The 36th anniversary of Jonestown just passed. As the anniversaries move in to the more distant past, the ceremonies at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland change too. We have two groups of former members, family members, and friends who gather each November 18. The morning group meets at 11 a.m. and is led by Reverend Jynona Norwood. She drives up from LA with a group of her parishioners, shares messages from some local or regional political leaders, and gathers with a handful of people more closely involved with the past. She lost many relatives in Jonestown. From Day 1, she has created her ceremony for her loved ones and all of our loved ones who died in Jonestown.  More recently, she has focused more on condemning Jim Jones, and those who survived, in her services.  The tone of her meetings is abrasive, and I cannot attend.

About five years ago, a group of survivors, family members, and close friends, spun off from these more traditional ceremonies. We don’t have a “ceremony” as such, but rather a loose gathering at 2 p.m. At some yearly gatherings, we speak, or introduce ourselves, or share thoughts or memories. At other meetings, we just spend time with each other at the gravesite, where 407 people were buried until this last October 2014. On October 20, five additional remains were buried adjacent to the original burial site. These were the cremated remains just found in an abandoned funeral home in Dover, Delaware. Living family members of three of those found asked for them to be buried at Evergreen Cemetery, with their loved ones already buried there. Living relatives of two of the remains were not found, so those two were also buried at Evergreen.

This year, I took note of who attends the afternoon ceremony, and looked back through photos of who has attended in the recent past. Since I keep in contact with about 60 of the survivors through visits, emails, face book, and occasional letters and phone calls, I thought about those contacts as well. My own thought is that those of us who lost many, many of our closest friends, relatives, and our vision of what Peoples Temple could become still find solace spending time with the handful of other survivors and family members. Nearly every year, either at the ceremony or through other means of contact, relatives and friends of those who did not survive makes contact with the survivors. We are drawn together for that brief time, sharing the trauma.

Here is what I have found as I reflect on us, the survivors and family members of the trauma of the deaths of Jonestown, and the death of Peoples Temple. Many of the handful of survivors who lived in Redwood Valley/Ukiah at any time during our lives in the Temple developed rich friendships by living in the tiny community, in close proximity to Jim Jones and his family. The friendships continue, even as the angst against Jim grew and even now, grows. Peoples Temple drew on many wonderful and visionary members of society, all races, all backgrounds, and all socioeconomic levels. We were all comfortable with each other because we were committed to a cause greater than ourselves. We laughed and cried together, but mostly we worked together and worked very hard. Being in Peoples Temple was no vacation for anyone. But, we were on the same path.

While we lived in Redwood Valley/Ukiah, and were part of Peoples Temple, we were consumed by our involvement. No matter what our outside jobs were, our lives were enmeshed with PT. That incubation period created strong ties – not only within our blood families, but within our cohorts.  Even those who saw early signs of Jim’s corruption sought to continue contacts with those other members they had loved.  The Concerned Relatives group was started by former members Mert and Deanna Mertle (later changed to Mills).  They pursued Jim, but always included others who had been disillusioned by him.


Here’s what I think:

Many RV folks bought the dream so much, that our friendships keep the dream alive somewhat

We cannot discount the whole effort, movement by the disintegration of Jim

We like to check in on each other, make sure we are ok

We don’t want to forget, but know we have moved on

We have not found friends like the PT friends we have

We can feel guilt but not let us stop it

We are not Pollyanna’s, but we are not cynical

We know life is sweet

We know we can overcome enormous obstacles

November 18 is a good day to be together with PT friends.

As huge as PT and survival is in our lives, it has a much bigger place in history

Redwood Valley produced the most loyal and the most anti-Jim Jones folks

After 36 years, most survivors and family members are beyond the hate/animosity that we held when we first returned.





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