Flo and Forgiveness

As we drove home from a birthday party for her friend, our five-year-old daughter piped up from the back seat of the VW van: “Mommy, do we believe in God?” Nothing like children to confront you with the questions you would rather put aside.

Off I went looking for a church. Maybe it was time. Maybe it was for our three kids, but more likely it was for me, whose life prior to Peoples Temple had been grounded in faith and whose heart, even after everything, still hungered. We found a congregation that was integrated and whose pastor had actually worked with Jim Jones on ecumenical civil rights projects. In addition, they had a great children’s program. So we started attending.

Dear surviving friends of that awful time, do you know what I am talking about? For years after Jonestown, did a heavy weight cling to you – as it did to me – a big sack of fear, shame, self-doubt, rage, grief, survivor’s guilt? Is this what PTSD is? Can a counselor or a pastor or anyone who wasn’t there really understand or help?

I was in Jonestown a week before the end. It was called an “R and R” visit, but more likely it was meant as a check on my loyalty. They had just finished a “White Night,” and there was still agitation in the air. I was allowed to sleep, work in the banana fields, help in the nursery, visit friends. Jim’s slurred voice thrummed continuous warnings of external threats over the loudspeaker. But folks just seemed to go on about their business. There was so much pride in what was being accomplished.

On the afternoon of November 12, Jim came out of his cabin and approached me with a briefcase full of legal documents pertaining to a case that he said had to be filed. He was sorry to cut my visit short, he said, but the papers had to be taken back to San Francisco immediately. This image I will never forget: His face was swollen and blue. I never asked, but I have wondered to this day what all was going wrong with him.

Five days before the end, then, I was back in San Francisco. The passport date of exit from Guyana was November 13, 1978.

* * * * *

Years later, one Sunday at church, a poster announced a class for dealing with grief. I peered into the room and saw a woman named Flo at the head of the table. She had recently lost her husband. He had died in her arms from a massive stroke. The two of them were from Los Angeles and had moved to Oregon for their son to attend university. They were educators, both with the Los Angeles School District. Someone had suggested to Flo that helping others with their grief might help her process her own. After four sessions, during which I had declined to contribute anything to the conversation, Flo turned to me and asked, “So, Jean, why are you here?”

Then it all came out. That deep-down place that needed help wouldn’t be denied. The others sat in stunned silence during the ensuing scene of uncontrolled weeping. Flo came around the table to hold me. She rocked me in her arms and sang, “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit in This Place.” She whispered, “You were trying to be a disciple.”

How could she have known about that song: Women during Temple services swaying, eyes closed, singing those words? How could she know that, yes, all the striving had been an attempt to follow the teachings of Jesus? What a miracle that this compassionate, believing African-American woman was the deliverer of God’s message of forgiveness.

Flo had known people who died in Jonestown. She had shared in the anguish of the aftermath. She later told me that there had been a time when she could not have forgiven me or what I represented. Even if I was naive in my early twenties, well-intentioned, probably brainwashed, I was still culpable to some degree, complicit in handing over to Jim Jones so much power, marching blindly, but marching nonetheless. Yet through her own grief, life experiences, and depth of faith, Flo had come to the place of being able to reach out.

John Ortberg, in his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, writes, “In most relationships where deep pain is involved, I must both forgive and seek forgiveness.” The hardest thing of all, in my experience, is to forgive oneself.

If I know anything at all, it is that I am grateful. Grateful for mercy, grace, and for a God who gives these good things to us, undeserved, through others like His wonderful, spirit-filled, and beautiful Flo.

(Jean Brown Clancey’s other article in this edition of the jonestown report is After the End.)