What is “innocence”? Where does innocence come from? What does it mean to say innocence has been “lost”?
These are questions that I not only have grappled with ever since I can remember, but many authors and poets have wrestled with since the beginning of time. There are moments that pass as that “one moment” when innocence is lost: a first kiss, or a loss of a loved one, or even your realization that your own beloved parents can make a mistake. It is something that can be lost in a positive and healthy fashion, but sometimes it can be taken away tragically or violently. But what I have come to understand more and more is that innocence itself – found in children, cherished by parents, and longed for again in adults – can be found thriving and growing in the concept of community. And what all of us long for from our community is a sense that we will be safe, that we will be there for each other, and that – if threatened – we will be able to return to a feeling of a more innocent day and time.
The adults of Peoples Temple were longing for community, by which I mean a community for their children to grow up untouched from the innocence-robbing American culture of the late 1970s. Many of the members had been through serious struggles in their lives. They had lived through the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the Vietnam War, and just wanted a place to get away from that daily feeling of dread and oppression. Day in and day out, the community that was Peoples Temple – not the Jim Jones version of community, or the way Jonestown is often presented in documentaries – was one hell bent on bringing, restoring, maintaining, fulfilling, and resurrecting innocence in all their members.
It took a tragic event in the life of the high school where I have been an educator for over 18 years to bring all of this home to me. A student committed suicide this past month, shaking the core of the community I call home. This was a tough lesson for all of us to wrap ourselves around, and it was also extremely tough to explain to my own sons, now 13, 11, and 9 – all fast approaching high school age. There was so much to take in as a community – the whys? the hows? the what could have been dones? – and at the heart of it all is that no one really knew what to think or say or do to make it better. Complicating the task was that this occurred around the same time that we had to deal as a nation with the tragic shooting in Las Vegas. Our small community was reeling.
In the darkness, though, there was a glimpse of something that I couldn’t pinpoint at first. A magical moment happened at our high school, when the choir put on a beautiful performance dedicated to our student, which they adjusted to dedicate to those lost in Las Vegas. This performance left the audience in tears. For that moment, we all were in touch with what is at the core of the concept of “innocence,” and that is undying love, love for all humankind. It was something that brought our community out of its shell and into the realm of understanding.
This is something I also see when I study the community that was Peoples Temple. Here was a group of people, just like the small town I live in, just like the people in America shaken by the shootings in Las Vegas, who were longing for a sense of innocence. A search for a time when they could be themselves, and where their children could grow up and lose their innocence in a healthy, natural, maybe even joyful way. We all want to go back in time, we want to be a part of what we once were. The student who left our community as a suicide was only longing for a more innocent time, a safer time, a time when the world wasn’t so harsh. Everyone in our community – even some that always seemed jaded – respeonded by clutching on to innocence. They had seen it taken from them firsthand, and when that happens, we reflect.
The choir helped us reflect, on what makes our community strong and sacred, on what makes us believe, and on what makes us love. We reflect on our lives, both past and future. The light of that reality blinds us sometimes, and ultimately, we come back to that time in our youth when nothing mattered except our circle of friends and our family. And we cling to that.
The people of Peoples Temple were on that same quest. And on that final day, when the cyanide was brought out, the innocence that was once found in that hot jungle was taken away in a flash. The worst crime that was committed that day was the death of innocence, both from the children who had never lost it, and from the adults, who had just begun to find it again. The crime was compounded by the lie that the people were sold that they would find their innocence in that jungle.
I have studied enough to know that the people of Peoples Temple did not want this ending, just like the community and especially the family of the suicide in my hometown did not want that ending as well. When a community loses its innocence all at once in such a way – when the light that was once blinding burns out – something ironic and powerful happens. We all go back to our roots, when we were innocent, and there is a rebirth of sorts. The love flows. The youth-like longing for each other to hold each other tighter takes hold. I can only imagine this longing for each other the people in Jonestown must have had for each other on November 18 almost 40 years ago. Their love flows through their story, and through the innocence they did find, despite one maniacal man who tried to take it away.
The world today could learn from that lesson, if only we would open our eyes to that light.
(Craig Foreman is a Sociology and History Teacher with the Expedition Academy at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, Ohio. The school’s website is www.expeditionacademy.com. Craig’s other story in this edition of the jonestown report is From One Teacher to Another: A Review of And Then They Were Gone. His previous stories for this site may be found here. He may be reached at Ke_cforeman@kentschools.net.)