My movie last night was a documentary about the Jonestown mass deaths -- nearly a thousand people. The incident happened November, 1978, which was just weeks into my first year of seminary. The U of Chicago seminary community was devastated. Many knew people who “drank the kool aid” and died. One of the members of the class ahead of me lost a close friend. Don Browning, whose “Ethics of Pastoral Care” class we were taking, explained about “liminal” events that happen in a sort of “time out” space, a place in our heads where we go when we worship or play but a place where we can get stuck and lose our grip on reality.
The minister of the First Unitarian Church kitty-corner from us told us that Jim Jones had come to him to see whether he could become a Unitarian minister. There are two kinds of ministers: inspired ministers who are presumably directly zapped by the Holy Spirit and only need a little Bible study, and educated ministers who get graduate degrees as though they were doctors or lawyers. The two categories are defined by the denominations, each certifying their own leaders, and Unitarians belong to the learned ministry, those with degrees, often doctorates of some sort including Ph.D.’s. Jim Jones came from Pentecostal roots and had no undergraduate classes at all. One wonders what would have happened if he had decided to bite down and get a bachelor’s degree, then a ministry degree. Would it have prevented him from madness? But we all wondered if some of us weren’t as insane or could become as insane as he was. Where did he go wrong? Or was he just essentially evil?
Another Unitarian minister was contacted by a sister of a member of the People’s Church. She told him what was going on and begged him to intervene. He didn’t believe her. After the deaths, he was devastated, feeling that he could have prevented so much tragedy. But that was pretty grandiose. Plenty of people who could have done something did not, because they were swayed by his “good works.” Also, most of the authorities were white and the congregation was “integrated,” which was one of the highest values of the times. Lester Mondale, Roslyn Carter, all sorts of people, met with him and seemed to endorse him even as he made their elections possible by mobilizing his resources, who were hard-working earnest people. Jones knew how to “talk black” but he looked white, so he was able to walk back and forth to join the two groups in the high emotion of Pentacostalism and faith healing.
Denomination (and the roots of denomination, which just means “naming”) did have something to do with it. Aside from the inspired/learned, rightbrain/leftbrain, emotional/rational balances in each denomination is something known as “polity,” which refers to their form of organization. The Roman Catholic church is organized hierarchically, so that everyone is supervised by someone higher up with the Pope presumably supervised by God. Parish priests are very much governed and sent, which is why it is so offensive that their supervisors don’t detect and eliminate child abuse. The Catholic church is organized this way because it grew out of the Roman Empire (Holy) and kept their style of working. When the Lutheran, Methodist and Anglican churches broke away, they kept this pattern of hierarchy governance. Anything else would be thinking outside the box.
But then there were small sects and heresies that sprang up and since they had to stay relatively secret or because they bolted to Holland or the New World to escape the old system, they had congregational polity. They were responsible only to the immediate congregation: radically democratic or, technically, socialist/communist. Thus, Unitarian, Baptist, Quakers and Pentecostals as well as individual Bible-based groups formed using this polity. Where else would they fit? Over the centuries, some of them formed loose coalitions of like-minded congregations so they could pool their resources to develop materials and meet annually for ideas and friendship. Nowadays some individual congregations are so big that they are like denominations all by themselves, except that they’ve developed internal hierarchies.
If you Google “Jonestown” you’ll find an array of opinions and theories, plus survivor stories. But I find the best explanation is a different church and minister in the same time and place. This is from their website:
“In 1963, winds of change were blowing mightily through San Francisco. Nowhere were these forces of transformation more visible than at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church. That year, a young African-American minister named Cecil Williams came to Glide determined to bring life back into the dying congregation. Cecil changed both policies and practices of the conservative church, helping to create the Council on Religion and Homosexuality in 1964. In 1967, Cecil ordered the cross removed from the sanctuary, exhorting the congregation instead to celebrate life and living.
"’We must all be the cross,’ he explained.”
One answer is right there. Jim Jones said, “I am the Cross. I will be your God.” Cecil, a joyful and sharing man, said, “We are ALL the cross.” There were other differences. This was a Methodist church and therefore it was part of a huge apparatus of support and guidance. The Methodists originally developed as a way of redeeming country people who moved in the Industrial Age to the British cities where they were confused and soon prey to poverty and gin, newly invented. (The gin, not the poverty. Though city poverty is different.) It wasn’t that different from being a hippie, a prey to crack cocaine, newly invented. There were many built-in safeguards. Cecil was a learned minister, earning his degree at the much respected Perkins Seminary.
