instances. I leave it the reader and researcher to decide for herself.

Despite the frustration of the trip to Mexico, Jim persisted in his search for other, possibly sounder alternatives. He feared homegrown fascism rooted in Bible-thumping fundamentalism as much he did nuclear war. Precisely a year later Jim asked Joe to accompany him on another road trip, this one in the opposite direction to the heavily-forested outback of British Columbia. Drawing on accumulated vacation time, Joe jumped at the opportunity to share another exploration into a possible future with his best friend, Jim Jones, first among equals on earth.

While they appear to have enjoyed each other’s company enormously and returned rested and reinvigorated, they found rural British Columbia much too conservative an environment for either of their tastes. Vancouver might have been an exciting place with vital left-wing movements – working in tandem with the rising tide of the social democratic NDP/New Democratic Party – but the rural parts of the province where they looked for land struck them as xenophobic and as politically reactionary as Goldwater’s Arizona, America’s icon of reactionary extremism at the time. Even if they had wanted to invest in apple orchards along silken lakes and sliding rivers, they knew that the families who comprised Peoples Temple couldn’t possibly afford the prices. In any event, the move to Mendocino County was recent enough that they feared the Indiana expatriates might balk, especially if it meant moving to a colder, wetter climate with even fewer political opportunities.

Back home, PT’s relationship with the elders who ruled Christ’s Church had been cooling for some time, and now it was rapidly deteriorating. Jim’s overtures for amalgamation were getting the silent treatment from an increasingly suspicious board of elders. While we continued to meet undisturbed in their schoolhouse on Ridgewood Ranch every Sunday, only a few diehards from Christ’s Church deigned to join us. Joe did not have to be told that the situation required his full attention. Jim relied on him to serve as his principal negotiator as well as his eyes and ears. As far as I know, Joe did try to soften the dividing lines by pointing out what both groups had in common, assuring the elders that they weren’t going to be fleeced, that, in fact both camps enjoyed the opportunity of a lifetime. This was going to be a Win-Win game in which the result of their merger would result in a dynamic something that would be more than the sum of their parts. Having been deserted by their own prophet at the moment of the community’s greatest vulnerability, however, they may have well have nourished suspicion of the bouquets of promises, and only a few of them wanted to dissolve their representative democracy into a personal dictatorship that might prove a trap.

On a Sunday afternoon in mid-October 1967, Jim terminated a meeting without warning. This had never happened in the year and a half that I’d been present. He said that we were faced by a crisis and that the messengers had just instructed him to form an emergency committee whose members would consult with him in a backroom while the everyone else enjoyed the beautiful fall afternoon. Joe, of course, was one of the first named to this committee. I was surprised by his choice of me too whose commitment to the Temple’s mission was still unstable. There were no women whatsoever, but Jim explained it away as a necessity, not an oversight, given that women were naturally vindictive and would have viciously persecuted his choice of Patty Cartmell had he invited her to join us.

We gathered in a box-like small square room without furniture of any sort and only one window. Before we could talk, Jim insisted that we check the walls, floor, ceiling, window, and fixtures for bugs. There was hardly anything to check, of course. The room was so bare that the plywood walls didn’t even sport wallpaper. I recall looking at Joe, but his face was all equanimity. If he was in on a secret, I had no idea what it was.

When the master was finally satisfied that we had searched everything, he confided to us that we faced renewed persecution by the secret government because of the threat posed by our vision of a socialist society. Fascism was getting closer every day. We should never forget what “they” had done to JFK, a man with powerful friends of his own. He could already feel the thump of the jackboots. Yes, damn it, he could! Again I searched Joe’s face. It betrayed nothing, but I could see that he was listening attentively. Finally Jim asked with a rhetorical flourish: “What are we going to do about it? How are we going to get out of this death trap before it’s too late?” The red in his face yielded to purple. His eyes were livid. I was afraid.

Joe was the first to respond, returning Jim’s question with his own question: “Where do you want us to go, Jim? Is there somewhere really better than this?” There was an almost plaintive note in his voice to which I wasn’t accustomed. Joe’s already thin lips tightened. Maybe he still hoped that they could work out a deal with Christ’s Church. Jim took a moment to respond. What he said was something like this: “You know that we can’t stay here. The Elders are about to give us marching orders. We’ll meet next Friday night at the parsonage about 8 PM. Then we can begin to look at alternatives. I need all of you on board when I make our decision.”

