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New film focuses on African-American women in Jonestown deaths
Religion News Service
ByKimberly Winston|November 17, 2016
(RNS) The facts haven’t changed in 38 years.
On Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 men, women and children died in a South American jungle, lured there by the utopian promises of the group known as the Peoples Temple and its charismatic founder, the Rev. Jim Jones.
Most drank a cyanide-laced fruit drink, either of their own volition or with guns pointed at them. Some, including Jones, were shot. When authorities reached the bodies bloated by the tropical heat, they discovered the majority of the dead were African-American women and children.
This week, a new film marks the anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy with aspecial screeningat the University of Southern California’sCenter for Religion and Civic Culture. “White Nights, Black Paradise” turns its lens on the black women who followed Jones into the jungle and highlights the role religion — or, as some scholars say, a perversion of it, because while Jones was a Disciples of Christ pastor, he frequently derided the Bible — played in their loyalty to him.
“One thing I wanted to pull out was that this was an act of self-determination” for black women who followed Jones, saidSikivu Hutchinson, who directed the film and wrote the book (of the same title) that it’s based on.
“Jim Jones successfully exploited black nationalist and black self-determinist rhetoric and made sure black women stayed in the movement and gave their property and sweat equity into making this leap of faith with him to this ‘strange land’” of the Guyanese jungle, Hutchinson said.
News of the Jonestown massacre-suicide broke before Thanksgiving in 1978. Few people outside San Francisco, where Jones founded Peoples Temple, had heard of the 45-year-old pastor with more than a passing resemblance to Johnny Cash.
The first deaths were the murders of five visitors to Jonestown, including California Congressman Leo Ryan. They were shot by temple members while attempting to board a small plane with a handful of Jonestown residents who said they wanted to leave.
Guyanese authorities soon found those murders led them to the Jonestown compound, where they found men, women and children laid out on the ground in family groups, the bodies several deep. The elderly and infirm had been dosed with poison in their beds. In all, 918 people died, 276 of them children. Thirty-three people survived.
Some of the bodies were never claimed. There are more than400 Jonestown victims buried in a mass grave in Oakland, Calif.
Several films, popular books,a playand even anoperahave attempted to flesh out the events at Jonestown over the years, but few have focused on the specific experiences of its African-American women members. Hutchinson wanted to tease out the reasons so many sold their homes, gave Jones the proceeds, cut ties with their families and boarded a plane to an unknown land with him.
“I wanted all of those threads to be woven in to a reckoning with black women’s agency, their struggle for empowerment and their coming into consciousness by the mechanism of Peoples Temple and ultimately Jonestown,” she said.
While others who have tackled Jonestown through documentaries and nonfiction, Hutchinson, a feminist scholar, chose fiction. “White Nights, Black Paradise” was first published asa novelin 2015.
“I did not feel, even as rich as some of those portrayals were, that they fully explored what compelled black women to come into the movement and stay with it until the bitter end.”
Camille Lourde Wyatt is a Los Angeles-based actress who plays one of those women in the film. It is important, she said, to understand why black women gave up their lives for Jim Jones to prevent a tragedy like Jonestown from happening again.
“I think it was not hard for Jim Jones to mesmerize black women because we came from knowing that a strong faith in God can change our circumstances and situations and black women were seeking that back in the ’70s, and this man said I can change your circumstances if you would just believe in me and follow me,” she said. “So black women said ‘yes’ and they did.”
In the film, Wyatt plays Ernestine Markham, whom she describes as deeply devoted to Jones. Markham is based on Peoples Temple memberChristine Miller, who, recordings of the temple’s last hours show, stood up to Jones as others died around her. She perished in the jungle, too.
“My character was that voice that said, ‘We don’t have to do this,’” Wyatt said. “Now we have to be those voices. We cannot let power or authority thwart what we know as righteous and true. That’s what we have to take away from Jonestown.”
One Irish Scientologist’s experience ‘I realised his is a Flash Gordon story. This is science fiction from the 1950s.’
TODAY WITH SEAN O’ROURKE NOVEMBER 8, 2016
Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Juliette Lewis…. You probably know where I’m going with this, but I’ll throw in a few more names anyway. Nancy Cartwright, Beck, Isaac Hayes.
What links these huge names from film and music?
A certain set of beliefs and practices dating back to 1954, and created by American author, L. Ron Hubbard.
Scientology has been relatively slow to catch on in Ireland but, in recent weeks, the Church of Scientology has opened a National Affairs Office in Dublin, from where its outreach services will look to address issues such as poverty and homelessness.
