The prom­ise of Jon­estown — be­fore the fi­nal day

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGO FLASHBACK - By Re­becca Moore

When peo­ple hear the word “Jon­estown,” they usu­ally think of hor­ror and death. Lo­cated in the South Amer­i­can coun­try of Guyana, the Peo­ples Tem­ple Agri­cul­tural Pro­ject was sup­posed to be the re­li­gious group’s “promised land.” In 1977, al­most 1,000 Amer­i­cans had moved to Jon­estown, as it was called, hop­ing to cre­ate a new life.

In­stead, tragedy struck. When U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan of Cal­i­for­nia and three jour­nal­ists at­tempted to leave af­ter a visit to the com­mu­nity, a group of Jon­estown res­i­dents as­sas­si­nated them, fear­ing that neg­a­tive re­ports would de­stroy their com­mu­nal pro­ject.

A col­lec­tive mur­der-sui­cide fol­lowed, a rit­ual that had been re­hearsed on sev­eral oc­ca­sions.

This time it was no re­hearsal. On Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 men, women and chil­dren died, in­clud­ing my two sis­ters, Carolyn Lay­ton and An­nie Moore, and my nephew, Kimo Prokes.

Pho­to­jour­nal­ist David Hume Ken­nerly’s ae­rial pho­to­graph of a land­scape of brightly clothed life­less bod­ies cap­tures the mag­ni­tude of the dis­as­ter of that day.

In the 40 years since the tragedy, most sto­ries, books, films and schol­ar­ship have tended to fo­cus on the leader of Peo­ples Tem­ple, Jim Jones, and the com­mu­nity that his fol­low­ers at­tempted to carve out of the dense jun­gles of north­west Guyana.

But by fix­at­ing on the tragedy we miss the larger story of the Tem­ple. We lose sight of a sig­nif­i­cant so­cial move­ment that mo­bi­lized thou­sands of ac­tivists to change the world in ways small and large, from of­fer­ing le­gal ser­vices to peo­ple too poor to af­ford a lawyer to cam­paign­ing against apartheid.

It is a dis­ser­vice to the lives, labors and as­pi­ra­tions of those who died to sim­ply fo­cus on their deaths.

The im­pulse to learn the whole story prompted my hus­band, Field­ing McGe­hee, and me in 1998 to cre­ate the web­site Al­ter­na­tive Con­sid­er­a­tions of Jon­estown and Peo­ples Tem­ple — a large dig­i­tal archive doc­u­ment­ing the move­ment pri­mar­ily in its own words through doc­u­ments, re­ports and au­dio­tapes. This, in turn, led the Spe­cial Col­lec­tions De­part­ment at San Diego State Univer­sity to de­velop the Peo­ples Tem­ple Col­lec­tion.

Started in In­di­anapo­lis

The Tem­ple be­gan as a church in the Pen­te­costal-Ho­li­ness tra­di­tion in In­di­anapo­lis in the 1950s.

In a deeply seg­re­gated city, it was one of the few places where black and white work­ing-class con­gre­gants sat to­gether in church on a Sun­day morn­ing. Its mem­bers pro­vided var­i­ous kinds of as­sis­tance to the poor — food, cloth­ing, hous­ing, le­gal ad­vice — and the church and its pas­tor, Jim Jones, gained a rep­u­ta­tion for fos­ter­ing racial in­te­gra­tion.

In­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist Jeff Guinn has de­scribed the ways early in­car­na­tions of the Tem­ple served the peo­ple of In­di­anapo­lis. The in­come gen­er­ated through li­censed care homes, op­er­ated by Jim Jones’ wife, Marce­line Jones, sub­si­dized The Free Restau­rant, a cafe­te­ria where any­one could eat at no cost.

While it’s the kind of ac­tion some churches en­gage in to­day, it was in­no­va­tive — even rad­i­cal — for the 1950s.

