It almost seems like yesterday I was going into my first Peoples Temple meeting at the Embassy auditorium on 9th and Grand in downtown Los Angeles. After attending only one meeting, my mother “Sug” was going on and on about how there was so many races of people that sang together in the choir.
But I remembered what the old folk used to say, to “follow your first mind” – in other words, follow your gut, or what first came into your head – and in my mind, I heard “Jim Jones is just another man trying to make money from the people.”
Still I arranged to go to the very next meeting. And to my surprise, I was taken in by the many testimonies of how Jesus Christ was working through Pastor Jim Jones. I also found out my mother was right: there was a choir that was made up of not only people from different parts of the world, but a large number of senior citizens. And they sounded good! It slipped by me that during that time of sharing testimonies and the choir singing, the collection plate had been passed twice, accompanied by fervent pleas for money. But what really got my attention were the many programs that Peoples Temple was doing for the northern California community.
When Jim Jones finally came out, he was wearing a pair of black slack pants and a striped short sleeved shirt – nothing fancy. He was carrying a Bible and another book with what appeared to look like a newspaper or magazines, walked up to the podium and placed his materials down. Then he began to lead the choir in an upbeat praise and worship song.
I was still ready to hear what this leader/person/Pastor would be talking about to see how to pick holes in his sermon but – again – to my surprise, when he did start speaking, he took a short passage of scripture from the Bible and began to weave some present-day social issues into the mix. He even had an answer to what we as people could do to change what we were hearing about. And that, my friend, was that we, as poor black and white, could come together and pool our monies and create our own neighborhoods. It was a new twist from my Episcopal church setting that I was a part of.
To tell the truth, for whatever reason, it didn’t sink into my spirit. I was flowing along with Jim Jones – almost completely caught up in it – until he went into what he called “revelation.” That was when all of the ministers who had been up on the platform with Jim came down as he walked the aisles and spoke words to people face to face, or even across the room. They were all joined by a sound crew that would help suspend the long cord hooked up with Jones’ microphone. To some people, Jim would speak about what their house looked like on the inside and what street it was on, and then that person would say, “That’s the house where I have lived for the last 20 years.” And then Jim would proceed to report on their medical condition and how he was going to speak the Word. And while, to this date, I don’t believe that he used the phrase, “In the name of Jesus Christ,” he did say, “I see you healed.” He would at times refer to the Lord Jesus Christ working through Pastor Jim Jones. To be honest, I wasn’t that overjoyed with all the hype, because he never called me out personally.
Remember: This was all happening during the first meeting I attended. It started around 2:00 pm, and when it was all said and done, it was around 6:00 pm. The Temple did provide food for those who wanted to eat or maybe did not have a place to go home to.
I wasn’t completely satisfied with what I saw, so I made it my business to show up at the next scheduled meeting two weeks later. This time, I did hear new stories of how the Lord Jesus Christ – working through Pastor Jim Jones – helped save their lives in all kinds of situations in life.
And once again, Jim Jones presented another list of “wrongs” against the poor black and white people, and declared how we need to come together as a group to help one another as well as ourselves. He was speaking my language. I had always wanted to help people.
I wasn’t married at that time, but I had a girlfriend back at the old church named Rhonda Denise Wright. I invited her to come see if this was something that we might participate in together, to help people together. We were both hooked by the things that we saw and heard from Temple members and of course Jim Jones. We decided to leave St. John’s Episcopal Church and become a part of the new Peoples Temple, even though it did not even have a building at that time. Rhonda and I were later married in St. John’s, but by then, we were in the Temple.
I was invested. I spent all my time helping another man – no black nor white, but just any man – pursue his vision of a place where all people can live in freedom, enjoying life to the fullest In the process, though, I came to think of myself as a weakling, because I followed another man’s so-called dream. In the whole of everything, I lost who Hue Fortson Jr. was and was supposed to be in this life. I have judged myself harshly for not taking a stand for myself, not even to tell Rhonda, that if anything went down crazy in Jonestown while I was in the United States, to take our three-year-old son Ishi and run to the jungle.
I remember the hundreds of people that I took down to welfare offices to handle their business. I remember another few hundred people I helped to go down to the U.S. Passport Office to get their passports, so they might make their exodus to the “Promised Land” that Jim Jones had promised. It’s funny: most of black folk within the group had come from church settings, but we did not pick up that a “Promised Land” was a place from which you did not return. I think that a lot of people had thought that if they did not like Jonestown, then all they had to do speak to Jim Jones and he would send us back to the United States.
After giving up my own freedom, my own sense of identity, my own voice in Los Angeles and in San Francisco, and even in Jonestown, I didn’t even try to make an escape plan. I was so occupied with the day-to-day operation, I lost sight of the most important thing. That was my family. No ifs ands or buts, I missed it.
After years of holding on and working long hours to help other hungry and homeless families in our various communities, my whole world came crashing down on November 18, 1978. I received a phone call from San Francisco Mayor George Moscone – who himself would be dead in 10 days – that the FBI had informed him that there were 400 dead bodies in Jonestown! “Do you know what happened?” Moscone asked.
