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.

 

More by this Author


Comments 34 comments

Iðunn 8 years ago

He was fascinating, although I never met him in person. I've read up considerably. I probably would have been suckered in. I'm fairly gullible at times.


barranca profile image

barranca 8 years ago Author

Because I wasn't a member, I couldn't vote. I might well have voted in the affirmative, young turk that I was.


Iðunn 8 years ago

He had a nice mix, quasi-socialism, respect for all human life, antirasicm, govt FOR the people, and God. He seemed to me to have been sincere and maybe just nutzed out later on meth-type drugs.


barranca profile image

barranca 8 years ago Author

I haven't studied the history in detail but I always attributed his fate to egoistic temptations of charisma, power and movement politics. And how those interacted with his personal psyche and the viscissitudes of history.


Iðunn 8 years ago

well, he was a charasmatic, and certainly had the qualities I like, arrogance, intelligence, wit, charm, spontaneity, passion and a genuine interest in others combined with a strong capacity for communication skills and a willingness to buck the system and just that hint of ... dangerousness.

I think power does corrupt, sadly. It's even happening to my beloved Chavez. :(


barranca profile image

barranca 8 years ago Author

He definitely had the "hint of dangerousness". When I met him, he had a gunslinger quality in the way he moved and spoke. His preaching was like being transfixed by a cobra all the while agreeing with the message.


Iðunn 8 years ago

I admit I have dismal taste in men.  Yeah, that sounds about right. :p

I've considered what I would have thought of Manson, and I don't think I would have fallen into that one.  I do find him to be a compelling speaker even now though.  I watched his interviews and parole hearing the other night and agreed with like 90% of it, but his lack of self-control is unappealing to me personally.

I satisfy myself by adoring my own demi-god who is not a cult leader :p and making my own mini-Fads for group fun with words and poetry. 

on topic, I have a copy of "The Suicide Cult: The Inside Story of the People's Temple Sect and the Massacre in Guyana."

authors are: Marshall Kilduff and Ron Javers who are staff correspondents of the San Francisco Chronicle.

you can probably find it in a used book store - true crime, for next to nothing or I could send you. it implies the downfall was meth addiction creating delusions, paranoia and volatility.


barranca profile image

barranca 8 years ago Author

I've listened to some of Manson's rants and he usually starts off with something semi-rational but then when he thinks he has the interviewers attention, he begins to ratchet up his insanity making more and more outrageous claims. I once took a course on prisons and visited Folsom prison where Manson was housed at the time. It was a freaky experience even being under the same roof with him.....maybe I will write that up someday for hubpages. I always wondered about women who are attracted to the "bad boy" persona....and what may be the socio-biological basis of such attraction.


barranca profile image

barranca 8 years ago Author

By the way, thanks for the offer but I have too much to read stack all over the house as it is. Do you remember how early he started doing meth according to the authors? As I recall the events I describe were in 1973 or '74 at the latest.


Iðunn 8 years ago

hehe. oh that one is easy. rage. ;) yeah, I think there are socio-biological reasons too, psych 101 eh, the old caveman theory, women seek men whom they believe are capable of protecting them during their pregnancies and their offspring. the study suggests it's innate. but then you have to throw in environment, too and that's where I think desire for stability gets misdirected.

I hope you do write that up for Hubs, your experiences at Folsom. You have a sure reader.


Iðunn 8 years ago

I flipped through and I'd have to read it again to find out, but one chapter started by suggesting the first publicly noticeable fallout began in 1977 at the San Francisco Temple.


barranca profile image

barranca 8 years ago Author

Meth is evil stuff. I once knew a talented guy who was responsible for organizing educational programs for talented and gifted students in the Lincoln, NE public schools. He got into meth and I lost track of him for several years but then bumped into him at a bar and I couldn't believe what a hungry ghost and hollow shell of his former self he had become.


Iðunn 8 years ago

yeah, it's a real soul-sucker. I think the lack of sleep contributes to the delusional qualities that keep people from quitting. I was personally never drawn to it, it's for people with low self-esteem, makes them feel like kingz when they are on it, and I have a remarkably high self-esteem. perhapz too high :D

however, I worked in clubz off and on for 20 years and it was certainly the DOC for most of the women there that chose the drug route. I watched it destroy hundreds of women over the years. you couldn't pay me to do it.


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 8 years ago

Fascinating story. The videos are worth watching. They capture the horror of Jamestown. Is that where the expression "Don't drink the Koolaid!" comes from?


barranca profile image

barranca 8 years ago Author

Don't know, either from there or the practice of spiking koolaid with LSD as in the electric kool-aid acid test. The whole guyana tragedy is a parable for our times. Idealism gone amuck. Haunting images.


Iðunn 8 years ago

If intent is all that countz though, all the believers went straight to Heaven.  That is what I believe anyway.  Life is fleeting and generally painful, and we all go somehow in the end, but there is something beautiful after.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to believe as long as it doesn't hurt another human being in the process.


barranca profile image

barranca 8 years ago Author

Intent is important but as the old saw goes "the road to hell is paved with good intentions". Is Bush not blameworthy for his democratic idealism and all his blarney about freedom given what has transpired? I wouldn't want to be in his shoes facing his maker.