A series of meetings followed in short order, all taking place in a back bedroom on the ground floor of the parsonage where Jim lay on a fold-up metal bed and looked at the ceiling as he led each session, occasionally raising his head to complain about the pain he endured.

Our leader made one thing clear in the very first meeting: Our committee needed to develop a workable strategy for a collective migration to the Soviet Union. Jim said he was sure the Soviets would welcome us with open arms as refugees from the citadel of capitalism. Joe asked why we needed to move there at all, never mind so quickly. Didn’t we need to learn the language first? Jim didn’t really answer except to hint that their trip months before had been fertile, that through contacts in the Canadian provincial NDP who were sympathetic to the Soviet Union, they had been able to connect with comrades who mattered. Joe looked flustered but kept quiet. For just a moment he shook his head. Jim glared at him and continued as if that had been no opposition at all.

Jim polled us at the following meeting, lobbying heavily as he questioned each otherwise silent participant. Archie didn’t seem to have any problems. After all, hadn’t Pushkin, Russia’s national poet, been black? Jack provided the predictable Amen chorus. What the boss wanted was just fine with him any day of the week. Jim humiliated a mildly hesitant Mike Cartmell into submission by asking him whether he was willing to leave his mother. When it came my turn, I brazenly lied and immediately felt like a real shit. Only Joe Phillips had the clarity and courage to say that he found it an altogether bad idea, and one that was repellent to him personally. I don’t know how others in that room reacted, but I felt overwhelming shock. Never before had I heard anyone in leadership even subtly challenge Jim Jones.

And this, in essence, is what he said, maybe not the exact words, but with the challenge represented by every point:

“Look, Jim. We’ll never be as able to communicate with other folks like we can here where everybody speaks our language. There in Russia we’ll always be outsiders, people whose accents will always give us away. We’ll never share the same culture or feel as comfortable as natives. You know that. Maybe our grandkids will, but not us. And you won’t be able to remain our leader. The Soviet rulers will make sure we dissolve this organization even if they have to send some of us to prison. Is that what you really want? We’ll be useless, out to pasture for the rest of our lives, when we could be doing something real here, trying to prevent fascism and nuclear war by creating the example of a community that works for the common good. And if it doesn’t work out at Ridgewood Ranch, there’s land all around here. It may not be so magnificent, but there’s good farm land which we can afford if we want it.”

At first nobody said anything. Then Jim groaned. “You’re all the source of the pain in my side. It’s angina. Lenin died of it, and you’re going to make me die of it too at an early age while there’s still work to do that nobody else can carry through? Why don’t you listen while you have a chance? Shit! Shit! Fucking shit! None of you really care!”

I don’t recall how the meeting ended. I know I was embarrassed and shaken. Joe dropped me off at my apartment in Ukiah. We hadn’t said much on the way back. It was a cold wet night in the middle of December. I had no way of knowing that in forty days, Joe would depart Peoples Temple never to return except on Jim’s invitation as an infrequent visitor. I only knew that I felt more confused than I’d ever been since I first encountered the apparent master of this small corner of the universe.

* * * * *

Jim often spoke of the desirability of free love once the state of communism had been achieved. In the meantime, however, he insisted that we refrain from sexual relations outside of marriage. Because humans even at their best remained selfish creatures, he tried to explain, the product of a capitalist set of values that privileged the self over the other, we needed to be transformed by the therapeutic work of building socialism before we could again play gleefully in the Garden of Eden. It seems, however, that he granted his buddy, Joe Phillips, a secret exemption, which enabled him to develop a sexual relationship with a single, unattached woman who was definitely someone other than his wife. The one proviso, on which Jim insisted according to Joe, was that nobody else, especially Clara, should know about the relationship. Despite my old friendship with the woman and newfound friendship with Joe, I never had a clue that anything untoward was going on between them. Perhaps Clara didn’t either. As far as Joe knew, only he, the woman and Jim knew anything of the relationship at all.

