On The Occasion of the 30th Anniversary of Jonestown (Part 1 of 3)
I was a member of a cultic church of fundamentalist charismatic Christians. In November of 2008 I read an article in the Washington Post about the Church I was once affiliated with, and it brought back a flood of memories and a strong urge both to tell my story and warn those who were still affected by this cult. Five years have passed and now, I have decided to publish this essay.
November 18, 2008 will mark the 30th Anniversary of the mass suicide of 913 members of the doomed People’s Temple Christian Church. The Jonestown Massacre continues to be the largest recorded loss of American civilian life short of the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
As happens in our culture, circumstances like these become an innocuous part of history until they are woven into the garment of mixed fabrics that is American pop culture. Instead of remembering the victims of Jonestown with honor and dignity, they are often all but forgotten, unless somebody marking the death of an idea laments, “We had to drink the Cool Aid”. Most of us probably wondered where the euphemism “Drink the Cool Aid” came from. It came from the massacre at Jonestown, which happened November 18th, 1978. The members were told they had no escape from the evil world around them, and were told to drink fruit juice (actually “Flavor Aid” without sugar), laced with cyanide. “This is not a suicide”, the leader, Jim Jones, would assure them. “This is a revolutionary act”. They all died in this “revolutionary act”.
Cultic activity is so seemingly novel that for most of us it excites little notice. And since cult members are thought as little more than a bizarre fringe of society, most of us feel nothing but derision for victims of a cult. “If you are stupid enough to join”, one declares sanctimoniously “then you deserve what is coming to you”. One assumes “I am not stupid enough to let that happen to me, and even if I ever got involved, I would leave the minute things got crazy”.
I would normally say I agree, but If I had not myself experienced the effects of life in a cult, I would have never believed it possible to be stripped of your very ability to reason, that you could so effortlessly steel yourself against the voice of your own conscience. If I had not experienced this myself, I would never believe one could feel deeply that they were in a terrible situation, know their leader to be at best terribly wrong, at worst sadistic and twisted, yet remain a member of just such a place, and continue to participate in its cultic practices. If I had not experienced this life myself, I would have never believed I could be so easily enthralled by a charlatan like Star Scott.
But I have.
My early experiences of church were Sunday School at Liberty Grove United Methodist Church, Burtonsville, MD. I grew bored with it the older I became and stopped attending.
Later I would experience church again, only this time, at its more menacing. I was 9 years old. It was 1977. It was the Carter Administration. I would sit long hours in line for gas riding shotgun in my Mom’s Nova. My mother needed to attend classes to get a degree and ultimately a job, so she had me attend a Day Camp at Forcey Memorial Church in Silver Spring, MD.
The group was comprised of very young, ardent evangelicals. I was cajoled into asking Jesus in my heart over and over again. I was regaled with stories of the Rapture, of the Tribulation where blood in the streets rose as high as a horse’s bridle.
I heard enough stories until I had nightmares of being taken into the clouds to Jesus, while my parents remained on earth, because they were unbelievers.
In one such dream, I was being “raptured” – removed forcefully from this earth, through the air, to meet with Jesus in the clouds. I saw myself floating through the roof my car like Caspar the Friendly Ghost, flying above our old silver 1976 Chevy Nova. My mother remained inside, unaware that Jesus was taking me away, and I was flying high in the air above her. I was in great distress that my mother would be left behind to face the great tribulation. So, I cried out for my mother, and felt myself floating back downward: Jesus was angry that I called after mother! I became yet more frightened that I too would be lost if I went after my mother, so I basically gave up and cried “Uncle”. “Okay, Okay, Okay” I implored, in surrender. I stopped calling after my unbelieving mother and once again, Jesus, His anger assuaged, took me in the Rapture.
I woke up from that dream afraid. Afraid for my household where my mother and father would perish and live eternity. Mostly, however, I was afraid of Jesus. Of what Jesus would do if I ever strayed from Him.
I suppose this is why as I grew of age I declared that I was an atheist.
As a teenager, I was two things; a loner and an atheist. I never followed crowds, never became popular, never made but a few close friends.
And I did not believe in God.
I did not read the Bible. I read Ayn Rand. I read Shakespeare. I read Camus. I read Nietzsche.
In Falls Church High School, from 1982 to 1986, I experienced the obligatory teenage angst of rejection, loneliness and disenfranchisement; the same stories so many of us tell of never fitting in. It was in a Psychology Class, circa1985, where I was given a stern warning by a beloved teacher of both German and Psychology. “People who are loners”, she said solemnly, “are the targets of cults”.