The church is not without its critics, and the opening of a new office in Dublin has raised questions over the type of activities it plans here in Ireland. On Today with Sean O’Rourke, reporter Brian O’Connell looked into the Irish operation. He spoke to John Duignan, a man who spent 21 years living and working with the Church of Scientology in various places around the world before leaving and coming back to Ireland.
“I joined the inner core of the operation. Rather than giving them money, I give them my life. I was called a Sea Org Member. They try and describe it as a monastic level. Really, it’s the clergy of Scientology, the upper-level clergy.”
While working with the Church of Scientology, John Duignan would have set up the kind of outreach offices that have now opened in Dublin. It was 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, said John, living communally with other members. He was based variously in America, Africa, England, Germany, Copenhagen, Australia. But living communally, “if you were very, very lucky, you might have 50 quid a week.”
“What Scientology is very good at doing is creating this kind of bubble. A bubble atmosphere like an echo chamber where the only voice you listen to is the voice of the great leader, L. Ron Hubbard.”
But, asked reporter, Brian O’Connell, very reasonably, “What was the problem with this?” Many people lead monastic lives and choose to do so using their own free will. A fair point, agreed John, but you do get caught in that bubble, where the organisation sets its own rules.
“They can set their own rules. They can set their own control mechanisms. But I was going to the library every day and I was able to get onto the Internet there and look up Scientology. I found out all about that alien stuff I didn’t know about before. A Fleet of DC8’s flew down to earth and dropped all of our spirits onto the primitive earth beings. I did know that stuff. I realised this is a Flash Gordon story. This is science fiction from the 1950s. And I realised I had to get out.”
From there, John set up a “ruse”, saying that he had to come back to the funeral of his uncle. But actually, he absconded to a separate place in Birmingham. “It sounds crazy,” he said, “but that’s the reality of it.”
According to John, the guys staffing the new Scientology offices here in Dublin are Sea Org members, as he was, and are very well trained in lobbying. That said, because of what he describes as an Irish “cuteness”, the movement has not caught on here.
Nowadays, John says, he is regarded as a “defrocked apostate” by the church. “I must say, I thanked Tom Cruise, because he helped me wake up”, he said. His decision to leave the church was prompted by an event in the UK, which featured the actor, Tom Cruise. There, having worked for 21 years, 24 hours a day, he was never told he had to “work harder”. That was the end of it, for John.
Reporter Brian O’Connell did ask for a tour of the offices and an interview with the Irish Church of Scientology, but these were not forthcoming. However, they did answer some of his e-mails.
On the functions of the new Irish office, they had this to say.
“In truth, the programmes will reach into society organically, according to such factors as need, interest and availability of resources. Many of the programmes have been operating for some years, in greater or lesser degree. For example, volunteers have distributed over 250,000 Truth About Drugs booklets and many DVDs over the past five or so years, to schools, service providers, shops and other public areas, and to general public. These are particularly popular as there seem to be few alternatives for effective drug education and our booklets are very much in demand.”
On the criticism from past members such as John Duignan, a spokesperson said:
“Every religion or organisation has its “ex-members”, a small minority of which are sometimes critical, for reasons best known to them.”
On why they have not applied for charitable status, they had this to say.
“We are a non-profit body. At the moment our focus is simply to utilise our community programmes to help others, with drug education, human rights education, criminal reform, helping the homeless, and more. Our doors are open every day for general public to come and find out what we do for themselves.”
The Irish Church of Scientology says that this membership is “several hundred in Ireland currently. It will definitely grow. However, as a note, membership is not required to avail of our community programmes.”
To listen to the full interview, click here.
Here are the questions put by Brian O’Connell to the National HQ.
Q 1. I note in your press release the remit of the National Affairs Office is described “a centre for the Church’s outreach across Ireland. Through these offices, the Church will assist in meeting both physical and spiritual needs, and in addressing social ills from drugs, to poverty to homelessness.”
Can you be specific on what exactly you are talking about here in terms of outreach – do you intend to provide for example inpatient treatment services? State funded programmes? This might be an opportunity for you to outline the work you are doing in this regard in Ireland already? Are you looking to partner with the HSE, Dept of Education etc to deliver programmes and projects as you have done in other countries?
In truth, the programmes will reach into society organically, according to such factors as need, interest and availability of resources. Many of the programmes have been operating for some years, in greater or lesser degree. For example, volunteers have distributed over 250,000 Truth About Drugs booklets and many DVDs over the past five or so years, to schools, service providers, shops and other public areas, and to general public. These are particularly popular as there seem to be few alternatives for effective drug education and our booklets are very much in demand.