I didn’t know. And all I thought was that I did not remind Rhonda to take Ishi to the jungle! And that if I would have only talked to someone there in Los Angeles or San Francisco, maybe there could have been a chance for this not to happen.
Many of the 50 or so people who had been living in the San Francisco Temple received notices from the U.S. State Department stating that, through dental records and personal belongings, the government could identify their loved ones. But I don’t remember many of us carrying around our dental records. And what I did know what that when anyone went into Jonestown, you had go through a kind of a customs tent before you were assigned to one of the cottages to live. Your driver’s license and passport was taken away from you, as was any kind of ID.
It was almost a week and a half before I received my State Department letter notifying me that Rhonda had been identified. Our son Hue Ishi was never identified because he was only three years old, and there were no dental records, no medical records, nothing intact in Jonestown that would differentiate him from the hundreds of other anonymous children dead in Guyana.
* * * * *
One very important thing that I have learned in these last 40 years is that there is a God who loves me. He had given me gifts that I didn’t use at that time because of distractions. I do know that it was not because I was better than anybody else there in Jonestown. But my very purpose in life is to get people to find God for themselves, and while I do not judge others who find some kind of peace in their gods, I have personal experience that He does work!
There is an Old Testament Bible verse – Deuteronomy 30:19 – that says, “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” It is a choice that we all will have to make one day.
I am very grateful for my in-laws, Sam and Johnnie Mathis. Rhonda was only three years old when her mother married her stepfather, and while Rhonda had contact with her birth father Frank Wright, Sam was the man she considered as her father. They forgave me and told me to come over and spend the night with them, and after a few years, they gave me the blessing to look for another wife.
I remember at Rhonda’s home going, sitting next to her mother, and she was crying out in a very loud voice, “My baby.” Oh my God, I heard that ring in my head over and over again. And I felt so guilty that Rhonda was gone because of me. Most of the people at St. John’s Episcopal Church who were at Rhonda’s funeral service had known her since she was a small toddler.
Strange, with all this happening, I kept hearing in my head, “When you leave out the back door, don’t stop, keep walking to the Harbor Freeway, and jump. It will all be over!” As I walked out of the back door, I was heading to that freeway, and there came a person – to this day, I cannot tell you who it was, nor what he or she looked like – and they stood in front of me. And as I took a step to the right to complete my mission, they would step right in front of me and talked about “nothings.” And when I tried to step to the other side, they once again stepped in front of me. Eventually, I just got tired and walked back into the church building. The thought of self-destruction was no longer part of my life.
Several years passed by and my mother still believed that Ishi was still live in the jungle outside of Jonestown, being raised by the Amerindians who lived next to the river. She would count his new age every year. I became frustrated with her, although I did want to believe that she was right, and that he might be alive. But then I had a dream a few weeks after speaking with my mother. In this dream, I was walking among the huts in Jonestown, and out of my corner left eye, I could see Ishi standing next to a hut. I began to smile so hard. I turned to head towards where he stood, and that was when I noticed that he was standing on top of a green duffle bag, and the closer I came to him – with his own big wide grin – the more I could see him pulling the duffle bag up around himself. And just as I reached out to touch his face, he tugged the bag up over his head, and then the bag dropped… and he wasn’t there. I woke from that vision extremely upset and disappointed with myself. Later on in prayer, the Lord spoke to me, and gave me peace that Ishi was with Him.
Among all of my mistakes the last 40 years, I had placed within my mind that I wasn’t worthy of a wife, a companion. It was not until February 1986 that things began to change, and I was directed by the Holy Spirit, to go to a certain place. And there I ran into this young lady, not just there, but in three places. Around the end of March 1986 I attended her church, and from that we discovered that we were meant to be together. It was amazing. I told Linda of my past life – and its failures – and she accepted me for who I was.
We married on November 29, 1986. Today we have six children – three boys and three girls – and four grandchildren. It was God’s plan and not mine. I am so grateful to have met and married Linda Denise Montgomery and brought forth our own children and grandchildren. And now I understand the purpose for this life I live. The gifts that I have had, way back in my mother’s womb, are now to be used to bring healing and deliverance to those people in need, and then in turn – hopefully – they will begin to help someone else along life’s path way.
The journey that ended 40 years ago, began when I put my complete trust in another man, and didn’t listen to the voice of guidance that was already within me. One of the many areas of sharing my experiences during lectures or church services is that people are not to leave their will in the hands of another person. They don’t have a right to it. Only God does, because he already has a plan mapped out for you!
I find myself constantly reminding people, that I am not their God! But if they let me, I can help them experience his love!
As life goes on I realize that I receive more wisdom every day about life and its ups and downs. My calling is to share with those who will listen and want to go forward in their lives, and for this I am grateful! Even for all of my past hurts and pains, I am grateful, because it has made me a person to really love life and the people that I am allowed to meet and interact with daily.
I no longer have anger towards anyone. And that includes myself.
(Hue Fortson was the Associate Pastor of Peoples Temple in Los Angeles at the time of the deaths in Guyana. His wife Rhonda and his son Hue Ishi died on November 18th. His complete collection of writings for this website be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)