In retrospect, given the intimate community that Peoples Temple was, one in which many thought they had a right to know other people’s business, I think Joe and his new partner would have found it impossible to keep their secret for long. As it happened, they didn’t have a chance to develop much of sexual relationship, because Jim cut it short. At a Sunday meeting in late January 1968, Jim neatly sprung the trap when he summoned Joe to the front of the school room to face charges of infidelity. At first Joe thought Jim must be kidding, but it didn’t take him long to realize that he’d been betrayed by the GodMan he had until that moment considered his best friend. At Jim’s instigation, Clara and Joe’s lover rose to indict him. Joe said his relationship had been authorized and, in any case, he didn’t owe anyone an explanation. When Jim and the two women continued to challenge him and demand a response, he stalked out of the building, got in his car and drove home where he immediately began packing his bags. Within 48 hours, he’d resigned from his job and left town, heading for the SF Bay Area. Divorce proceedings were soon underway.

The shock of such hurt must have been devastating. But Joe, possessing very useful skills, easily found a job with a trucking company as well as an apartment in San Pablo in the East Bay. The harder part involved facing what had just happened to ruin his life. Once again he had given up almost everything, with the additional loss this time of bone marrow: his forever-shattered nuclear family, his tangible structure of home and, most important, his intangible source of hope which the collective example of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple had promised. Fortunately, he was a resilient human being with a generous heart. He would find a way to cope and move on, retaining the ethical values that had been his when he first joined the movement.

He certainly understood the obvious: that Jim had found him too much a threat to keep around. As someone who commanded loyalty among the troops and possessed significant paranormal gifts of his own, he could see that Jim was afraid of the potential challenge he might pose, especially if the Temple pursued any plan to exit this country for a Communist bloc dictatorship. What struck me as a friend who remained in close contact following his departure was his complete lack of bitterness, as well as his deep meditative sadness.

To some of those young militants who joined after the revolutionary spring of 1968 in which MLK and Bobby Kennedy were murdered, Joe had already become a somewhat mythical figure, rarely if ever talked about in public but one whose sustained underground reputation, though he had left under a shadow, wasn’t denigrated publicly. Perhaps the Lord God of Socialism hoped that Joe might eventually return, humbled and pliant as wet clay, to serve on his terms, in complete submission. Encouraged by Jim, Joe did indeed visit on several occasions, including one in which Jim invited him to share the stage briefly at the LA hotel where we held our mass meetings before the edifice on Hoover Avenue was purchased. Regardless of the seductive flattery, Joe had no stomach to serve a god who wanted to become not so much his brother as his keeper. He reluctantly but decisively seems to have accepted the reality that there was no going back to how things had been before in the golden age of their road trips.

His ability to detach from the past enabled him to create a new and rewarding life with Gloria, a previously-unmarried Norwegian-American nurse who became his wife within two years following his departure. They were roughly the same age and seemed perfectly suited for each other. She brought a light touch of joyful humor and deep respect into his life, after so many years of emotional deprivation. Their subsequent adoption of three Vietnamese war orphans paid tribute to the social values he continued to share with Jim Jones, the eldest of whom they named – at Joe’s insistence – James Warren, nicknamed Jim.

In the early 1970s, Joe got a job offer he couldn’t resist, and Gloria responded to a pull from family she couldn’t resist, and they moved to Vancouver – the one in Washington, not BC – directly across the wide Columbia from Portland where he found a stable and well-paying job in the trucking industry.

* * * * *

Joe saw Jim one last time in March 1974 under uncomfortable circumstances. I know because I was with him. Joe had flown to the Bay Area on what he designated a business trip and wanted to know if I’d like to join him for a final call to Peoples Temple. He said he understood my own need for one last serious exposure. Unfortunately he was right.

We met Jim in the basement of Benjamin Franklin Jr. High on Geary Blvd in San Francisco. God seemed preoccupied with other matters and had little time for either of us. I recall Joe whispering in his ear while, hidden behind shades, Jim read a missive and tried to talk with somebody else at the same time. Obviously the master had many things to do that were much more important than spending time with either or both of us. He was trying to hold together a small empire. I’m sure he wasn’t happy to see my unpretty face. I doubt that he was pleased to see Joe’s mug either. If only we had known that the Jim Jones we encountered that day had already become a grotesque armed with a pathological agenda.

