For its annual “Homecoming” event, the Community Church of East Williston decided to do something a little different, urging followers to know the telltale signs of a toxic leader.
The church hosted a lecture by Wendy M. Edmonds after the Homecoming mass and brunch on Sunday. For her graduate research, Edmonds interviewed survivors of the Jonestown massacre, where more than 900 members of the Peoples Temple, led by Jim Jones, died in Guyana in 1978 by mass suicide.
The theme of the lecture, according to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Marcus Tillery, was “toxic followership.” Tillery said this was the first time the church has hosted a guest speaker during a homecoming event.
“The idea is that we take the burden off of leaders and characterize in everything based on how leaders work to actually depending upon those people who would follow in a given situation,” Tillery said in an interview. “One of the central themes of the gospel is ‘be a witness.’”
“We have to tell the truth of toxic people and we have to not let it happen again,” Edmonds said.
She said she remembered asking herself when seeing the massacre on television as a child, “Who would follow someone into death?” That questions followed her into academic life, where she started researching and attempting to interview Jonestown survivors, some of whom she said could not be reached and others did not want to discuss it.
“This is a timely discussion given recent events that have impacted the social climate in our nation and the moral fabric of our day to day lives as Americans,” a news release for the event said.
“Jim Jones was a very evil person,” Edmonds said. Jones’ personality was charming and people who liked him only knew his facade, but one must judge a leader by his behavior, Edmonds said.
Edmonds is a lecturer at Bowie State University’s graduate program in the department of behavioral science and human services.
Edmonds said Jones played mind games with his followers, telling them exactly what they needed to hear, separating married couples, telling couples their children were his property and forcing them to hear his voice at all times on loudspeakers at Jonestown.
Edmonds said that the faithful must be “courageous followers” and be able to call out behavior and not submit to toxic leaders who may resort to lying and abusing their power over their subordinates.
“We want people to be authentic,” Edmonds said.
The mass and lecture caught the attention of local leaders. State Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-Great Neck), East Williston Mayor Bonnie Parente, and North Hempstead Councilman Peter Zuckerman attended.
Tillery said that the “engaged faith” initiative will involve church hosting more “thought leaders” to discuss timely topics in the future.
“We are a community church so we want everybody to feel warm and welcome here,” he said.
The Community Church of East Williston is located at East Williston Avenue.
According to the church news release, the church “was established under the affirmation that a church should be a place where people can congregate regardless of their denominational heritage.”