Jonestown Survivor: Who Comes to Evergreen Cemetery on November 18?

38th Anniversary - Evergreen Cemetery, Oakland

38th Anniversary – Evergreen Cemetery, Oakland

Who Comes to the Annual Gathering on November 18?gallery

This year, on November 18, 2016, for the 38th anniversary of Jonestown, we had many survivors and family members stop at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland at 3 in the afternoon. Some survivors visit Evergreen throughout the year, or at different times on the date of the anniversary. Many survivors and family members live in the Bay Area, relatively close to Oakland. Only a handful come to our annual afternoon gathering.

Nearly 1,000 wonderful people died on November 18, 1978. Many more thousands miss those family members and dear friends who died. Many of us – survivors and others – have our own ways of reflecting and honoring our beloved friends. Each November 18, some of us gather. For me personally, I can’t imagine being anyplace else on that day. It took me 20 years to finally realize that before I got it. I have been coming for 17 years on that day.

I have been thinking about all my friends and loved ones gathered at Evergreen this year. There were seventeen of us who were ourselves part of Peoples Temple along the way, and five partners. There were four non-members who lost family members in Jonestown. There were nine others who have become our friends over the past years, including three people working on documentaries, an intimate friend of a survivor who has passed, a colleague in communal studies and New Religion research, and a family who travels to share our memories. A total of thirty-six of us met for an hour at the gravesite. We gathered mostly in silence, introducing ourselves briefly and laying flowers on the panels.

I am sixty-nine and one of the oldest survivors who attended, while most of the other survivors at Evergreen were 10-15 years younger. We included black, brown, and white, male, female, straight and gay. Some of us had left Peoples Temple here in the US, some stayed. Some of us were on Planning Commission, some were not, and some of us lived in Guyana, some didn’t.

The one remarkable fact was that of all the survivors at Evergreen, only one had never lived in Redwood Valley. Those who never lived in Redwood Valley never saw the birth of the dream. For those of us living in Redwood Valley during the decade that Peoples Temple existed there – from 1968 to 1978 – we worked and put some of our hearts and soul into creating our dream. No, it wasn’t perfect. Yes, there were signs that there might be struggles ahead. I know that I felt that everything was “fixable.” I don’t think that it is surprising that most of those who gather at Evergreen started in Redwood Valley. That was Peoples Temple at its purest, with less drama, less ego, and more focus on important values that Peoples Temple was supposed to represent. And certainly, less paranoia and insanity.

During that time, we formed our attachment with what Peoples Temple could have been. Many of the deepest friendships that exist today between survivors were formed over that Redwood Valley time. I know that I had blinders on. I didn’t want to see that the Emperor had no clothes on. I wasn’t able to “re-route” my journey. Life in Redwood Valley snagged me. It seems to have snagged some part of others, as well.

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