“As the conservative members of the original congregation left, they were replaced by San Francisco's diverse communities of hippies, addicts, gays, the poor, and the marginalized. By 1968, the energetic, jazz-filled Celebrations were packed with people from all classes, hues, and lifestyles. That year, San Francisco State University erupted in protests over demands for ethnic studies and affirmative action. Cecil and the Glide community helped lead the demonstrations; the church became a home for political, as well as spiritual, change. Glide offered a safe space to groups ranging from the Hookers Convention to the American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers. In the midst of their political work, Glide never forgot the basic needs of the community.”
There’s another answer. They didn’t turn in on themselves, but reached out to serve others. They didn’t withdraw but stayed open.
“As a decade of clamoring change came to a close, Glide further added to the joyful noise: The world-renowned Glide Ensemble choir held its first rehearsals in 1969. And Janice Mirikitani, a noted poet and dancer, had also just been appointed Coordinator for Glide's programs.”
And there’s another key. They welcomed the arts: sophisticated, intelligent artists. Watching “Jonestown,” one sees how much song and dance were part of their community but in ways that distracted from and camouflaged the huge burdens of hard work and the sacrifice of lifetimes of assets. The Jonestown congregation was eighty per cent black, most of them with history in black churches where the minister is revered and obeyed. These people had survived slavery and poverty with their music. Glide was doing something slightly different, which was art in service to thought and social justice.
“Time and time again, the Bay Area came to look to Glide for moral guidance and spiritual sustenance. When gay activist and City Supervisor Harvey Milk was murdered by fellow Supervisor Dan White in 1978, Cecil and the Glide community opened their doors to the city, comforting and healing those who were frightened, grieving, and potentially violent.”
They were daring, creative, in-service to others, engaged in the community. It was these qualities that prevented them from disintegrating into a Jonestown. They weren’t prissy but they were not passive. They knew crazy when they saw it. Jonestown saw it and joined it.
Why does everyone know so much about Jonestown and so little about Glide? Ask the media. SO much more fun to exploit bad stuff than explain good good stuff.
In fact, my co-writer, Tim Barrus, was in San Francisco and disagrees with what I have said. Not so much "disagrees" but thinks I don't get it, which is not so surprising. Following is his take:
Jim Jones was psychotic and his so-called Church was in the Western Addition of San Francisco. The Western Addition is a No Man's Land. It is not like nor does it belong to any of the other distinct neighborhoods that have very specific characteristics; many of them ethnic. Jim Jones' church was oppressive, ugly, cavernous, dank, gothic, cold, void of anything but rhetoric, bordered on hatefulness, and attracted a crowd of semi-hysterical (on a good day) victims.
Victims in search of a leader.
I thought so and said so way before Jonestown.
The behavior of those people was quite simply bizarre.
I thought so and said so way before Jonestown.
In my book, fanaticism is a huge red flag. My response is to run.
Fanaticism requires followers. Jim Jones had them by the busload. I thought then and I think now that victims find their persecutors and that persecutors find their victims and that the roles of victim, persecutor, and rescuer are all fluid and interchangeable. I thought then and I think now that Jonestown and the horror that went on there said far more about America and the people who are a product of that particular culture playing out all three roles -- victim, persecutor, rescuer -- on the grand stage of death than it said anything whatsoever pertaining or relevant to any other part of the planet whatsoever and that includes Guyana. The people of Guyana were as shocked as anyone at the murders of Jonestown. This horror was not germane to Guyana. This was mass murder and it was germane to American culture and only American culture.
Which is murderous.
Whether America can see it or not. Murder and hysteria are emblematic of American culture. War and death and destruction. Murder and hysteria and greed are what Americans are about. The bottom line.
That Jim Jones' "church" was in the Western Addition said everything to me I needed to know. I went by that ugliness every day on my way to work (I took another route home) at the San Francisco Hearing and Speech Center where I taught communicatively handicapped four-year-olds and then went home to write about it.
After Jonestown, that building was turned appropriately enough into a punk rock club.
Mary doesn't believe in evil. But I do.
I do not ask (or require) Mary to believe what I believe. I have no need for that from anyone. Mary does not ask (or require) me to believe what she believes. We see the world in different ways and I value that. I value her insight. I especially value insight from someone who gives me the space to be all the difficult things I am. It's rare.
