40 Years After Jonestown
by David Parker Wise
November 18th, 2011 will be the 33th anniversary of the tragic Jonestown communion-mass-suicide, which claimed the lives of almost a thousand people.
I was a pastor of the Los Angeles branch of Peoples Temple on Alvarado and Hoover. I left the Peoples Temple in protest of power trips, humiliation tactics and sexual improprieties. I was hunted down twice. As a result of my confrontation with the church, I lived in fear for 24 years, thinking I was wanted by the law.
I joined the Peoples Temple in 1971 in San Francisco at the Benjamin Franklin School auditorium. When I met Jim Jones, he believed in helping people, and he did not yet think he was God. That day I traveled back with some of Jim’s followers to the church on Ukiah and moved into Professor Dick Tropp’s house. Different than many, I was not on drugs or alcohol. I was a young idealist who opposed the war. I had left the racist south and come to California looking for people that were humanitarian. First I joined a monastery, but I thought they were disingenuous. Then I joined an East Indian Temple, but I thought they were disingenuous as well. Then a girl on the street told me of the human service work Jim was doing. I was impressed and I went right away. The Peoples Temple was genuine.
I worked hard, two jobs at a time. I slept during the lunch breaks. I worked at the Masonite Corporation, at different sawmills, and at Sears, where I moved furniture. I gave all my money to the church and still managed to donate extra time to church projects.
I met a wonderful girl named Maryell while peeling peaches at Archie Ijames’s house. We got married with Jim’s approval. My new wife and I moved into a charming little house surrounded by vines and gardens. Although I worked round the clock, I remember our life as being like heaven.
Jim had a unique program through which he paid for students to go to college to become doctors and lawyers. I visualized that I could make my greatest contribution if I became a church lawyer. I entered college and moved into the church dormitories. I had the bunk above Larry Schacht who later became the Jonestown doctor. I never dreamed that in less than a year, a tragedy would take Maryell away and I would be single again.
About that time, Jim asked me to give up the goal of becoming a church lawyer, to leave school and to become a minister for the Los Angeles Peoples Temple. I agreed.
In Los Angeles, Jim announced that he had surveyed the whole world and that I was the best man for the job. I became the resident pastor who helped set up the L.A. church. To my knowledge I was the only pastor other than Jim whose name was ever on letterhead and business cards. Jim took time to teach me how to do these things. Frankly, I never heard of him training anyone else. However, I was to learn three or four years later that he became neurotic and felt threatened when I was doing too good of a job. I think that part of this may have come from trouble he had in the past with people turning on him.
I served from 1972 until late 1976. I did the things pastors do. I conducted many funerals and weddings. I visited the sick. I stopped people from killing themselves. I stayed up late listening to Peoples problems on the phone. I set up housing programs. I set up transportation programs to and from church. I held little old ladies’ hands. I picked council members like Florida and Vee and was in charge of departments and programs. The membership program, which became the model for San Francisco, was headed by Juanell Smart, whom I later married.
I met with L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley and with the heads of the Disciples of Christ and made donations to them. I was pictured in Beat magazine, the publication for the Ramparts Police Division for helping make peace between the black community and the police. As Jim directed I made donations to their slain officer’s fund.
Jim was extremely gifted at raising the level of faith, no matter how questionable his methods, and yes, his methods were often very wrong. Of course, in the end, the wrong means destroy the right goals. Nonetheless, Jim certainly possessed an unparalleled talent for building faith. Nearer the end he had an equal talent for, unwittingly, tearing faith down.
I remember standing in the emergency room beside a young black man who had been shot in the head in some senseless street violence. I remember telling his mother that he would not die. The doctors disagreed. The young man would probably not live, they said, and if he did, he would be a vegetable. I looked up at the lit overhead transparencies showing the bullet in his brain and said calmly. “Jim asked me to come here and tell you that he WILL LIVE… and HE WILL BE NORMAL.” Of course, I had not spoken to Jim, but this was my job. The lady broke down in tears, said, “Thank you Father.” The boy eventually regained consciousness, and recovered normally.
I remember on two separate occasions when women called me about domestic violence. In one incident I lovingly took a 30-06 Winchester from a black man in the middle of Watts. I mention color because I am light skinned and this was Watts, after all. In the other incident in Compton I took a 12-gauge shotgun from a black man who had it pointed right at my nose. I never thought of calling the police. I must say, I do not believe I would take a rifle from anyone’s hands these days. I was in some kind of a fearless faith-filled daze then. I suppose this innocent daze kept me alive in those situations. Once a gang was going to beat me to death with a stick, but I talked them out of it. Once in Watts I was robbed. I gave the two men all I had and told them if I had known I would have brought more money. I have thought about it a lot through the years.
