Last week I got a call from my cousin. About 10 years ago, she left behind staff work for several Presbyterian churches in Birmingham, Alabama, and since then, she’s been involved in new and creative ministries.

When I asked what she’d been up to lately, she said, “ghostbusting.”  Before you try to picture my cousin, who looks like she stepped out of a Vera Bradley catalog, chasing down the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man, let me explain. She works in a methadone clinic.  As recovering addicts wean their bodies from heroin and other opiates, she helps them deal with the mental and spiritual effects – the ghosts that haunt their dreams, realizations, and memories, and threaten to “fill the house” (as in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 12:43-45).

Memory is tricky. For every Kodak moment, there are the times we’d rather forget. Conflicts, disappointments, times when our actions hurt ourselves or others, even abuse. What do we do with those memories? If we play them back over and over again, they can trap us in a prison of guilt, shame, anger, and regret.

As much as we try to avoid difficult memories, we usually have to face them sooner or later. If we do it well, they can teach us about our strengths and weaknesses. We can talk with others who were there to get their perspective. We can consider making amends with those who we’ve harmed. We can forgive those who’ve hurt us.

In short, we can learn from our individual and collective memories, instead of granting them the power to harm us.

During the 2005 General Assembly in Portland, I was alone in the press room one afternoon. A man came in and introduced himself as Graham Kislingbury. He was a journalist with the Albany (Ore.) Herald-Democrat, and a Disciple. We chatted for a few minutes, and then he asked if DisciplesWorld would be doing an article or an issue on the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, in 2008.

Graham’s younger sister, Sharon, died in Jonestown. He told me a bit about her, and mentioned that he sometimes gave talks about Jonestown and his sister.

I jotted his down name and a few notes on a business card. The other editors and I hadn’t talked about whether we’d write about Jonestown, I told him. Not wanting to overpromise anything, I said we’d be in touch.

I lost the business card, but Graham’s name, face, and story were something I couldn’t forget. Surely, I thought, if he can honor his sister’s memory by talking to people about her death, in hopes that they will understand how easy it was (and is) for well-educated, “normal,” idealistic people to fall under the spell of a charismatic religious leader-gone-bad, then DisciplesWorld can do its part to tackle the subject.

What is the role of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in remembering Jonestown, and what is DisciplesWorld’s role? Some would say we  have no business digging up “bad news.”  Jonestown, most Disciples would agree, was not the denomination’s fault.

But the question of “fault” is only one of many about Jonestown. As the denomination that ordained Jones, and the one in which he still had ministerial standing when he and more than 900 others died in Guyana, there are questions about Jonestown that haunt us, whether we choose to face them or not.

The first question is “What happened?” The government only recently released some of the information, including audio tapes, of the fateful events of November 18, 1978.  The full answer may never be known, but there are pieces still falling into place.

Another question for Disciples is whether a tragedy like Jonestown could happen again, given our congregational structure and our covenantal polity, which works fine as long as everyone is well-behaved and trustworthy. But sin, greed, lust for power, and other temptations — staples of the biblical narrative and Christian theology — raise questions about accountability. These are the exceptions, not the norms, but they are still part of our reality as Church, and of our history as Disciples.

The third question is what, if anything, do Disciples owe the friends and families of those who died in Jonestown? Legally, perhaps nothing. But spiritually, the question needs to be asked. Perhaps the answer is as simple as the courtesy of remembrance, and of letting others know what lessons were learned so that next time, a tragedy might be averted.

Sherri Emmons, our managing editor, took on the task of researching Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown. She talked with survivors and with the families of those who died.  She listened to their stories, looked at their photos, laughed with them, cried with them, and then put together a great issue of the magazine, including an editorial explaining why, after 30 years, we feel it’s time for Disciples to do some ghostbusting of our own.

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