I am neither a Jonestown survivor nor a former Peoples Temple member nor a relative of one. I was only 12 in 1978, so until I stumbled on a documentary a while ago, my understanding of Jonestown was limited to the news headlines I remembered from childhood. The documentary made me want to find out more…. There had to be more.
I spent several months reading every survivor/member account I could find either on this website or in book form. The stories touched me in ways I can’t explain, except to say that they are quite different than the ones originally reported by the press. The names have faces and personalities now, and my heart breaks for the pain endured by friends and family members of these dear people who have been misrepresented so tragically in the media’s haste to report a story. Through all of the difficulty and sadness is a common thread of strength, compassion, love and acceptance. The real story is the people.
Sometime later, I found another documentary on YouTube, an ABC production filmed around the 25-year mark, where they took Jim Jr. and Stephan Jones with Mike Touchette back to Jonestown for the first time. At this point, I had read stories and articles about them and by them, so these were names I knew fairly well.
The film showed Stephan eagerly looking for a large tree that indicated the approach to Jonestown. But as the truck crested the hill, they could see nothing but bush. He had expected to see… something… anything… which would show that he and the people he loved had once lived there. I watched him sob as he lay on the hood of that truck. Tears poured down my face as I imagined everything he must have felt at that moment.
Many of the people I have read about now feel like friends, even though we have never met. I see the people of Jonestown as courageous. The community they were attempting to create was a beautiful dream. Leslie Wilson described her arrival in Jonestown by saying “This was Jonestown. I was here at last, here with the people that love me without condition.” And Stanley Clayton said he has never felt the love and support he felt in Peoples Temple anywhere else since. That is something to take note of.
Out of all of this came this poem I submit as a gift, to the survivors, to the other family members, to those who are gone and to anyone who cares for all of the people mentioned above. This is my way to let everyone know how their stories – their lives – have affected and changed me for good.
My hope is that this poem will convey what my heart has difficulty expressing.
Brave Angels: A Song for Jonestown
Once there was a story told
In a voice nobody heard.
It was spoken so very quietly
It echoed around the world.
Without being shared a single time
It was repeated again and again.
And the moral of the story was lost
For it ended before it began.
Hopes and dreams of a new tomorrow
Where love and acceptance abide,
Knit together by family and friends-
Silenced one fateful night.
Laughter, love and friendship lived
In courage, young and old-
Where, now, wild bougainvillea
Covers stories left untold.
The bells rang amid angry shouts
While others just looked away,
Drowning out their cries for peace
Now saved for another day.
Some people mocked, others cried,
Though neither really knew why.
And all the questions that could’ve been asked
Were summarily dismissed, by and by.
Their story was lost in the pictures
And their names faded to grey.
The world turned the pages too quickly
As if to make it all go away.
But under a jungle canopy
Are voices that want to be heard,
Telling about the days they tried
To make a better world.
It’s been said “Those who forget the past
Are destined to repeat.”
But those who never reach or try
Will remain in their defeat.
So mock if you must, mourn if you will-
But with their dreams, take care.
For where that bougainvillea grows-
Brave angels once walked there.
(Joyce Applegate may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)