From here to Jonestown: PBS film tonight focuses on Peoples Temple

Rebecca Moore has lovely childhood memories of the four years her family spent in Chico in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Chico seemed the safest of places, she said. The family lived near Bidwell Park, and Moore and her two sisters had the run of the town. She recalled playing outside till it was dark.

Tragedy struck the Moore family in 1978 in the form of Peoples Temple, a religious group whose hundreds of members killed themselves at their jungle commune called Jonestown.

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Moore lost her two sisters and her nephew.

The deaths devastated her family.

“We date our lives ‘before Jonestown and after Jonestown,'” she said.

Now a professor of religious studies at San Diego State University, Moore has studied and written about Peoples Temple and other so-called new religions.

Because of her experience and expertise, she was interviewed and appears in a documentary film made last year about Jonestown.

The film, “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple,” will be shown on Channel 9, KIXE, at 9 tonight on the program “American Experience.”

From 1958 to 1962, Moore lived in Chico with her parents, the Rev. John and Barbara Moore, and her older sister, Carolyn, and younger sister, Annie. Pastor Moore was the minister at Trinity United Methodist Church.

Carolyn (whose married name was Layton), 33, Annie, 24, and Carolyn’s young son, Jim-Jon, 3, were among the 909 members of Peoples Temple who died in Jonestown, in the South American nation of Guyana, on Nov. 18, 1978. Virtually all died by drinking a beverage similar to Kool-Aid containing cyanide and Valium.

A charismatic leader, Jim Jones, started the Peoples Temple as an independent Christian church in 1955. He moved the organization from Indiana to Redwood City, in the Bay Area, in 1965. And he moved it again, in 1977, to Guyana with the intention of creating a utopia.

Pastor Moore, now 87, retired and living in San Diego, said in a phone interview that Jones began with good intentions, and Peoples Temple did a lot of good, such as feeding hungry people in San Francisco and promoting integration and social justice.

But Jones was manipulative, had delusions of grandeur and demanded absolute loyalty and constant adulation from his followers, he said. And he became increasingly paranoid and addicted to drugs in Guyana. While Jones began as a Christian minister, he later became an atheist, the elder Moore said.

In the summer of 1978, relatives of some members of Peoples Temple persuaded Rep. Leo Ryan, D-San Mateo, to go to Guyana to check on the welfare of those living in Jonestown. Ryan traveled to Guyana in mid-November.

As he was about to leave with a number of Peoples Temple defectors on Nov. 18, his party was attacked by several Temple members armed with guns. Ryan, three media representatives traveling with him and one defector were shot dead. Others were wounded. A short time later, Jones ordered the mass suicide of his followers.

Pastor Moore said he and his wife had tried to get Carolyn and Annie to leave Jonestown but ultimately realized they wouldn’t. Forced to accept their daughters’ choice, the Moores tried to see the good in Peoples Temple members and in their dream.

“Nobody went there to die,” John Moore said. “They hoped for a better place.”

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The people who died at Jonestown have been demonized, he said. They were seen as “kooks” whose total commitment to their cause was absurd. Yet, that kind of absolute devotion occurs, and is respected, in other settings, such as religious orders, the military and even certain business enterprises.

Carolyn and Annie weren’t the only people with ties to Butte County who died at Jonestown. Karen Tow Layton, 31, who had lived in Paradise and graduated from Paradise High School, was also among the dead.

On the Internet, Rebecca Moore and her husband, Fielding McGehee III, manage an extensive Web site called Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. At http://jonestown.sdsu.edu, it includes articles, photographs, letters, documents, tapes, information on the people who died at Jonestown and other material. It represents varied viewpoints on Peoples Temple.

Rebecca Moore said her sisters joined Peoples Temple for different reasons. Carolyn joined because she saw it as a vital movement for social change. Annie joined because to her it seemed “the only place she’d seen true apostolic Christianity in action,” Moore said. Its appeal for Annie was that members really did feed the hungry, clothe the needy and visit people in prison.

Moore said she believes Jones and his followers rehearsed the mass suicide for many years, and that the cult leader was waiting for the right time to carry it out. He’d said he viewed the action as a way to “protest the conditions of an inhumane world.” His idea was something like that of the Vietnamese Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire to protest the Vietnam War.

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