Rev. Jim Jones and the People's Temple: A Memoir
The day I met the infamous Rev. Jim Jones, he was wearing semi-opaque sunglasses and a black shirt, and he was being trailed by a half dozen or so teen-aged young men. They piled out of a wine-colored van that was painted with the words People's Temple on the side. I had been advised that he was on his way, and I had been watching for him because the church was typically locked when not in use on Sundays. The pastor of the church had asked me to take on the task because I was employed as sexton of the church and it was a Saturday. I emerged from the Disciples of Christ Church that was located within walking distance of downtown Oakland to greet him, shake his hand and show him around the building. The church was a faux Spanish colonial of large proportions that must have been built during the heyday of the Disciples denomination perhaps in the 1920's. It was large enough to have an auditorium and full stage in the basement as well as a large kitchen for parish festivities and a commodious apartment for the sexton. The sanctuary could accommodate at least three or four hundred people, and behind the altar, covered by curtains was a full-immersion baptismal font that, when in use, seemed to be a cross between a giant aquarium and a wading pool that could be entered down steps from either side. Congregants could watch the drama of full immersion baptism unfold from the comfort of their pews. As sexton, my job was watering the roses, mowing the lawn, opening the sanctuary doors on Sunday and sweeping the floors as needed. In return, I had the use of the apartment that was located near the back door of the building on the lower floor. I was also supposed to check the building once every evening by prowling the dark, labyrinthine halls with a flashlight. The floors and halls resounded with all sorts of creaky and guttural sounds, the source of which was mysterious enough to make it the least favorite of my duties.
Rev. Jones (it seems a bit odd to affix that title to his name given his subsequent history) was interested in the church in Oakland because he wanted to move his base of operations from Redwood Valley to the Bay Area. Many of his parishioners were from Oakland and San Francisco and so it made sense for him to move. He had heard of this church because it was his denomination, Disciples of Christ, and it was a large church with a dwindling membership. When I worked there the church could only count perhaps fifty members virtually all of whom were sixty or older while Jones' flock was growing quickly and numbering in the hundreds. He approached the pastor, Rev. Harold Dowler, to discuss the possibility of merging the two congregations and because People's Temple was far larger, it would essentially just absorb the smaller parish along with its large church building. Rev. Dowler proposed that the leadership of People's Temple make their proposal directly to his parish by visiting and preaching on several consecutive Sundays and then finally put the motion to a vote of his congregation.
I was not a member of the parish even though I had been hired as sexton. At the time I was a student at Pacific School of Religion, an inter-denominational seminary located in Berkeley. I was Episcopalian and had no particular interest in changing denominations. The job of sexton was posted on a bulletin board at school and I followed up because I needed a place to live. I often attended Sunday services there both because I enjoyed Rev. Dowler's sermons and because it could hardly be more convenient.
Rev. Jones was a phenomenon. All about him was a dark, flashing charismatic energy. His sermons usually focused on justice and a new day. Some thought he was a communist, but in fact he was astute politically and was suspicious of both the great economic systems and their accompanying political systems. In retrospect, I can discern that he was a forerunner of the anti-globalism movement and personified the fear of totalitarian world government. Perhaps the early phases of his ministry will ultimately be judged as prophetic. When I met him there were only the vaguest of rumors about his dark side that finally were disclosed as paranoia, licentiousness, sadism and egomania. He preached and Tim Stoen, who was one of his more influential ardent followers, preached. They were persuasive. The old folks in the parish voted. The motion was defeated by one vote.
I have thought about that one vote many times since and thought "but for the grace of that one vote, I might have been in the employ of and swayed by the charisma of Rev. Jim Jones." I could be a rotting, swelling corpse in the equatorial jungle returned to my first home.