WHIRLWIND TOUR for JONESTOWN SURVIVOR

I just returned from two weeks speaking at the Shaker Village and other venues in Lexington, KY, and at Grand Valley State University and other sites in Grand Rapids, Michigan, speaking about my life and my book JONESTOWN SURVIVOR: An Insider’s Look. I presented at the Communal Studies Association Conference, at several libraries, at a news station, at a Book Group, at several Quaker Meetings, and at the University. I always come back from my trips inspired by the people I meet.

The deaths in Jonestown, at the hands of Jim Jones and his small band of secretaries and mistresses, happened thirty-seven years ago this November 18, 2015.

My goal on my frequent trips to universities, in particular, and other events, is to broaden the understanding of what drew all of us to Peoples Temple, to put it in some historical perspective, and to acknowledge the dedication and sacrifice of those who died.

When I travel, I meet amazing people. I generally explain that the audiences for my events are “self-selected” because people have to decide that they DO want to open their minds to new information. Early on, after the deaths in Jonestown, the media abbreviated the whole story of Jonestown into a 15-second sound bite. Even when the news covers Jonestown now, it simply takes longer to regurgitate the same information. More and more, students, educators, and others are ready to hear more depth.

I am an educator myself. Always, over the years, I have tried to add “out-of-the-box” thinking as part of my class. I introduce and model critical thinking and the search for deeper meaning.

When I have the opportunity to speak to the public, or to students, I love the engagement of many minds focused on the same topic. I have to think on my feet, and find that exciting. I have to justify my position. I find I am up to the challenge.

On a more humorous note, I was abruptly confronted by a woman at the Grand Rapids Public Library. She was likely my age or older. I explained that since the most violent decade of recent American history – the 1960s – I have been determined not to have our country ruled by bullies. In the 1960s, while I finished up with high school and attended college, John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers were all assassinated. That set my direction. I worked hard to end the war in Vietnam, I joined and worked with the Black Panthers, I went to Woodstock, I joined Peoples Temple, I became a Quaker, I became a teacher, and I am currently an activist fighting in several areas for civil rights and justice. The woman in the crowd interrupted others and said, “I think you are un-American. You always tear down what this country is. Everyone was against the war in Vietnam.” I was able to calmly explain that I work EVERY day to make this country live up to the Bill of Rights, and to make this country better. Just as I invite questions from any audience, I look forward to these types of challenges.

This week, I was moved by the visits to Grand Rapids State University. My host was Dr. Heather Van Wormer, Chair of the Anthropology Department. She was responsible for inviting me to Grand Rapids and for putting my schedule together. She brought me into her Communal Societies class, and she hooked me up with her colleagues Dr. Christine Smith in the Psychology Department, and Dr. Sarah King’s Liberal Studies class in the Religious Studies Department. Dr. King’s class studies the Holocaust and reads the survival stories of the victims.

The students in the classes of Dr. Van Wormer, Dr. Smith, and Dr. King FIRST OF ALL had the outstanding teachers who made space in the curriculum to include me. The availability of “Primary source” interviews is such an important part of learning to read between the lines of someone else’s interpretation of an event. If every event in history just had one view to express, one interpretation of the details, one assessment of victor or loser, we could have one book on each historical occasion. We all acknowledge that no occurrence fits neatly into one simplistic version. I applaud those teachers who modeled pursuit of a better, fuller understanding. I also celebrate the pure curiosity and energy the students acted on to listen, reflect, and question my statements. I was touched by their sensitivity, and their quest for that deeper sense of understanding.

One experience from my Grand Rapids visit was about the topic of cults. Peoples Temple, and for me later, Synanon, were both cults. I don’t fight that term. However, our society members crave belonging in cults – from gangs, to certain clubs, to certain religions, to certain political groups, to certain military or para-military groups. People desire to belong. In two venues, one at the university and one at the Grand Rapids Library, I was approached by young women who said they had just escaped from cults, and that they were struggling. I was so grateful that they came and listened, and that they came up to see me and speak to me afterwards. I passed on my email so that they could reach me, just as I have over the years when others communicated with me.

Those conversations inspired me to look into a Graduate Program where I could be licensed to respond more completely to those who needed help in moving beyond those traumatic experiences.

I have long-known that life should always challenge you to be your best, and should always be lived to the fullest. I knew that before my time in Peoples Temple. I just had to have my memory refreshed after my survival from Peoples Temple. I so appreciated the opportunity to make this trip and to engage these young minds. It was a wonderful shared opportunity. Life is not to be wasted. All life is a treasure.

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