Syamasundara prabhu, Arjuna prabhu, Bimala didi, and I set out at 8:30 am for the 4 hour drive to Milton, to Santa Rosa Correctional Facility for our first official IPBYS Prison Program. Bimala had been communicating with the Chaplain at this facility for a couple of months and did all the paperwork and applications for us to be approved to hold a program there.
Right as we got into the town of Milton, Bimala’s phone beeped and it was a voicemail from the Chaplain saying that the only inmates who could attend were those that were officially registered as Buddhists on their paperwork when they were admitted to this facility. Although there were 20 inmates signed up for our program, still they could not come due to their registered faith not qualifying them for the program. Bimala noticed that the Chaplain had left that message the previous day at 3:36 pm, but it did not come in on her phone until we arrived in Milton. We were all amazed at the workings of the Lord, as we most likely would not have driven so far for just one person. We all simultaneously voiced that this must be a special person.
Chaplain Burkhart met us in the parking lot and took a picture for us (which Bimala had pre-approved with him as there is no picture taking allowed at such a high security facility). He apologized for what happened as he wasn’t aware of this policy (he has only been working there for a year). If the inmates want to attend our program in the future, they have to change their faith. He said they do it all the time so they can attend various religious programs.
I couldn’t help the thoughts going through my mind such as, “Can’t you break the rules? Can’t you just let them in anyways? Why is there so much red tape in the system?”
My instant reaction when we heard his voicemail message was also a bit of disappointment and then we all expressed how amazing Krsna works – that we are not the controllers and this is what He has arranged.
We have found that the prison system is not so much focused on rehabilitation but a money-making industry, as well as not inclined to non-Christian based faiths. We have had to develop much patience and perseverance in dealing with the system. We have been denied visitations, books have been sent back when they had previously approved us sending them, japa beads have been sent back when the inmate said they were approved, inmate’s lessons have not been given to them and we have to send again, etc. Bimala didi is our administrator and doesn’t give up in finding out information and calling Chaplains over and over again to solve all these problems we run into. We have learned from Sri Upadesamrta that we need to develop fortitude in the practice of bhakti, and this applies to our seva. On book distribution, so many people say no to receiving a book, yet there is always someone who will say yes.
We proceeded through security and then led to the chapel and library. The inmates who didn’t get to attend didn’t find out until right before the program so we saw a few milling around. Chaplain Burkhart led us and Nicolas, the one inmate allowed to attend into the library and set up chairs in a circle.
Arjuna began by briefly introducing us and explaining that we will start with an invocation prayer for auspiciousness which he then led.
After that I introduced myself, who we are, how we developed and how the program has organically evolved over the past 2 years. I also introduced Syama prabhu and Bimala didi and their roles in the program and why we are inspired to do what we do, the main reason of our beloved Srila Gurudeva instructing us to not be selfish and to share what we have received with others.
We allowed Nicolas to introduce himself and his background and he shared how he is actually being released next week and how our coming just before his release was beneficial for him. He is not really a follower of Buddhism or any path, yet likes to meditate on thoughts in order to steady himself.
Syama prabhu spoke about the philosophy and made it very personal including his experience of coming to Krsna consciousness. Bimala told the story of Dharmaraja’s questions to Maharaja Yudhisthira. When she told the question about what is the most astonishing thing and Maharaja Yudhisthira answers that everyone is dying around us, but we think we will never die – I noticed Chaplain Burkhart laugh.
Arjuna prabhu spoke so beautifully about the power of the holy name and chanting.
I was looking around the library and scanning the shelves and a Krsna Book popped out at me and right when I saw that book, I felt the presence of Srila Prabhupada.
And hearing my godbrothers and godsister speak, I could feel the presence of our Srila Gurudeva. I never enjoyed hearing katha from my godbrothers and sisters as I did at that moment. I felt an empowerment coming through them as they shared their realizations and hearts with this fortunate jiva named Nicolas. All knowing that our compassionate Srila Gurudeva sent us to this prison for him. Quite astonishing and no words can express how I am feeling.
Arjuna prabhu ended the program with a heartfelt, powerful kirtan. We were able to bring in the maha-mantra flyers in so Nicolas was able to follow along and we saw him even singing with us. I observed the Chaplain also reading the flyer.
Arjuna prabhu then said we end every program by putting our hands in the air and calling out “Jaya” which means victory so we pray to the Lord for victory over our senses. And then in a very sincere and sweet way, Nicolas threw his hands up in the air and said, “Jaya”.
Before I took rest, I opened to a random page of The Search for Sri Krsna by Srila Bhakti Raksaka Sridhara Maharaja:
“We have to sacrifice ourselves for Krsna, because He is the absolute good, beauty, and love. Faith and selflessness are required to such a high degree. If we accept Krsna consciousness as our highest ideal, then so much sacrifice is necessary, but sacrifice means life: “Die to live.” There is no loss by sacrifice. We can only gain by giving ourselves.
“So, kirtana, or preaching has been accepted as the means to the end. There are so many ways by which we can approach the souls of this world with kirtana: by direct approach, through book, and by performing Sankirtana, chanting the holy name congregationally. By helping others, we help ourselves: we help our own fortune and our own faith. Not only will others benefit by our performance of kirtan, but we will also benefit eternally.”
Videos from the car right after the program:
Aspiring for the service of Sri Guru and the Vaisnavas,