I established a relationship with HUD and filled three large apartment buildings entirely with L.A. church members. I will never forget the wonderful black man in charge of the HUD program. In our visits he would tell me how Jesus was a black Ethiopian. You would think he would have been perfect for the church. However, I never invited him to the church because I had watched Jim actually “run off” different folk and I wanted the tenants to have secure homes. In addition, the manner in which Jim was claiming this as “his” miracle, made it hard to invite the guy without worrying about losing his enthusiastic support. If not for Jim’s eccentricities we could have built a huge national membership. As it was, 2000 people filled the sanctuary to capacity each week, and we stopped passing out flyers and other such outreach efforts. This is never good, because behavior is always better in groups with their doors open compared to groups with their doors closed.
Irene Mason was a sweet and feisty member. I moved her out of a dangerous bullet-ridden part of town into one of these federally-subsidized new apartments right down the alley from the church. In the meetings Irene Mason always sat on either the first or second row. She was bold and enthusiastic and dedicated. She donated every cent she could put her hands on. One day while making my pastoral rounds, I opened her cupboards and discovered that she only had a few cans of peas and corn. I was devastated. I could see that it was up to me to follow up on Peoples donations to make sure they were not going without food. I filled Mrs. Mason’s cupboards from the church pantry, which had lots of donated food, and encouraged her to come use the church kitchen anytime.
Later this down-to-earth, wholesome woman told me how my good friend, Sharon Amos, had stayed overnight at her house one weekend that Jim came down. She alleged that Sharon drugged her, and that she woke up with a cast on her arm and Sharon telling her that she had slipped in the tub and was taken unconscious to the hospital. She went along with equal enthusiasm in public as Jim removed the cast, just as if she had really slipped and broken her arm. I resented the abuse of this very sincere woman’s faith. Mother Mason’s faith was hurt, not helped by dishonest tactics. As far as healings are concerned I could see that if Jim were to play it straight and if there had not been a bottle of amphetamines in his pill bag there would have been more miracles.... not fewer. Mother Mason died in Guyana.
In Peoples Temple there was great good mixed with improper means. However, I should note; this is what most all the other “acceptable churches” do also. That is, they use dishonest means. People got used to doing all kinds of things for “the cause,” and as tests. Of course, this was all male bovine feces. Along this line of foolishness, in Jonestown, rehearsed suicides in the form of a communion became acceptable… with a lot of help of course.
However, to be completely fair, as I write this, I also think of this one quiet female usher who had a pendant which stayed stuck to her chest, right below her clavicle. It was a picture of Jim. There was no chain holding it up. There was no adhesive. I would sometimes pull it off her chest, look at it and put it back. I could see no explanation of how it stayed there, unless she had a plate in her chest and a refrigerator magnet on the back of the pendant, but she had no scars in the area to indicate such a possibility. I can not describe the level of faith that Jim was able to generate and I don’t think you can get it by just listening to a tape. He used many tools. You had to be there, but like all healing ministries, he got the people around him to generate miracles left and right.
With a busload of Temple members from northern California, Jim came down to L.A. and did a service every two weeks. Each time after Jim left to go back to San Francisco, the church looked like a whirlwind had hit it. I would be in my pastor’s robe with people still gathered round stating their needs and problems. When everyone had finally left and I had locked the doors, I would take a walk outside down the alley, and stop at a long row of geraniums growing chest-high and breathe in their magnificent fragrance. I remember my ears whirring and I was light headed, as if I were on drugs… yet I was not. I was naturally high and now had to wind down. For years the smell of geraniums brought this memory.
I was a young white minister in a nearly all-black church. The only Spanish folk were the Sanchez family, a husband and wife. There was a white janitor and a few other white folk that would occasion the meetings. When Jim came down from Ukiah or San Francisco, he brought white folk with him. Other than that we were all black.
The Peoples Temple Christian Church on Alvarado and Hoover was a historical landmark. It was like a castle. It was my home. On Saturdays and Sundays, 2000 people filled the sanctuary. I would come around the winding rotundas in my pastor’s robe and greet newcomers in the pleasant Southern California weather. These were highly spirited, love filled, Pentecostal-type healing services with powerful social messages thrown in.