I heard the words. They went right past me. I was a rationalist. I was a staunch individual. I was NEVER going to let that happen to me.
Nevertheless, On May 15, 1988, at the age of 20, I joined a church known as Calvary Temple of Sterling, VA.
Instead of Graduating high school, I dropped out and eventually got my GED. At 18, instead of going to college, I moved in with my girlfriend, Christy Mueller and another good friend from high school, Paul Carter.
After a while, Paul moved on and Christy and I shared an apartment in Alexandria. We worked in temp jobs for minimum wage.
It was at one such temp job where I would meet the man who would change my life forever.
I had a copy of Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, which I read on breaks (or whenever I simply wished to avoid work).
A coworker at this nowhere job named John spotted the book while I was away. He must have gotten to the part where it says “God is Dead”, and decided I was in need of a Savior.
He approached me one day and asked me about the book. After telling him about this, and what I believed, John told me he had a book for me to read.
The following day John handed me a copy of “Mere Christianity”, by C.S. Lewis.
I read the book. I was so taken by Lewis, his reasoned faith, and his arguments for belief in God. So taken that I began to believe it myself.
I confessed to John that since reading Lewis’ book, I began to have an inner feeling of gnawing inside me. Something, or someone, was calling me.
John implored me for months to come to church. I put him off as long as I could stand it but finally I caved in. I did not own a car. John met me at the Metro in Falls Church, drove me to Sterling Va. And Calvary Temple. It was in the car, more than halfway to our destination, that John prepared me for what to expect. He said that the church believed in speaking in tongues, and that this may be alarming to outsiders.
In that sanctuary that day, I heard for myself for the very first time people praying in tongues out loud. A man who I would later learn was one of the Pastors led worship. His voice was mild nasal baritone. He spoke a bizarre language, his voice trembling as the words poured out: “Whoa tay-commida-sahn. Whoa tay-commida say tay”, over and over again. Occasionally he would revert to English, repeating in a trance-like state, “Praaaaise you Jesus. Praaaaise You Jesus”.
I never had felt so afraid. I was far away from home and had nowhere to run.
I spotted a church bulletin, crudely printed, and looked inside. The bulletin had an insignia on it: a circle, emblazoned “Calvary Temple Ministries” on top, and on the bottom, “Pastor Star R. Scott”. “Star”, I marveled. “Perhaps a title obtained by cult members of high rank”. I would later find out . . . Star was simply his given name (he would allege this had Native American significance). Within that circle, two crossed swords stabbed through a scroll which read “Sword of the Spirit”.
Pastor Scott gave a message about Spiritual Warfare, from the book of Ephesians, Chapter 6. Somehow, I had never been exposed to this form of expository Bible teaching, and it seemed to appeal to my quest for knowledge.
I remained frightened of the whole experience, particularly the bizarre worship ritual. Yet, for reasons which to this very day I am not able to sufficiently explain, when the altar call came, I approached the altar.
As a stood at the altar, I had a strange sensation. That of becoming perhaps taller, or as if something heavy was being lifted off of my shoulders. Later on, a woman would tell me “Oh Greg that was burden of your sins being lifted from off of you!”
Then, a man with a gentle demeanor and reassuring smile would approach me, and asked me if I would like to ask Jesus to be the Lord of my life. That man was another Pastor ands John’s brother in law. Together, we got to our knees and I prayed.
I can remember what I was wearing, what I looked like. My hair was long like that of some child of the 60’s. I needed glasses but did not own a pair. I was wearing a linen blazer, blue oxford shirt, grey slacks, and a ratty pair of linen loafers with no socks. Money was extremely tight and shoes were hard to come by (and socks apparently were an option I could not afford). In the coming weeks a man would approach me, with a box telling me “The Lord put you on my heart”. He gave me a pair of proper shoes.
After the service, John slapped a hand on my shoulder. Smiling as he said “You did the right thing, Greg!” Person after person approached me. “Welcome to the Family”, they said. “Welcome to the Kingdom”.
In the coming weeks, I left my girlfriend. Paul, the old friend and former roommate, would tell me that my change was so abrupt he feared for me. He called my parents, imploring them that I had joined a cult. He threatened action to come and kidnap me, but never carried that out. Years after first joining, Paul would find me and almost joined the church himself. (We were able remain in touch and remain friends to this day.)
End Part 1