Kirtan at Snake River

A couple of months ago, Sudevi dasi (from England) and I visited 8 inmates in the Snake River Correctional Facility in Ontario, Oregon.

At that time we met the chaplain (of Eastern Religions) there who was very kind and encouraging of Eastern philosophy programming. After those 8 wonderful visits, we wrote to the chaplain about having a kirtan at the Snake River facility and she kindly facilitated that 6 of us could come on a Sunday for two hours. The facility approved one mrdanga, one harmonium and one set of karatalas, as well as the booklet The Way of Love and a maha-mantra brochure for everyone.

Six of us (Vijay Krsna, Rasika, Thakura, Visnupriya, Sudevi and myself) drove from LA up to the Snake River Correctional Facility in Oregon to engage in kirtan with 35 enthusiastic members and newcomers to the IPBYS Prison Program. We were wonderfully welcomed and assisted by Chaplain Persinger at the gate.  We all gave our ID’s and went through the metal detector. The guard examined our instruments and bag of books and after he approved each one of us he stamped our hand with invisible ink which we then had to put under a machine at the next security gate. After we were all clear, Chaplain Persinger brought us to the room where the program was to be held. As we were walking down the long white-walled corridor, she gave us some history of the facility (built in 1991, over 3000 inmates are there), and she also gave us some insight as to how inmates function such as some sign up for a program so they can see their friends.

The kirtan was from 1:45 to 3:45 and we observed that everyone who attended was more than grateful to have attended. Some had their eyes closed and were swaying while chanting, some clapped, some sang silently and some loudly, and we even had a request from one of them to sing the Nrsmighadeva prayers.

The inmates had to enter the room one at a time after each being checked at security. As they came in the room, I welcomed them and handed them a Way of Love with a maha-mantra brochure inside. They started to come into the room at 1:30 and at 1:40 we decided it would be good to begin with the mangalacarana (invocation of auspicious prayers to our gurus and guides). We could all feel the potency of our calling out to our Gurus for their help, that we all could feel as if they personally walked in and sat down.  After we finished the mangalacarana, one guy sitting in the front said with wide-open eyes, “Wow, I can feel the high energy in here.”

We had the opportunity to end the afternoon in a group photo, which we hope to share with you when it becomes available in a few months time. Each inmate present came up to each of us after and thanked us for coming with their hands folded and then a handshake. One man even said he felt like crying, so Rasika and I said, “Then cry,” to which he then burst out in tears.

It was an incredible experience for all of us and it affected us deeply, each in very personal ways. The environment was impetus to cry out to the Lord from the core of our hearts, just as we hear and read that this is what we must do in order to capture the Lord’s heart and ears.

I was honored to be with this group of my godbrothers and godsisters who have so much devotion. When we were singing kirtan together I could feel they were praying deeply and singing and playing their instruments with deep moods.

A few comments they made after:

Vijay – When we got into that format and setting, it was so different. There was an opportunity to come and sing, and they sung. The gratitude that was expressed by them seemed it was very well received.

Thakura – the situation gave me the chance to see the power of kirtan. The whole time I was walking in there I was thinking, what’s going to happen, how will the people react? As soon as we sat down and started chanting, I was surprised by seeing everybody chanting, even people who you least expect to have appreciation for chanting. It was so touching to see what the power of kirtan does to people.

Vishnupriya – the security was so hardcore – they even have invisible ink (to stamp your hand). To be in a group of that many people who are so sincerely needing and wanting kirtan and some spiritual enlivenment with so much sincerity was incredibly touching.

Sudevi – One of the inmates wrote to me before the kirtan and said, “I feel like a kid at Christmas waiting for Santa Clause to come times a million,” and he couldn’t wait to see all the despair and hypocrisy melt away. That’s what yesterday was about. Not that I know what their despair or hypocrisy is, but the fact that they came with such sincerity, pulled that sincerity out of me and all of us I think. I think we were all feeling the world around us melt away and in that space we didn’t feel imprisoned or free or whatever difference there was.

We hope to have kirtan there again in the near future as well as more opportunities for events such as these, all over the country.

We are very grateful to those who donated to this trip as well as those who donate to the program for the monthly newsletter, course and books we send to libraries and inmates.

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