Giving Voice to the Voiceless

(Editor’s note: This is the address that Laura Johnston Kohl gave during the service at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California on November 18, 2018, the 40th anniversary of the deaths in Jonestown.)

Jim Jones Jr. at podium. Seated (l. to r.) Eugene Smith, Janet Shular, Laura Johnston Kohl, Jordan Vilchez, Liz Forman Schwartz, Stephan Jones, Debbie Curtin Harper

It is wonderful to see everyone here. Some who could not make the trip are awaiting our photos and thoughts as well.

When I reflect on my nearly nine years in Peoples Temple, I feel that it was both one of the highlights and one of the deepest traumas of my life. When I was in Peoples Temple in both California and in Guyana, I felt committed to an idea, even a dream, that took me outside of my personal needs. I found a community that asked much of the members. I thought that I was making the commitment to building a different world, based on principles I believed in – equality, dignity for all, integrity. I was foolish and naive.

The people I love most in the world are people who somehow decided that it wasn’t enough to live a life of privilege, or an individual life plan. Those are the people I met up with, in Peoples Temple. Those are the people who enriched and continue to enrich my life. Peoples Temple was filled with those dedicated and wonderful people. I regret we are not all here, together, today. Too late, I realized that I had stopped my own critical thinking. The dream that I thought I was living was only a dream, not a reality. In retrospect, I see that I ignored many of the flags that were obvious.

Back in about 2000, I remember having an insight that helped me! I was sitting and feeling that I was surrounded by those from Peoples Temple who did not survive. We were in conversation somehow, and the message I received was to move forward. I have tried to do that. For me, being angry at the past is paralyzing and I made a choice not to go that route. First, I work at being aware of the hidden agendas of people in my life and people in leadership. I have already made that tragic mistake once, so never again. I call them out. I am an activist and a cynic.

Second, I live my life fully. My wonderful husband of 36 years, Ron, and my inspirational and gifted son, Raul, have supported me on my journey and continue to encourage me every day. I am a composite of the dreamer/idealist, the traumatized, and the survivor. And, an activist. My existence in, and survival from, Jonestown and Peoples Temple is part of my core. I somehow survived. I can’t waste my life now, even 40 years later. After surviving Peoples Temple, I was a public school teacher for 25 years, wrote my memoir, gave many interviews, and tried to learn from my experience. I did my best to live a life consistent with the lessons I had learned.

Last March, 2018, my family and I returned to Guyana with Jordan Vilchez and other close friends. It was an important trip, not for closure, but for acknowledgment of what we had, what we lost, and what price Guyana paid. In a way, the trip back gave voices to the voiceless of Guyana which had not really been recognized.

That is why I don’t want to lose my connections with the people I love so much – my fellow survivors and family members. They are my dear family. In many ways, we reflect back from different points of view. We agree or not on many aspects of what was Peoples Temple. A friend described us as squabbling siblings. I feel immersed in the love of these wonderful friends, regardless of our differences. We still survived. An amazing number of us sit here today, some of my very favorite people in the world. We had so much potential. My memories still seem fresh to me, even as I live my life fully today.

I am grateful to be here today with you, to share these memories with you, and to share this space as we honor our lost friends and family. I feel like our presence today is again to give voice to the voiceless. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.