On Sunday, November 26, 1978 – at the end of that first terrible week – John Moore became the first person to speak for the people who died in Jonestown. He said what most of us have come to realize in the decades since then, that the members of Peoples Temple were people who aspired to greater goals beyond themselves, people whose flaws led them to follow a flawed leader, people whose deaths should not deny them the respect we would afford other human beings.
Everyone who was touched by Peoples Temple, in whatever capacity that was, remembers that first week. The news streaming out of Guyana was confusing and contradictory, full of rumors and exaggeration. The images focused on gruesome carnage, and for the rest of the world, those images defined the entire movement. Everyone outside of the Jonestown community seized upon the tragedy as a means to make a larger point, about religious cults, about progressive politics, about government indifference or, alternately, interference and conspiracy. Underlying everything – in part because of the community’s isolation in its final 18 months, in part because of the physical distance between Guyana and the US, but mostly because of the nature of the deaths themselves – surviving families were alienated from their dead, their expressions of grief the subject of voyeuristic news coverage. The removal of the bodies to an Air Force Base 3000 miles from the Temple’s California home only exacerbated that sense of separation and alienation.
But on November 26, eight days after the tragedy, John Moore – a Methodist minister, a frequent defender of the ideals of the Temple in life, and the father and grandfather of three of the Jonestown dead – delivered a sermon to his congregation in Reno, Nevada which gave a voice to the Jonestown dead and to those who mourned them. He opened with these words:
We have been called to bear witness to the word God speaks to us now. I say “We,” because you are as much a part of this as I am. There is no witness to the Word apart from the hearing of it. Barbara and I are here by the love and strength of God which we have received through your caring and your prayers. I never imagined such a personal blow, but neither could I have imagined the strength that has come to us. We are being given strength now to be faithful to our calling.
He ended as he began:
My last words are of our children. We have shared the same vision, the vision of justice rolling down like a mighty stream, and swords forged into plows. We have shared the same hope. We have shared the same commitment. Carolyn and Annie and Kimo served on a different field. We have wished that they had chosen ours, but they didn’t. And they have fallen.
We will carry on in the same struggle until we fall upon our fields. No passage of scripture speaks to me so forcefully as Paul’s words from Romans: “Nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God we have known in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This week I have learned in a new way the meaning of these words of Paul: “…love never ends.”
John Moore died peacefully during the early morning hours of July 27, 2019 in Friday Harbor, Washington. He was six weeks shy of turning 100. He is survived by his daughter, Rebecca Moore; his son-in-law, Fielding M. McGehee III; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. In addition to Carolyn, Annie, and Kimo – his two daughters and grandson who died in Jonestown – he is preceded in death by his wife Barbara in 2004 and granddaughter Hillary in 1995.
Rebecca and I are, of course, the managers of this website. It might be a stretch to say that this website would not have existed without John, but it is safe to say that it would not have had the same foundation – its attempts to understand “Jonestown” with compassion and understanding and respect – without John’s clarion call sounded at the end of that first week.
John’s sermon was not the first time he heard a more fundamental call to preach the social gospel of the Christian faith. Indeed, throughout his life, he stood in the forefront of the battles for justice, equality, and peace. In 1965 – more than four years before Stonewall – he became a founding member of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual. That same year, as pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, he preached a series of sermons advocating for civil rights of gays in the community, in the nation, and in the world. His early opposition to the war in Vietnam was not only public, but also personal, as he counseled young men about their options with the draft, and upon occasion, helped them through difficult decisions of draft resistance.
Even after he retired from the his 40-year ministry with the Methodist church, he continued his work, beginning with interim pastorates to fill sudden vacancies in Davis, Merced and Modesto. He helped found Loaves and Fishes, a program to assist the homeless in Sacramento that continues to this day. He also served as the director of an AIDS hospice.
John continued to blog and write – including for this site – up until a few months before his death.
But it was his lifelong commitment to his shared ideals with Peoples Temple, his unwavering support and love for his daughters who joined it, and his refusal to abandon any of them in Jonestown’s aftermath that will forever provide the example that informs our own work on this site as we move forward.