Iðunn 8 years ago

I don't think Bush had good intent, ever. Of course, I can't judge him, but it's certainly my opinion. I think he never had an intent to do anything but line his and his cronies pockets nomatter whose blood it required. And yes, I think there is eternal answer for that too.


barranca profile image

barranca 8 years ago Author

Somehow I think he was a creature of Cheney and his oil interests.


Iðunn 8 years ago

I tend to think that too. I do not believe Bush has the native intelligence to have engineered this on his own.


MrMarmalade profile image

MrMarmalade 8 years ago from Sydney

Hullo!Hullo! All this talk back, there is hardly time for me.

Very good subject.

Neither of those two gentlemen appeal to me.

Hub is great.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 7 years ago from South Africa

A very late comment - I think the confluence of fervor and and a serious self-esteem neediness leads some great people to lose the plot and become psychotic, defined as a "mental disorder characterised by delusions ... without insight into their pathological nature." Such people have difficulty testing their perceptions with reality and therefore start to believe the hype about themselves and start to believe they are on a mission to "save the world" without really understanding the consequences of their often destructive actions in pursuit of their mission.

Thanks for a thought-provoking Hub which reminded me of the horror of that Time magazine cover and accompanying article.

I mistrust saviours!

Love and peace,

Tony


christalluna1124 profile image

christalluna1124 6 years ago from Dallas Texas

I have often watched documentaries on Jim jones, David Koresh, The group in california that killed themselves and often wondered what it is about them that would make otherwise intelligent people follow them to the point of death. Its not like they are charismatic, charming or even intelligent. I just don't get it.

Beam me up scotty!!

Warmest regards,

chris


barranca profile image

barranca 6 years ago Author

They might not seem particularly attractive on video in retrospect, but at the time, they are often quite compelling personalities. Many of them are manic-depressives and when they are on a manic high they can draw many people into their wake. (pun intended).


creebaby 6 years ago

I agree Jim Jones was a very persuadable powerful man whom at first seemed like a loving caring individual almost Christ like, I am doing a short bio on him for school and it is very sad that these people needed someone so bad to love them that they would end their life. Yes this man was good at what he did ... but morally it was wrong, yet fascinating to read and do reports on!!!!!!


RunAbstract profile image

RunAbstract 6 years ago from USA

I was never aware of Jim Jones until the news exploded about the horrible deaths of so many after drinking the koolaid. Several years ago I read something about that incident, saying perhaps the people weren't aware the drink was laced with poison until it was too late. I don't know if the story was true or if all those people willingly submitted to that terrible death. Either way, it is very sad, and even insane. Fasinating that you met that man, and see yourself has possibly being a victim had the vote gone differently. Glad you're still around to write about it. Very interesting article.


barranca profile image

barranca 6 years ago Author

Thanks RAbstract. They had practiced the kool-aid suicide with dry runs. Certainly most of the adults knew it meant suicide. Certainly one of the most bizarre stories in the annals of cults.


yo friend 6 years ago

The San Francisco,church was in my neighborhood,I heard about him and the Black people that were giving him there

welfare checks.I grew up in a church sort of like that.

after the army my thinking became like Woody Allen,I don´t want to be a member of a grope that would have me as a member.The first time I went to his church,I went with a white friend of mine we both were on LSD they would not let us stay together(we were not gay)They questioned us about race and why we together and how dangerous for us to be friends.So we didn´t get to see Jim that night.The next time I saw him I new he was a very Dangerous person.

the way he control his people with just the wave of his hand ,You could hear a pin drop.The CIA was his friend,check it out.


barranca profile image

barranca 6 years ago Author

Yo, Thanks for commenting. He was a dangerous man. I learned recently that it is likely that the minister referred to above, Harold Dowler, recently deceased was in favor of merging the congregations, but was overruled by the congregation's vote.


Caeser 5 years ago

This are sone signes of Endtime, am not surprise at this at all, we expect such happening but we don't fall as victims because we see it coming.. just stay alart!!! they are still thousands of them out there in different forms.


barranca profile image

barranca 5 years ago Author

Caeser, Certainly Jim Jones was a sign of nothing good.


arthurchappell profile image

arthurchappell 5 years ago from Manchester, England

ex-cult member myself, not of the Jones sect. I went to a talk a few years back bythe daughter of the Congressman, Leo Ryan, who Jones had murdered - your story is fascinating too


barranca profile image

barranca 5 years ago Author

Hi Arthur, Thanks for reading. These days I teach a course in World Religions to High School students. I always warn them about "false prophet" religious leaders and how they can draw people into cults and extreme views.


arthurchappell profile image

arthurchappell 5 years ago from Manchester, England

Good work Barranca - it's essential to warn students about the dangers cults present beforethey fall foul of them

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working