Twenty-four years later, religious scholars are re-examining the hold Jim Jones had on his followers
The Sacramento Bee, Nov. 23, 2002
By Jennifer Garza — Bee Staff Writer
Jynona Norwood will not let the madman take her faith.
He took her mother. He took her nine cousins, and 17 nieces and nephews. But she will not will let Jim Jones take her belief in God.
“He took my family, but he will never take away my firm belief in the Lord and his everlasting love,” said Norwood, a minister at Family Christian Church in Los Angeles. “Evil will not triumph. It cannot.”
On Nov. 18, 1978, Norwood woke up to see what evil had done. That morning, she learned that 27 of her relatives — including her mother — were killed in the mass murder-suicide at Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana. On that day, 913 people died. The murders were believed to have been at the order of Jim Jones, the charismatic leader of the religious group.
Since then, every Nov. 18 for the past 24 years, Norwood has led a ceremony at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland to honor those who died.
She did it again last Monday. On a cool, crisp morning, about 100 people sat in folding chairs near the mass grave site where many of their loved ones were buried. Some brought flowers. Others waved banners. Norwood spoke about violence, the struggles survivors face and the victims.
“People think they must have been gullible or blind to follow someone like that,” she says later on the phone from her house in Los Angeles.
“But my mother wasn’t like that. In fact, she never went to church before she met Jim Jones. But Jim Jones was preaching things she believed in, like racial equality and social justice. He lured them in and then wouldn’t let them go. He used religion for his evil. That’s what made him so dangerous.”
It has been nearly a quarter-century since the deaths at Peoples Temple in Jonestown. Now Norwood and others are saying it’s time to take a second look at the church in order to understand what made it appealing to so many people. Religious scholars are re-examining transcripts of Jones’ sermons, the worship style of the services, and the influence of the African American church on his movement.
Milmon Harrison, who teaches African American studies at the University of California, Davis, is writing a chapter for a book that will be released next year about Jones’ appeal to African Americans.
“Words like ‘Jonestown’ and ‘Guyana’ have a negative connotation, and rightfully so,” he says. “But it’s time to take a critical look to see what this religious movement was all about.”
“The complete story was not available on Nov. 18, 1978. Initially, the story was told by disaffected members and by people in the anti-cult movement … and that’s fine. But that’s not the complete story,” says Rebecca Moore, who teaches religious studies at San Diego State University and runs the Jonestown Project, a research center about Peoples Temple (jonestown.sdsu.edu).
“There’s been a shift from looking at Peoples Temple as an isolated incident to looking at it with an attempt of understanding when a religious group might turn violent.”
Peoples Temple started in Indianapolis in 1955. Jones, a minister with the Disciples of Christ, then preached a Pentecostal message of Christianity and social justice. Unlike many other churches of the time, Jones made sure his church was racially integrated.
In 1965, Jones and about 70 followers relocated to Ukiah, in Mendocino County. Jones claimed they moved because he and others associated with the church received death threats. Jones also said he decided to make the move to Ukiah after reading an article in Esquire magazine saying it would be one of five places in the world to survive a nuclear attack, says Fielding McGhee, editor of the “Jonestown Report,” which publishes data on the church. “This was the beginning of his apocalyptic viewpoint.”
Jones’ sermons — which normally ran two or three hours — gradually became more socialist in tone, according to McGhee, who has listened to 50 of Jones’ sermons.
“It’s subtle. People listening to him probably thought it was a natural progression of his previous sermons,” says McGhee, adding that the church also has to be considered in the context of the times.
When the group arrived in San Francisco in the early ’70s, Jones was preaching a message that was “a combination of socialist/revolutionary message with sprinkles of Christianity.”
“He never abandoned the Christian message because that’s what he used to bring people to the church,” McGhee says. “But he became more revolutionary.”
He says Jones also had an incredible ability to quote and cite Scripture. At the same time, he also chastised people who relied on the Bible.
One of the aspects religion scholars are looking at is why so many of the church members were African American. Why did so many African Americans choose to follow this charismatic white preacher?
“Looking at the transcripts, we can tell the worship services in many ways resembled the black worship style,” Moore says. “There was call and response, the length of the service, the music and his message of social justice and racial equality. He promised them their lives would get better.”
On the surface, Jones also practiced what many churches preached. He started soup kitchens, he helped the homeless. When someone was sick, members from the temple visited to see if they could help. “He became their family,” Harrison said.
More than 70 percent of the people who died at Jonestown were African Americans, according to Moore.
“One of the things we know is that we can’t make assumptions about these groups,” McGhee says. The typical “cult” member is a white, middle-class teenager who abandons his family. Jim Jones recruited families. And they recruited their extended family.
“People joined because that’s where their families went,” McGhee says. “And in the end, they stayed because that’s where their families were.”
Many religious scholars are reluctant to describe Peoples Temple as a cult. “That’s a term we use to describe religious groups we don’t like,” Moore says. “But it’s so loaded with negative connotations. If we label something a cult, then we don’t make any effort to understand it.”
Moore adds that there are many people who still praise Peoples Temple and much of the work the church did. These people often have clashed with victims’ families. But in recent years, these two groups have formed a bond.
“I think there’s been a coming together. (They) are now realizing that there are things they share,” says John Hall, a professor at the University of California, Davis, who wrote what many believe to be the definitive book on the Peoples Temple, “Gone From the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History.”
Both groups are what the experts call survivors.
Like Jynona Norwood. To this day, she has what is known as survivor’s guilt. “I always think, ‘What could I have done differently? What could I have done to save them?’ “
Norwood’s grandmother joined Peoples Temple first. Norwood says her grandmother was impressed with Jones’ commitment to social justice. She was always trying to talk her daughters into going to church with her. Finally, Norwood’s mother went. “She wanted to go one time so my grandmother would stop bugging her,” Norwood recalls. Her mother liked what she heard and kept going. Soon her aunt joined. Before long, most of Norwood’s extended family was involved in the church.
But not Norwood.
“I never liked the look in his eyes,” Norwood says. “He preached fear. God isn’t about fear. God is about love.”
In August 1977, Jones moved the church to Guyana after a magazine article carried interviews of former members who spoke of beatings and drug use.
Norwood tried to talk her family out of going. Her grandmother stayed behind but the rest of her family insisted on moving there. Several survivors later told Norwood that her mother changed her mind about Peoples Temple and tried to kill Jones. She was tortured.
On Nov. 18, 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan and others arrived in Jonestown to investigate complaints about the group. Ryan and four others were killed upon returning to the airport in Port Kaituma. Later that night, Jones ordered his followers to drink cyanide-laced punch.
Norwood remembers watching TV when the names of those who died came on the screen.
“All you could hear in my house were the screams,” Norwood says. She says her grandmother felt guilty for the rest of her life and never forgave herself. Her uncle, who lost seven of his children in Guyana, cannot speak about it. But Norwood does.
“In their memory, in my mother’s memory, I think it’s important for people to know what happened there,” she says.