Watching the tiny sparrow nibble at the bird feeder holds a deeper reminder for me this morning that His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.
Thirty-six years ago the world learned of the terrible tragedy of Jonestown. For me it was the realization that my idolized, faith-healing uncle really was a crazy man. Years later, I discovered just how close I came to being a part of his mayhem.
In 1967, my aunt Marceline Jones invited her two sisters, Eloise and my mother Sharon, to visit her in San Francisco, California. This was a time when my mom was struggling in her marriage and thought sharing with her sisters might prove helpful in her deciding what to do. But after listening to Jim Jones’ sermons during this visit, Mom concluded that this man, who thought he was God, had gone off the deep end.
Four years later, in 1971, Mom decided she had to leave her husband. We were living in Midland, Texas at the time, and she was debating between moving to Richmond, Indiana with her parents – my grandparents – Walter and Charlotte Baldwin, or to California with Marceline and Jim Jones. Marceline wanted her to move there and Mom was leaning in that direction because she wanted to support her sister who was in an emotional battle with the self-proclaimed prophet. In the end, though, she decided exposing her children to the madness wasn’t worth the risk. So she packed up her six kids and the family dog and moved us to Richmond, Indiana.
Not long after we had adjusted to life in the Midwest, Aunt Marceline and her granddaughter, Stephanie, came for a visit. Stephanie and I were walking down our street when she started talking about her grandpa who was God. I marched into the house to my mom and aunt who were sitting at the kitchen table and shrieked, “Stephanie thinks Uncle Jimmy is God!” Aunt Marceline quickly ushered Stephanie out to have a little chat. My reasoning was little Stephanie simply had a grandiose view of her grandpa and needed to be set straight.
No, he wasn’t God, but surely only good things could come from this minister who had such a desire to do his part in bringing about justice in a world filled with so much discrimination. I was so proud of my uncle, the faith-healer, and impressed with what Peoples Temple was doing to change the world. I never fully understood what Mom and Aunt Marceline would spend hours discussing during her frequent visits over the next few years.
Our little church had a revival during one of Aunt Marceline’s visits, and she stood up to take the microphone and address the crowd. Sitting around and praising God was one thing, she said, but we also needed to get out and do things for Him and His kingdom. Yeah, I thought, why can’t we do cool stuff like they do?
And why can’t we sing upbeat songs like theirs in our church service? I would wonder while listening to He’s Able, the record Jim Jones’ followers made until it was practically worn. I was envious when Peoples Temple decided to make the move to the jungles of Guyana, South America. This church was really doing things!
But I discovered, along with the rest of the world, just how far a powerful but sick human being can take his followers. As I grieved for Stephanie, whose adoration led her to an early grave, I realized she was simply repeating what she had been taught. I had been envious of what Jim Jones wanted to portray to the world. Utopia. People of all colors and from different walks of life loving and sharing with one another. But those of us admiring from a distance did not see the real picture. The abuse. The manipulations. The threats. Mom had pleaded for her sister to leave. But how could Marceline leave? Her husband would not allow her to take the children, and if she did, he threatened, she would never see them again. He had enough worshipers that he could easily follow through with his threats.
A few years ago, Mom told me that during the period that she contemplated leaving her husband and moving to a new home, she had repeated dreams in which she wandered, lost in a jungle, desperately searching for her children. In the dreams, she eventually found her six babies. Some would be peeking around a tree. Some would just be standing in a clearing. But when she did find them, they were motionless, unfeeling, and covered in blood. She attributed these troubling dreams to her stress over leaving her marriage, taking her children, and finding a new place to go.
But now we know. It was a warning from the Great Protector.
(Janet L. Jackson can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)