Monday, January 26, 2015

Manuscript Monday—Guyana Emergency Relief Committee

Guyana Emergency Relief Committee press release, 1979 January 18, Donneter Lane papers relating to the Guyana Emergency Relief Committee, MS 3792, California Historical Society
The Peoples Temple Collection at the California Historical Society comprises over twenty collections of diverse archival materials, including organizational records; government documents; official and personal correspondence; newspapers and other publications; research materials; photographs; film and video tapes; audio recordings; and three-dimensional artifacts. Thanks to the generous donations of journalists, scholars, former Peoples Temple members, families, and friends, the collection has grown considerably since 1983—when the California and Guyana courts first deposited the Peoples Temple Records at CHS—and continues to grow, providing the most comprehensive archival record of the organization, from its origins in Indiana to the aftermath of the deaths of November 18, 1978.

Among these collections is a small but significant body of records maintained by Donneter Lane of the Guyana Emergency Relief Committee. The Guyana Emergency Relief Committee (GERC) was formed on November 28, 1978, by members of the San Francisco religious community in response to the deaths of over 900 people at Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978. Composed of representatives of the San Francisco Council of Churches, the Archdiocese of San Francisco, and the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, the Committee had a two-fold purpose: to assist with the expeditious return of over 500 bodies from Dover Air Base, Delaware, to California for proper burial; and to provide counseling, pastoral services, and material assistance to grieving families.

In order to obtain funds for the interment of unidentified or unclaimed bodies from Peoples Temple assets, the Committee participated in proceedings held in the Superior Court of California for the winding up and dissolution of Peoples Temple (Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ v. The Attorney General of the State of California) as an Amicus Curiae ("friend of the court"). The Superior Court ordered that a portion of Peoples Temple assets be set aside to pay for burial expenses, and approved the Committee's plan for the removal, transportation, and burial of the bodies.

Cooperating closely with the State Department, the Committee communicated with family members (representing over 547 Jonestown victims) by telephone and letter. On a case by case basis, the Committee ascertained the wishes of family members regarding the burial of loved ones, arranged for the shipment and interment of remains, and helped family members obtain reimbursement for burial expenses. On May 10, 1979, the first 50 unidentified bodies were buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California.

The collection at CHS documents the Committee’s early and diligent efforts to ensure dignified burials for Jonestown victims. In an interview for the book The Need for a Second Look at Jonestown (edited by Rebecca Moore and Fielding M. McGehee III), Rabbi Malcolm Sparer, one of the principal organizers of the Committee, recalled that only fifty members of the community attended a memorial service for the Jonestown victims organized by San Francisco Council of Churches and held the Sunday night before the assassination of Mayor Moscone. Despite the winds of fear and violence that swept over San Francisco in the terrible final months of 1978, the members of the Guyana Emergency Relief Committee resolved to pursue a course of pastoral care, cooperation, and healing.

The collection is currently in process and will be available for research use soon.

Marie Silva
Archivist & Manuscripts Librarian
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