Likewise, The Way to Happiness booklets and DVDs are very popular where they have been used. One example was in one particular city in 2009, where these booklets were distributed with the help of local business people to pretty well all households in the city – over 30,000 in total. (Details vague to respect the privacy of the people who helped us with this.)
The National Office will not be providing inpatient treatment services. It will be involved in setting up a Narconon drug rehabilitation at some point in the future. We consider this vital, given there are only a very few beds in Ireland available for drug-free detox – only 27 per this report, and with 21,000 heroin users alone, and heroin injection centres being considered “a step in the right direction”, it is folly, short-sighted and shameful for us collectively as a society not to provide ample beds for the probable thousands of users who are desperate to be drug-free. With a sampling of “3,300 heroin addicts on HSE methadone for more than 10 years at a cost of €20M-a-year” and drug-free detox costing a fraction of that, it is quite simple to do “do the maths”. I.e assuming the Herald statistics are correct, €60,606 per each addict to keep them on Methadone for 10 years – and, of course, most are on it for the remainder of their shortened lives. In the words of Professor Neil McKeganey of Glasgow Drug Research Centre, the “Methadone programme ‘is a black hole’”
Q 2. There was some controversy in recent weeks around the Drug Free World Campaign, and some Councillors and Mayors who met with advocates of this project not knowing (they say) its links to Scientology. Can you outline why these meetings took place and the reasons behind them? Why wasn’t it made clear at the outset that the campaign was funded by the Church of Scientology?
The purpose of the Drug Free World Campaign, and of visits to different cities, is of course to raise awareness of the truth about drugs and how they can destroy lives and communities. We have enormously positive feedback to the campaign in every area it goes, as the booklets we distribute are filling a vacuum of quality materials on the subject, and there is no city or town that escapes this devastating problem. The materials themselves do not mention any religion as the purpose is purely drug education. We do whenever appropriate mention that the main sponsor of the materials is the Church of Scientology, and this is routinely the case with dignitaries who come to give their support. I will not be drawn into discussion about any particular mayors or deputy mayors for obvious reasons.
Q 3. Some ex-members claim the Church of Scientology is a “cult” and that it can be very controlling, and that members find it very hard to leave afterwards. They are critical of the Sea Org lifestyle, and lack of free choice, and they claim that aside from beliefs, that Scientology is a “dangerous” organization. How would you respond to that?
Every religion or organisation has it’s “ex-members”, a small minority of which are sometimes critical, for reasons best known to them. We’re here to help and the vast majority of people appreciate that.
Q 4. Is there any plan to apply for charitable status in Ireland now that the organization will be moving into more outreach type services?
We are a non-profit body. At the moment our focus is simply to utilise our community programmes to help others, with drug education, human rights education, criminal reform, helping the homeless, and more. Our doors are open every day for general public to come and find out what we do for themselves.
Q 5. Could you estimate how many members of the Church there are in Ireland and with the new office, do you think the membership will grow?
There are several hundred in Ireland currently. It will definitely grow. However, as a note, membership is not required to avail of our community programmes.
“Official 1984 Orwellian presentation of Joycean redefinition of language signifying the opposite of what happened.” The Scientology Organisation has been in Ireland for 50 years but has not too date been able to obtain charitable status in the three areas which define a charity.
Furtherance of Religion.
Relief of poverty.
Advancement of Education.
Why have they not been able to obtain these from the Irish Revenue Commissioners and from the Charities Regulatory Authority?
Because their religion is infinity and it is is used as front to make money, make more money and get others to make more money for them.
They do not relieve poverty but in fact make many poor by taking money off them. They have no programmes to assist the poor or homeless. What they in fact call education is mental manipulation and mind control. Anyone in their right mind will actually be trained to speak a new language and have a totally other vocabulary which is Scientologese
As Scientology opens its National HQ this Saturday we thought we would republish a document produced by Matthew McKenna in 2012 for the Off Lines Conference in Dublin. Here you will be able to read about what Scientologists are about and the reason Merrion Square is important in the mythology of Scientology history. He had an hynoptic personality and could chat and draw people into his circle. I was told by a person who owned a B&B in Ballsbridge that the Special Branch came to the house and told him to leave the state.
I was sent this invitation this morning and obviously the Scientologists were not intending me to receive it. However, I decided to phone them and asked to speak to Lady Margaret McNair and gave my number. I told the very pleasant woman on the other end of the line, that I was a long term critic of the Scientologists and would like to engage. I am still waiting for a reply. We intend to try to answer the questions that many people have about why they might have opened this National HQ as generally the SO has been on a life support system for over 10 years. It has been in Ireland since 1956 but still has only got a mission here and has not been able to obtain charitable status. We will give further information as we can and as I wait for my invitation to be confirmed.