I knew that place -- dark and brooding concrete architecture -- was evil the minute I laid eyes on it. It stuck out like a sore thumb with a compound fracture. I stood there on Geary Street and watched big cranes tear it down into rubble and I applauded.
There was a punk rock mosh pit during that punk rocker period. Performers would jump off the stage into the arms of the punks in the mosh pit. Males mainly. Most females avoid the mosh pit.
People died doing that. They landed on their skulls and they twitched and they died.
Other mosh pit victims simply became disabled for the rest of their punk rock lives.
The punk rockers tore the inside of the building to gothic shreds. It was haunting.
I knew it would be torn down. It was torn down. Now, and I cannot for the life of me explain this in rational terms, every time I pass by the spot where that horrid church stood, I am almost overcome by the smell of urine.
There is a very dark side to San Francisco. It is not all Tony Bennett and hearts and flower children and ferries across a deep blue sea to Angel Island. There are tens of thousands of San Franciscans who are desperate, hungry, homeless, filthy, deranged, drug-addicted, alcoholic, unemployed, suicidal and without hope of any kind. More people kill themselves in San Francisco than in any other city in America. Even those statistics are bogus. They do not include the number of people with AIDS who can kill themselves any number of ways (you can just stop swallowing the pills) and do not make it to the statistics. They die a "natural" death (pneumonia mainly) whatever that is.
The part of San Francisco that has the most homeless, the most drug treatment centers, the most dead bodies on the street, the most IV drugs (you had to be careful getting on the bus at Geary and Jones because your feet would crunch the syringes), the most desperation, the most psychotics screaming on the street corners, the most Single Room Occupancy hotels, the most hookers, the most rent boys, the most tuberculosis, the most people with AIDS, and, quite simply, the most densely packed people (the Chinese family next door to me slept ten people to a room) in the city is called the Tenderloin.
My daughter and I lived at 729 Jones #503 (top floor). There were stairs to the roof. Now, whenever I write a story with a rooftop, this is the rooftop,. From the rooftop, looking down, one could see the entire extraordinary parade of animals in all their agonizing glory.
The food line of thieves and junkies and whores and homeless at what is referred to as Glide church by those very thieves and junkies and whores and homeless stretches three blocks long three times a day.
Glide is the vision of Cecil Williams.
I love him madly.
I remember him dancing with my daughter (who was three) and the two of them laughing outrageously because it felt good to be alive.
Even in the Tenderloin.
Which is a place of murder, organized crime, violence, rape, and dead babies found in dumpsters.
The people are hungry. So Cecil feeds them.
Glide takes in the homeless and gives them a place to sleep.
If you come to Glide to be rescued, you may be disappointed.
Because Cecil puts people to work, too. The man is a torrent of positive energy and direction.
You cannot compare what happens at Glide to what happened at the People's Temple because what Jim Jones designed was a cult.
What Cecil has designed and implemented is a church.
Jim Jones took lives. Cecil Williams gives life back to people who have lost everything.
Jim Jones was a hysteric.
Cecil Williams is a focused, dynamic, powerful, facilitator of change.
Jim Jones was a dead end road.
Cecil Williams is the incarnation of possibility.
They are not alike. They are not related. And I do not buy any disingenuous, contrived theory (San Francisco is full of theories) that there has to be some kind of cultural demographic that explains analytically the success of one and the failure of another because Glide is not the People's Temple, it mainly serves the Tenderloin; the congregation at the People's Temple were from the suburbs, and they drove to a No Man's Land to attend a church that was a nowhere church where life itself was a mosh pit.
There is no relationship.
One had nothing to do with the other.
Jonestown would have happened anyway. Even had Glide not existed.
Any implied correlation is mumbojumbo. Even the architecture is different. Mary is right. Glide never withdrew into itself. It looks OUT. At a community it embraces. And empowers.
I used to eat there all the time. I was a writer. I was fucking poor. I lived by the skin of my teeth. I tricked and whored when times were tough and times were tough. I've been homeless. But I've never given up what I do. Not for love or money. No matter what the consequences. I'm a writer. I'm writing this. It's what I do. Glide was there for me and it was there for my kid. I could have never joined the People's Temple in a zillion years.
It still stinks with to high hell with piss.