To the point week of 11-20-08


IT’S BEEN 30 YEARS since this country learned of the tragedy and loss of life at the Jonestown Complex in the jungles of Guyana.

On November 18th, 1978, Jim Jones led more than 900 people to commit suicide after his “security guards” murdered California Congressman Leo Ryan on an airstrip near the complex.

Does it seem like it’s been 30 years to you?

Time certainly does pass quickly – particularly when it comes to horrible tragedy.

I was a senior in high school when the Jonestown suicides happened. To hear that 909 people had committed suicide was one thing, but as the pictures of all of those people, lying side by side, young and old, emerged on our television screens and in our newspapers, it was an unbelievable sight.

I paid close attention that day, and have read with interest other accounts and books about that day because of an eerie link.

Jim Jones was born in Indiana.

In fact, he was born in a small community near Lynn, Indiana, which is near Richmond. He and his wife both attended Richmond High School, graduating a few years before my father did.

His first church was in Indianapolis, and he attending Indiana University.

In fact, he was the chairman of the Indianapolis Housing Authority for awhile, and was considered one of the leading members of the Indianapolis community.

He moved his church to the San Francisco area after spending some time living in Brazil (the country, not the town); and there he reached near-celebrity status.

He was a close friend of the mayor of San Francisco, and even met with high ranking elected officials at the state and national levels.

He was held up as a great American and a model to people everywhere.

But Jim Jones had a dark side that those people didn’t see then, and unfortunately we see through the perspective of history today.

To understand why in the world more than 1,000 people would sell everything they owned and pick up and move to the jungle; we must first understand who those people were.

Jim Jones reached out to the disenfranchised people of our society. Those who felt outcast found a home and a family in his church.

But what’s strange is that it wasn’t a church at all, it was just an umbrella that allowed him to raise money without taxes and without interference.

In fact, he often told audiences in speeches that he was an Atheist.

But people followed him through the streets; and they followed him into the jungle.

And – ultimately – he led them to their deaths.

You wonder if Jim Jones and the Jonestown tragedy had an impact on our society?

Have someone offer you a glass of grape kool-aid and think about what runs through your mind.

My question today is: did those people die in vain?

Now 30 years later, there are specials and books and articles that recount that day and the days that led up to it. We learn that Jim Jones obtained the cyanide he needed because he had obtained a jeweler’s license; and cyanide is sometimes used to clean precious metals.

I wonder if a supplier ever wondered how that jeweler in Guyana was doing such a huge business?

To my question, I hope that those people didn’t die in vain; because I truly believe that our country is slowing turning to a society of inclusion after decades and decades of exclusion.

Those who followed a mad man into the jungle because they didn’t feel a part of this society may now be finding hope and acceptance in a country where we have seen the devastating effects of the lessons that history has taught us.

As the poet and philosopher George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Let us all hope that 30 years later, by remembering this senseless moment of our past, we will never see it repeated.