These were the days of Malcolm and Martin and John. These were the days of resistance to the killing fields of Vietnam. As a pastor, I had the FBI come around and show me pictures of members of the Black Liberation Army and ask me if I could identify any of them. They knew we were a radical church. We didn’t really hide it.
Jim was a self-appointed “Spokesman for the People.” Since there typically aren’t any such creatures as a “Spokesman for the People” (surely, not something you can find in the yellow pages) we seemed to be willing to overlook Jim’s eccentricities. Jim seemed to flout those eccentricities as if he was breaking the rules for all of us. He was taking on society. He championed our desire to change the world, to save the world. Everyone thought he might make a real difference in the world. Before he went to Guyana he was seen as a winner. When he was in Guyana he was actually wanted by the law in the States. Of course, no one wanted by the law is seen as a winner. I ought to know.
Was Jim paranoid? Yes. Severely so. Still, there is an old saying on the street; “Just because you are paranoid does not mean that they are not really out to get you.”
Once Jim asked me to put bars on his windows. After I had done so he harassed me in a Planning Commission meeting, saying, “Why did you put bars on the windows? What if there was a fire?” It was after that incident that I decided to look in his pill bag. I found amphetamines. Of course, in those years doctors were prescribing amphetamines (diet pills) to housewives like they were M&M’s. No one seemed to know at that time that the regular use of amphetamines creates mental-ward type schizophrenia. The pills also help to explain his megalomania. Speed and megalomania seem to always go hand in hand.
A year before the deaths in Jonestown, another speed-addicted demigod killed himself. His name was Elvis. Like Elvis, Jim eventually became a drug-sick image of his earlier self. “It is hard to be an image,” Elvis said, after someone commented that he was more famous than Jesus. “It is hard to be God,” said Jim Jones.
As we prepared for the meetings, Jim would peek out to see the crowd filling up the sanctuary. The energy was building. People on the welcoming committee were screening everyone at the door. Some of what they learned was sent to Jim. He was always trying to learn things about people as they came in.
Backstage Jim combed his black hair in the mirror. Then he took one lock and pulled it down onto his forehead as if he was Elvis getting ready for a show. Once Elvis commented, “It is true that I am aware of every move that I make.” Jim’s charisma was similar. Or rather, it was not so much charisma, as a conscious observance of the connotation and the implication of his body’s every movement and his voice’s every inflection and tonality. Of course, it was a big help to train everyone else to walk behind you and make a big racket over your every gesture. Having a few people appear to “drop dead” is a powerful thing too.
It is not much different to hear former Benny Hinn security guards tell how they rehearsed falling over or going into jerking motions. It worked really well for Jim when Rheaviana Beam pretended to drop dead in Ukiah, because she fell under the table and no one could see her. I had just come into the church and I was so scared I could hardly eat my green beans. When Jeff Carey pretended to drop dead in Los Angeles, it was pretty clear that he never rehearsed. I simply could not believe the poor acting. I was all the way in the back of the sanctuary, and I could still see him breathing. At least he could have fallen under a church pew, for goodness sake.
Wearing sunglasses makes people who are already afraid of you think you are quite charismatic also. Like Rasputin, Jim had a mystical stare. He once said, “I think I am going to go blind wearing these sunglasses.” Jim Jones would have liked to remove the glasses but he thought his eyes appeared too humble without them, so he created mystery with his sunglasses.
One of the most important reasons for the sunglasses came into play when he had to look down at the black-and-red typed pages lying on the pulpit in front of him during the healing. It takes talent to hold your chin up and look down to read the names of people you are healing and to read facts about their lives. I can only think of one or two other people who are alive besides myself who have seen these pages. However, his healings were definitely not limited to these cheat sheets.
Once I remember him taking his shoes off and balancing in his sock feet on the slippery and thin top edges of the backs of the church pews, moving from one end to the other, right through the crowd. I am very coordinated but was not able to do it in the empty sanctuary the next day. He would give every single person in the room a chance to get to him.
However, Jim was not all show. When he built faith up high many people were really healed. Greatest of all he wanted to improve the human condition and he might raise the money to bond someone out of jail right on the spot. Once he paid for everyone in the audience to get a free sickle cell anemia shot.
On occasion, an elderly couple would face losing their house, and Jim would raise the money, then and there, to pay their mortgage. A truly dedicated senior named Hezekiah had his car stolen out of the parking lot while he was supposed to be guarding the place. No problem, Jim bought him another one. A year later the Mexican government wrote to tell me, they had the car. I went to Tijuana with my only Spanish member and brought the car back and drove it myself.