Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Building Bridges: A World Religions Program for 8th-9th Grades

Activity 1: Story - Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple

Activity time: 30 minutes

Materials for Activity

Preparation for Activity

  • Read the story "Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple" so you will be comfortable presenting it.
  • Copy the handout for all participants.
  • Look up and have available the phone number for a local abuse hotline.

Description of Activity

Participants hear and discuss the story of the Peoples Temple and discuss abuse.

Read the story aloud.

Ask for initial reactions. What did youth think of the story? Had they heard of the tragedy at Jonestown before? Acknowledge that this story is frightening and that the Peoples Temple is an extreme case. It is the largest, though not the only, example of a United States cult resulting in suicides. However, most cult memberships do not end in death.

Continue to discuss the story by asking questions such as these:

  • Have you ever found yourself in a situation that you never would have chosen, because things changed bit by bit and took you by surprise? Have you ever been drawn into activities you did not like, or hung around with people who changed and were not good for you any more, or had a friendship that deteriorated so slowly that one day you realized things were terrible but you did not know how it had gotten that way?
  • At what point do you take action to get out of a destructive situation?
  • Is there ever a point of no return? Many people in Jonestown did not leave because they did not know how or had no place to go. In a case of dire emergency, with no resources, what would you do?
  • What might the purpose have been of frightening members? Do you think Jones believed the scary things he told members? If he did believe them, and also truly believed that members' only hope for survival was the Peoples Temple, would his tactics of violence, threats, and coercion be justified?
  • Many cult members say of the first cult member or representative who approached them, "They said exactly what I'd always wanted to hear." What would that be for you? What beliefs or promises would sound particularly appealing to you?
  • What are deal-breakers for you? What beliefs, actions, or requirements of a religious group would be so counter to your values that you would immediately leave?
  • Which, if any, of your values would you be willing to compromise for a group you believed had something important to offer? What could be important enough to compromise your values for?
  • Is it amazing to you that most Peoples Temple members drank the poison willingly? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • We like to think of ourselves as strong-willed and independent, but in ordinary circumstances, most of us go along to get along, just like everyone else. Which of our beliefs and practices could protect us from being lulled into dangerous situations? How can we make sure they do? How can we try to make sure that our awareness is intact when situations gradually turn sour?
  • Have you ever gone along with something you did not want to do because everyone else was going along with it, and you did not know how to get out of it? If so, did that do any harm in your life? Did it harm the way you think about yourself? If it did not do any harm, could it have? Would you do it again if you were put in the same situation?
  • In situations where you did not go along, how did you avoid it? What did you say to people? Is there always a way out? What if your life were at stake?

Distribute Handout 2, Behavior of Abusers, and give participants time to look it over. Ask:

  • What parallels do you see between the behaviors described on the handout and Jim Jones's leadership in the Peoples Temple?
  • Just as we can enter into an abusive organization, we can enter into an abusive relationship. In a personal relationship with an abuser, the abuser can at times be generous, kind, and supportive. These feelings, and the occasional unpredictable return of loving behavior, make it much harder to leave. Can you see an emotional parallel with cult members who feel loved and cared for?
  • Are any of the behaviors on the handout acceptable to you? If so, which ones, and why?
  • What is a self-affirming response when someone exhibits one of these behaviors toward you?
  • Some of the behaviors listed can be done or experienced by a group as well as an individual. Have any of you ever behaved in any of these ways? Who do you think you could turn to if you ever became a victim of these behaviors?

Let participants know that if they should find themselves in an abusive relationship, there are places and people who can help. On newsprint, post the number for your local abuse hotline. Note that there are also organizations that help people involved with cults. Remind the youth that when they are in an uncomfortable situation-or know someone else who is-there are people they can talk to. As a group, brainstorm a list of such individuals. Make sure that the list includes school guidance counselors, ministers, and religious educators.