In 1962, Jones had a prophetic vi­sion of a nu­clear catas­tro­phe, so he urged his In­di­ana con­gre­ga­tion to re­lo­cate to North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

Schol­ars sus­pect that an Esquire mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle — which listed nine parts of the world that would be safe in the event of nu­clear war, and in­cluded a re­gion of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia — gave Jones the idea for the move.

In the mid-1960s, more than 80 mem­bers of the group packed up and headed west to­gether.

Un­der the guid­ance of Marce­line, the Tem­ple ac­quired a num­ber of prop­er­ties in the Red­wood Val­ley and es­tab­lished nine res­i­den­tial care fa­cil­i­ties for the el­derly, six homes for fos­ter chil­dren and Happy Acres, a state-li­censed ranch for men­tally dis­abled adults. In ad­di­tion, Tem­ple fam­i­lies took in oth­ers need­ing as­sis­tance through in­for­mal net­works.

It was at this time that young, col­legee­d­u­cated white adults be­gan to trickle in. They used their skills as teach­ers and so­cial work­ers to at­tract more mem­bers to a move­ment they saw as preach­ing the so­cial gospel of re­dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth.

My younger sis­ter, An­nie, seemed to be drawn to the Tem­ple’s ethos of di­ver­sity and equal­ity.

“There is the largest group of peo­ple I have ever seen who are con­cerned about the world and are fight­ing for truth and jus­tice for the world,” she wrote in a 1972 let­ter to me. “And all the peo­ple have come from such dif­fer­ent back­grounds, ev­ery color, ev­ery age, ev­ery in­come group.”

In­ter­ra­cial com­mu­nal­ism

But the core con­stituency com­prised thou­sands of ur­ban African-Amer­i­cans, as the Tem­ple ex­panded south to San Fran­cisco, and even­tu­ally to Los An­ge­les.

Fre­quently de­picted as poor and dis­pos­sessed, these new African-Amer­i­can re­cruits ac­tu­ally came from the work­ing and pro­fes­sional classes: They were teach­ers, postal clerks, civil ser­vice em­ploy­ees, do­mes­tics, mil­i­tary vet­er­ans, la­bor­ers and more.

The prom­ise of racial equal­ity and so­cial ac­tivism op­er­at­ing within a Chris­tian con­text en­ticed them. The Tem­ple’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics and sub­stan­tial The Rev. Jim Jones founded the group.

pro­grams sold them.

Re­gard­less of the mo­tives of their leader, the fol­low­ers whole­heart­edly be­lieved in the pos­si­bil­ity of change.

Dur­ing an era that wit­nessed the col­lapse of the civil rights move­ment, the dec­i­ma­tion of the Black Pan­ther Party and the as­sas­si­na­tions of black ac­tivists, the group was es­pe­cially com­mit­ted to a pro­gram of racial rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

It was one of the few long-term ex­per­i­ments in Amer­i­can in­ter­ra­cial com­mu­nal­ism, along with Father Di­vine’s Peace Mis­sion move­ment, which Jim Jones emu­lated.

Mem­bers and non­mem­bers re­ceived a va­ri­ety of free so­cial ser­vices: rental as­sis­tance, funds for shop­ping trips, health ex­ams, le­gal as­sis­tance and stu­dent schol­ar­ships. By pool­ing their re­sources, in ad­di­tion to fill­ing the col­lec­tion plates, mem­bers re­ceived more in goods and ser­vices than they might have earned on their own. They called it “apos­tolic so­cial­ism.”

Liv­ing com­mu­nally not only saved money, but also built sol­i­dar­ity. Al­though com­mu­nal hous­ing ex­isted in Red­wood Val­ley, it was greatly ex­panded in San Fran­cisco. En­tire apart­ment build­ings in the city were ded­i­cated to ac­com­mo­dat­ing un­re­lated Tem­ple mem­bers — many of them se­nior cit­i­zens — who lived with and cared for one an­other.

As early as 1974, a few hardy vol­un­teers be­gan clear­ing land for an agri­cul­tural set­tle­ment in the North­west District of Guyana, near the dis­puted bor­der with Venezuela.

