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Devotees Reach African American Community at Bud Billiken Parade

By: for ISKCON News on Sept. 8, 2012
The Bhajan Band broadcasts the Holy Name from ISKCON Chicago's float
Over fifty devotees from Matteson, Illionois; Columbus, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and New York City, including Chicago GBC Romapada Swami, participated in the City of Chicago’s Bud Billiken Parade on August 11th.

For this, their seventh year in a row contributing to the parade, devotees won a bronze award in the category of “Team Praise Dancing,” which they will receive during a ceremony on September 28th.

Featuring a back-to-school theme, Bud Billiken is one of the largest parades in the US, with 1.5 million people turning out to view it and over 25 million watching at home on their TVs.

More than just a parade, it’s a cause: its organizers, the Chicago Defender Charities, have given more than $1.2 million in scholarships to under-privileged children in the African American community since 2003.

That’s the same year that ISKCON devotees began to participate with their own cause.

Three-foot Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra Deities and a large seven-foot Jagannath hold out their arms to embrace the crowd

“Myself and my wife Shyama Priya Dasi began going to the post-parade picnic to simply chant and pass out books,” says Gaura Mani Dasa, an African American devotee who works full-time at the Chicago Social Security Office. Together, he and his wife hold regular congregational programs in their home in the Chicago suburb of Matteson, which they dub “The Hare Krishna Temple of the Heart.”

“Next, we got a large Jagannath Deity from the New Talavana farm in Mississippi, put Him on the back of a pick-up truck, and joined the parade,” he continues. “We’ve been there ever since!”

Every year, local devotees put everything they have into organzing their participation in the parade, and when they begin to panic as the date draws nearer, the merciful Lord of the Universe seems to take over and miracles happen.

This year was no different. “I went to the Defender Charities office to be assigned a number in the parade—lower numbers mean a place closer to the front of the parade,” says Gaura Mani. “At first, the lady gave us number 122, and my face fell.”

ISKCON's golden and turquoise float sparkles in the sunlight

But as Gaura Mani was spelling out the word ‘Krishna’ to her, another staff member emerged from her office and said “Krishna? Are you a Hare Krishna? I just met your friends in Arizona, and they were so nice!” She turned to her colleague. “Give them number 66!”

Next, devotees went to pick up a float at a company called Associated Attractions. There, they picked an $8,000 float built by another organization for a prior parade.

“Usually we tear down our floats and rebuild them for each customer,” said the owner. “But something told me someone would want this float, so I left it intact. And here you are! You can have it for $1,000.”

Armed with their beautiful, affordable float and good placing in the parade, the devotees met at 7:00am on Saturday August 11th at 39th street on Chicago’s South Side, to set up.

At 10:00am, the parade began, and at 12:00pm, the devotees entered it, following the two-mile route down Martin Luther King Drive, from 39th to 55th street.

Passing through the heart of one of the biggest African American communities in the US, the route goes through both middle class and poverty-stricken areas.

Parade Goers Wave and Smile at the devotees

But the parade itself is filled with rich spectacle. The over 200 floats present a cornucopia of American Society. Represented are the Boy Scouts of America, the Armed Forces of America, politicians, corporations, and colleges. There are marching bands, horses, the grand ‘King and Queen’ float, and the rifle-twirling boys and girls of the South Shore Drill Team.

The devotees held their own in the midst of all this. Their beautiful gold and turquoise float featured three levels: on the lowest, at the front, sat a plugged-in bhajan band, belting out the Hare Krishna mantra. On the second sat three-feet tall Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra Deities.

“And at the back of the float, towering above everyone,” says Gaura Mani, “Was a huge, beaming, seven-foot tall Jagannath Deity, holding his arms out like he wants to give you a big hug!”

Meanwhile, in front of the float, devotees, headed by children holding a Hare Krishna mantra flag, lined up in rows of four, and wound back and forth across the road in a dynamic snake-like movement, chanting and dancing all the while.

“As we did so, we would look at the people lining the roadsides, fold our hands in prayer, and sincerely make eye contact with them,” says Gaura Mani. “We wanted to really make soul to soul contact. And they appreciated that. Looking back smiling, with wonder on their faces, many waved at us, came to the edge of the curb to high-five us, folded their hands, or even danced and chanted with us, jumping up and down like crazy. It was such a warm, reciprocal affair.”

Devotees distribute prasadam watermelon and lemonade at the post-parade picnic

The response from the Chicago Defender’s reviewing stand, located near the end of the parade route, was no less enthusiastic. As the devotees approached, the announcer bellowed: “Here comes Lord Jagannath and the Hare Krishnas! Have you noticed? They’re always smiling! Hey, you guys! Why are you always smiling? How can we become like you?”

One judge said that he appreciated that the devotees where here to give spiritual enlightenment. Another commented that she’d noticed a positive change in the community since the Hare Krishnas started participating in the parade.

At around 3:00pm, the devotees reached the end of the parade, and joined the picnic in a crowded Washington Park.

There, they distributed Srila Prabhupada’s books as well as watermelon and lemonade offered to Lord Krishna, and continued chanting and dancing, getting the crowd to join them.

Many people asked how they could stay in touch, and made comments like, “Where have you guys been?” and “We didn’t know there were black Hare Krishnas.”

“The African American community has been completely overlooked by ISKCON so far,” says Gaura Mani. “Maybe it was left for us, African American devotees, to do. And maybe that’s a good thing—because many in the community don’t trust something unless it’s coming from a black person.”

Devotees chant and explain the philosophy of Krishna consciousness

This same attitude, which Gaura Mani feels is sometimes too caught up in bodily identification, attracts African Americans to the black Deity of Krishna. And the Buddhist-influenced Islamic teachings of Noble Drew Ali, which many in the Chicago African American Community grew up with, leave them very open to Krishna consciousness.

So it’s unsurprising that Gaura Mani, Syama Priya and the Matteson devotees are beginning to make inroads. Recently, they were invited to speak and chant Hare Krishna at an event put on by Cease Fire, a group attempting to reduce cases of shooting in the community.

“But we need to do more, more often,” Gaura Mani says. “We need a proper temple on the South Side of Chicago, and one on the West Side, in the heart of the African American Community. Because they’re hungry for it.”

In the meantime, devotees will continue to participate in the Bud Billiken Parade every year, with plans to create a more polished, choreographed presentation in the future.

“Whatever Shyama Priya and I are able to do is by the mercy of Srila Prabhupada and our guru, Indradyumna Swami,” says Gaura Mani. “We thank him for his blessings, and ask that we be able to continue to serve and grow in our efforts.”
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