The next time I saw Joe was in July 1977, following my fifth and final defection. I was traveling north in the company of fellow defector Joyce Shaw. Though neither of them had met before, there was much to talk over and reflect on. We showed Joe a copy of the New West exposé that had been published that month in which several defectors had testified to manifest sins of Jim Jones. Joyce told about her much-too-recent experience of losing a husband, Bob Houston, who had been planning to desert PT and who may – or may not – have been murdered following Jim’s orders on the Southern Pacific railroad tracks in San Francisco. We told Joe about the various forms and circumstances of torture, some of it used against children, in one case to punish a queer with a taste for young boys. Joe seemed deeply disturbed but nevertheless wanted to hear whatever we thought the real truth was. Being philosophical, he knew that his wishes made no difference whatsoever, but he still expressed his frustration. He shook his head when we told him what we suspected: that Jim Jones and Peoples Temple were already making their exit to Guyana. What we didn’t know was that its history was almost over.

Less than a year and a half later, I sat in Joe and Gloria’s living room with my companion Yani, stunned. Life in Jonestown had ended two weeks before. No one in Joe’s family had died. I’d always been a loner – or pretended to be – but we’d all lost. Joe and Gloria invited his son Danny and both of us to share the waiting under the same roof. Their Vancouver home was conventional but spacious. I felt as protected and comfortable as one could dream possible under the horrific circumstances. The nightmare seemed impossibly to deepen each day as I visited the public library and read the latest statistics, estimating the number of dead which was always higher than the day before. Together we read the names of all of the deceased when they were finally released just before Christmas. I shall always be grateful for Gloria’s constantly percolating coffee and more than occasional smorgasbords that magically appeared on the table during that terrible time.

I wish I had recorded the many subsequent conversations Joe and I had over the decades that followed. Nevertheless, my failure had a powerful upside in that the course of our philosophical rambles consequently lacked a self-consciousness that might otherwise have inhibited spontaneous truthfulness or the spirit of inquiry. Often we ended up talking about what went wrong and why, and what, if anything, might have made a difference. During a week long visit on the 10th anniversary of Jonestown’s destruction, we took a long slow drive through the gorge of the Columbia where the fall colors brought out my own deep grief. He thought Jim’s downfall had to do with the blindness of unrecognized ego, the passion with which he had demanded that reality oblige his unnegotiable demands, combined with his stubborn unwillingness to take necessary risks with money. He didn’t know whether something might have averted the final outcome. His deepest gratitude was that all those in his own family, however estranged some might be, survived.

Joe lived long enough to see his second generation of kids grow up. I know he loved them all deeply. A few years before the end of his life, shortly after his final retirement, he confided to me that he felt God consciousness guiding him towards a new life of revolutionary transformation somewhere in Latin America where he would probably run into Jim Jones once again, leading a fresh revolutionary movement, likely one that was post-apocalyptic, as a proud woman. Joe said he would have to die in order to be available when he was needed and sensed that the moment of his transition was approaching. On the eve of my own first trip by car alone through the Northwest at the end of June 1999, I received a phone call from him. His voice was soft but serious. He told me he had cancer, that he was dying. Maybe he had six months, maybe more, maybe less. I didn’t know what to say, except that I was sorry, very sorry.

Two weeks later we met for the last time. His face was pale, but he hadn’t lost much weight yet. He was relieved that he could still walk with only mild difficulty. I accompanied him around the property, a small farm in sloping woodland, including his experimental and modestly-successful vineyard. I could tell that he was weak. He said he wasn’t afraid for himself. So far he was out of pain. At least Gloria would be well taken care of. He would miss his kids, but thankfully they had all grown up. I could see that he was already coming to terms with what we all face.

Six weeks before his death he called me on a weekend at home to say that his end was near. He expressed gratitude that reconciliation with his oldest child, Janet, had finally been possible after decades of non-communication and mutual invisibility. Now he felt as if some essential wound inside had been healed and he could die with some peacefulness. I thanked him as well as I could in words for the generosity of his friendship.

He passed away just after New Year 2000.

I will always miss his part in my life. Maybe we’ll meet up again in some post-apocalyptic adventure too. It wasn’t his fault that he failed to save Peoples Temple from the megalomania of its founder. His failure enabled him to go on and lead another rich life. In his small but vigorous way, he had at least tried.

(Garrett Lambrev is a frequent contributor to the jonestown report. His other articles in this edition are Pilgrimage Through Richmond and Lynn to Crete, The Tale of the Tape, and Youth Theatre Makes Peoples Temple Breathe Again. His previous writings may be found here. He can be reached at garrett1926@comcast.net .)

Originally posted on October 13th, 2013.

Last modified on January 7th, 2021.
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