Chapter 4

What is Peoples Temple?

When I walked into the Peoples Temple Church in Redwood Valley for the first time, I had long hair, lots of make-up, and a very short skirt. I was sort of a cross between a hippie and a streetwalker. My life was spiraling downwards. In 1956, Pastor Jim Jones had started his ministry as “Wings of Deliverance.” He soon changed the name to Peoples Temple. After visiting other churches, he had collected a group of stalwart supporters who believed in his message of equality and practical Christianity. By 1960, he and his wife Marceline had had one “homegrown” child, Stephan, and five adopted children including Agnes, Stephanie, Lew, Suzanne, and Jim Jr., children of all nationalities and colors. It was unusual in the early 1960s for a family or a church to be integrated. But he broke new ground.

In 1962, when the world was threatened by a possible nuclear holocaust, Esquire Magazine had written about the five safest places to live in the United States. Ukiah, California was listed as one of the five. In 1965, Jim brought about one hundred followers in rickety old cars from Indiana to Ukiah and the neighboring Redwood Valley. Several groups from Willits, a nearby community where Jim had first held services, got involved with Peoples Temple, including an Edgar Cayce study group and a commune with a Pentecostal background. Some of the most dedicated members joined up at this time including Garry Lambrev, Bonnie Beck, Carolyn Layton, Larry Layton, Karen Tow, Carol Stahl, Neva Sly, and others. Another group of mostly black church members came up from San Francisco. There was a great divide at first because most of the new California members were progressive atheists, non-dogmatic Christians, Buddhists, or New Age types. Even the Baptists who joined from San Francisco were more progressive than the group that Jim had brought from the Midwest. But Jim soon brought us all together in one cohesive group, his core group of supporters. Later on, more traditional Christians joined in once the ministry started visiting San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and other smaller cities. As soon as I entered the room in March 1970, I saw Jim Jones. He had black hair and a dark complexion, and was very striking. He generated a warmth and inclusion that bound everyone to him and to each other. He also had an enormous, enthusiastic church with a 300-member congregation full of people of all colors and ages. He had his own beautiful rainbow family and a collection of many other adults and children who were part of Peoples Temple and who were treated as his inner family. Some members were as strange as I was. He deftly navigated through all of the diff erences of religious views in each meeting. People listening for his religious and healing meetings heard that. His political and social statements were just what I had been searching for. He mentioned my heroes Angela Davis, Dennis Banks, Martin Luther King, Huey Newton, the Chicago Seven, and so many more. In his sermon, he caught my attention. I had been looking for a safe place to live and act on my convictions, but hadn’t found a safe venue.

I was losing my way. Unlike me, most of the people in the meetings were very conservative looking, in plain clothes, and brimming over with a pure, healthy glow. No one wore Sunday finery and jewels, but instead, everyone looked well scrubbed and down-toearth. Here was an interracial church with an awesome choir singing about revolution, equality, freedom, and socialism. I could have listened to the choir for hours. The musicians were accomplished, and the singers poured out their hearts when they sang. The songs sounded as if they had been written by the individual singing. I learned later that many were old spirituals that had a few words changed. The melodies were hauntingly beautiful. Jim and everyone else talked about socialism and equality, and then lived it. I loved what I saw. Still I didn’t quite see myself fitting in there. I was into self-destruction. I don’t know if I planned to come back later, after I hit an even lower bottom or not. I loved it there, and was glad it was there. I was just in a diff erent place. Often I had smoked pot or hash the evening before. My whole life, I had heard my mother’s tirades against the hypocrisy in churches and hypocrisy in general. I didn’t want to use drugs on Saturday and then go listen in a church, looking pious and pure. So I was ready to stop going. I chose to continue with my San Francisco lifestyle. Then Linda told me of another woman, Liz, who was into astrology, Tarot cards, and the occult. She was planning to go up and evaluate and even challenge Jim. I wasn’t usually busy on Sunday mornings, so we went up another time. This time, Liz and I became enamored with the whole eff ort. Liz admired Jim because he was a Native American, a Marxist, and a healer. Even though there was no formal pledge to sign, we each acknowledged that we had decided to become part of it. She has a somewhat diff erent recollection of these weeks, but this is how I remember them. From the minute I walked into the Temple, people of all ages and races befriended me. My own discomfort in the way I was dressed or looked was not mirrored in those who came around me. They were genuinely kind. As I looked around, others in the building seemed to be comfortable, happy and engaged also. The Temple services were never just fashion shows and places to wear your newest duds. They had accepted me as one of them and I had eventually accepted that I was in a place I belonged. And Liz had not been able to challenge Jim. She was enthralled by what she had seen with his “gift” as it was called.

The Sunday services had a set routine. First, the magnificent interracial and intergenerational choir would sing the most exhilarating hymns and songs. Many of the songs were original, and many were rewritten to reflect the Temple philosophy. Jim’s wife Marcie often sang “Black Baby,” about Jimmy, their adopted black child. Jim and Marcie had been the fi st white couple to adopt a black baby in the state of Indiana. An ex-convict named Melvin Johnson would sing “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” Everyone who sang seemed to be singing about himself or herself, but we each saw ourselves in the songs too. The music would unify all of us, and the enthusiasm would have everyone up and dancing. Then Jim would come to the pulpit. Sometimes he wore a crimson robe or he would wear this worn-looking red-striped velour


Laura Johnston