Peoples Temple observance: Jonestown memorial rift

The San Francisco Chronicle/November 19, 2010

It seems the grief and pain of Jonestown never fades. On Thursday, it erupted anew on a tranquil East Oakland hillside.

At the 32nd annual Jonestown memorial, held at an Evergreen Cemetery mass grave for Peoples Temple victims, a schism among mourners led to competing ceremonies - one led by a woman who lost 27 family members in the mass suicide in Guyana, the other by Jim Jones Jr.

The first ceremony was hosted by Jynona Norwood of San Francisco, who has organized what she calls the "official" Jonestown memorial for more than three decades. Hers is a heartbreaking ceremony focusing on lessons learned, guidance from God, and the dangers of following charismatic leaders like Jim Jones.

The second ceremony, held four hours later at the same site, was organized by Jones Jr., son of the infamous Peoples Temple leader who ordered the suicides of 909 of his followers, plus the killings of Rep. Leo Ryan of San Mateo and a news crew, in 1978. Jones Jr.'s ceremony was more of a family reunion. People hugged, took snapshots, caught up on each other's lives and reminisced. There were no sermons, no music, no speeches. Jones Sr. was hardly mentioned at all.

Both ceremonies were attended by 30 to 40 family members of Jonestown victims.

Norwood was insulted by the "outrageous" second ceremony.

"It's like spitting on the souls of those who've died," she said. "It's an insult."

Jones, now a medical equipment salesman in San Francisco, didn't see it that way: "After 32 years, do I need any more sermons? Do I need to learn the lesson again? Let's not talk about what happened anymore. I want to talk about healing and moving on."

918 dead in the jungle

Nine hundred eighteen people died at Jonestown, many them African Americans from Oakland and San Francisco who had followed Jim Jones to the jungles of Guyana to found a utopian society.

Many tried to leave when Jones Sr. became increasingly dictatorial, but he prevented them. Ryan, an accompanying defector and journalists were shot and killed when they flew to Guyana to investigate.

Shortly afterward, Jones induced 909 of his followers - including 305 children - to consume a cyanide-laced drink. More than 400 of those bodies were never claimed, either because whole families had died or because surviving family members were afraid of Jones' minions or the stigma of the tragedy.

Evergreen Cemetery volunteered to take the unclaimed bodies, where they lie in a mass grave on a quiet, shady glade overlooking the bay.

Rising tensions

Allowing two ceremonies was an easy decision for the cemetery's staff. In recent years, tensions have been increasing among mourners, and in some cases people had lost their tempers, cemetery director Ron Haulman said.

"We don't want anyone to come here to mourn and pay their respects and not feel safe," he said. "We want to be courteous to everyone."

In another rift among survivors, Jones Jr.'s group plans to install four granite plaques at the grave next year. The plaques will be engraved with the names of all 918 victims, including Jones Sr.

Norwood's group also undertook a memorial plaque project. But it was engraved with only 917 names - everyone but Jones Sr.

Norwood's plaque project is temporarily stalled because it is so large and heavy that it would have toppled on the cemetery hillside.

So Jones Jr.'s plaque appears headed for the memorial site. The $15,000 project has been financed by an anonymous donor who will be repaid over time with donations, said Fielding McGehee, head of the Jonestown Institute in San Diego, an archive of the church's history.

After 32 years, it's time for the new plaque - that includes Jones - and a new memorial ceremony that omits Jones, McGehee said.

"Pretty much everyone who was in the Peoples Temple is over Jim Jones," he said. "They've forgiven him or gotten past their anger. It's time we recognize that."

For Tommy Washington of Oakland, the behind-the-scenes politics were irrelevant. Washington, a professional dancer who grew up in Peoples Temple in San Francisco and lost numerous friends and family members, attended his first anniversary memorial Thursday and went to both ceremonies.

"For all these years I never talked about it, like it never happened," he said. "But then all these memories started coming back, good and bad."

"Just to be here and finally talk about Jonestown, it's just bringing a whole new dimension to my life," he added. "All this talking about it helps me finally understand what went on."

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