While the os­ten­si­ble rea­son was to “pro­vide food for the hun­gry,” the real rea­son was to cre­ate a com­mu­nity where they could es­cape the racism and in­jus­tice they ex­pe­ri­enced in the United States.

“My mem­o­ries from 1974 till the be­gin­ning of ’78 are many and full of love, and to this day they still bring tears to my eyes,” re­called Peo­ples Tem­ple mem­ber Mike Touchette, who was work­ing on a boat in the Caribbean as the deaths were oc­cur­ring. “Not only the mem­o­ries of build­ing of Jon­estown, but the friend­ships and ca­ma­raderie we had be­fore 1978 is be­yond words.”

But Jim Jones ar­rived in 1977, and an in­flux of 1,000 im­mi­grants — in­clud­ing

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more than 300 chil­dren and 200 se­nior cit­i­zens — fol­lowed. The sit­u­a­tion changed. Con­di­tions were prim­i­tive, and though the res­i­dents of Jon­estown were no worse off than their Guyanese neigh­bors, it was a far cry from the lives they were used to.

The com­mu­nity of Jon­estown is best un­der­stood as a small town in need of in­fra­struc­ture, or, as one vis­i­tor de­scribed it, an “un­fin­ished con­struc­tion site.”

Ev­ery­thing — side­walks, san­i­ta­tion, hous­ing, wa­ter, elec­tric­ity, food pro­duc­tion, live­stock care, schools, li­braries, meal prepa­ra­tion, laun­dry, se­cu­rity — had to be de­vel­oped from scratch. Ev­ery­one but the youngest of chil­dren needed to pitch in to de­velop and main­tain the com­mu­nity.

Some have de­scribed the pro­ject as a prison camp.

In sev­eral re­spects that is true: Peo­ple weren’t free to leave. Dis­si­dents were cru­elly pun­ished.

Oth­ers have de­scribed it as heaven on earth.

Un­doubt­edly it was both; it de­pends on who — and when — you ask.

Erased prom­ise

But then there is the fi­nal day, which seems to erase all the prom­ise of the Tem­ple’s utopian ex­per­i­ment. It’s easy to iden­tify the el­e­ments that con­trib­uted to the fi­nal tragedy: the anti-demo­cratic hi­er­ar­chy, the vi­o­lence used against mem­bers, the cul­ture of se­crecy, the racism and the in­abil­ity to ques­tion the leader.

The fail­ures are ap­par­ent. But the suc­cesses?

For years, Peo­ples Tem­ple pro­vided de­cent hous­ing for hun­dreds of church mem­bers; it ran care homes for hun­dreds of men­tally ill or dis­abled in­di­vid­u­als; and it cre­ated a so­cial and po­lit­i­cal space for African-Amer­i­cans and whites to live and work to­gether in Cal­i­for­nia and in Guyana.

Most im­por­tantly, it mo­bi­lized thou­sands of peo­ple yearn­ing for a just so­ci­ety.

To fo­cus on the leader is to over­look the ba­sic de­cency and gen­uine ide­al­ism of the mem­bers. Jim Jones would have ac­com­plished noth­ing with­out the peo­ple of Peo­ples Tem­ple. They were the ac­tivists, the foot sol­diers, the let­ter writ­ers, the demon­stra­tors, the or­ga­niz­ers.

Don Beck, a for­mer Tem­ple mem­ber, has writ­ten that the legacy of the move­ment is “to cher­ish the peo­ple and re­mem­ber the good­ness that brought us to­gether.”

In the face of all those bod­ies, that’s a dif­fi­cult thing to do.

But it’s worth a try.

The Con­ver­sa­tion

Re­becca Moore is emerita pro­fes­sor of re­li­gious stud­ies at San Diego State Univer­sity.


Mike Touchette, a sur­vivor of the 1978 Jon­estown mas­sacre in Guyana, poses for a por­trait re­cently in Mi­ami Springs, Fla. Nov. 18 marked the 40th an­niver­sary of the tragedy.

AP 1976

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