O A K L A N D, Calif., Nov. 18— It has been 25 years since the followers of the Rev. Jim Jones passed cyanide-laced grape drink around to his cult followers as part of a mass suicide-murder that left more than 900 people dead in Jonestown, Guyana.
An annual memorial service will be held today at a mass grave in Oakland, Calif., where more than 400 of the victims are buried.
Jonestown survivors say the years since the Nov. 18, 1978, massacre have done little to ease the senselessness of the tragedy.
“We were as diverse a group of people as you’ll ever encounter,” said survivor Stephen Jones, son of former cult leader the Rev. Jim Jones. “We were loving, passionate people. And those people shouldn’t have died.”
The leader of the Jonestown cult, the Rev. Jim Jones, preached racial equality and integration, and led programs to help drug addicts and the elderly after moving his People’s Temple Full Gospel Church from Indianapolis, Ind., to San Francisco, Calif., in 1970.
His work, and his commanding presence, drew followers, and some powerful political allies, but there were also whispers about abuse, threats and fraud at his temple. When a magazine published an exposé about the temple, Jones and his followers packed up in 1978 and moved to the jungles of Guyana in South America.
Grace Stoen, a former member of the People’s Temple, said she and others who had separated from the group tried to get involved in what they suspected was happening in Jonestown, Guyana.
“We were trying to let the government know that people were being held against their will,” Stoen said
One man who listened to Stoen’s warnings, California Congressman Leo Ryan, opened an inquiry into allegations of torture and sexual abuse within the People’s Temple.
In November of 1978, Ryan, concerned family members, a small team of reporters and congressional aide Jackie Speier headed to Jonestown.
Speier said she expected they would make some troubling discoveries, but she never expected they would be in immediate danger. “He [Ryan] knew that I had fears and concerns about the trip. I thought we were moving too quickly.”
Once at the camp, TV reporter Don Harris was handed desperate messages from Jones’ followers begging for help.
Jones told Harris that the messages meant nothing to him.
“People play games, friend. They lie. They lie. What can I do about lies? Will you people leave us? I just beg you please leave us,” Jones said to Harris.
Ryan’s group took rising tensions at Jonestown as an indication that they should head back to the United States while they could.
But the congressman’s group and some escaping cult members were ambushed by Jones’ gunmen at the airstrip they planned to depart from.
“They came among us and shot us at point blank range, and then they left,” Speier said. “You could see bodies kind of lying all over. And when no one’s moving, you know,” she said.
Five people, including Ryan,were killed in the ambush.
Shortly after the attack, Jones gathered everyone around a large vat filled with a grape-flavored drink and cyanide. Then he proceeded to film the largest mass suicide to be recorded in modern history.
Almost all of the members of the People’s Temple had been poisoned, nearly a third of them were children. Those who resisted were forced to take the poison by armed guards.
In the end, Stoen’s warnings and Ryan’s trip didn’t help most members of the People’s Temple. Stoen ended up losing her son, John, in the massacre and Jones taught the world a lesson about the power a single hypnotic leader can have over his people
Jones was found shot in the head with the bodies of his flock lying around him. It’s not clear who fired the shot that killed Jones.
Minister Jynona Norwood, who lost 27 relatives in the mass suicide, leads today’s ceremonies in Oakland.
Norwood is campaigning to build a wall commemorating the victims, saying it’s up to the living to speak for the dead.
The mass grave is now only marked by a modest headstone and Norwood says she believes a more substantive memorial should be placed at the burial site.
Norwood and her supporters have a fund-raiser planned in February and are also working on a documentary.