ISKCON New Vrindaban Takes Steps to Rebuild Local Relationships
By Madhava Smullen for ISKCON New Vrindaban Communications
At the second annual Rathayatra in Wheeling, West Virginia – New Vrindaban’s neighboring city – on July 8th, over two-and-a-half thousand locals delighted in Lord Jagannath’s parade. When interviewed they said they loved the energy, prasadam, trying out japa meditation, and the family-friendly activities.
Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliot spoke at the event, saying he was honored New Vrindaban had chosen Wheeling for the Festival and praising the diversity it brought to the community; Congresswoman Erikka Storch thanked devotees for sharing their culture and tradition. Meanwhile two local TV stations previewed and covered the event along with four local newspapers, including a glowing front page article.
This was an ocean away from the response to New Vrindaban devotees just a few years ago. Even recently, the national press were still dredging up past transgressions in every article; and some locals would yell at devotees to leave town when they went shopping.
But with resolution to the past crimes and scandalous behaviors, accompanied by a genuine effort from devotees to connect with their neighbors and build relationships, attitudes have gradually been changing.
Strides have been made particularly since former Bhaktivedanta College Director Jaya Krsna Das became ISKCON New Vrindaban president in 2011.
When asked during a local TV interview about New Vrindaban’s history of child abuse and other crimes, his communications director Vrindavan Das acknowledged it head on and accepted that New Vrindaban had deserved much of its negative reputation over the years.
At the same time, he said, devotees had learned from their mistakes; were now following the laws of the land; had a zero tolerance policy for child abuse; and were being better neighbors and members of their community.
With efforts like this interview, trust began to develop as the press saw devotees’ sincerity. Vrindavan Das worked hard to develop personal relationships with reporters and news directors. Gradually, the press began to approach devotees in New Vrindaban for stories.
Today, nearly every one of the community’s major events receives a positive article in at least one local newspaper, sometimes four or five; with a few front page stories a year. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, a major regional newspaper with over 300,000 readers ran three stories about New Vrindaban this year. And local CBS and NBC affiliates run positive coverage of many events.
Along with the more positive press, devotees are starting to be seen less as weirdo recluses and more as valuable contributors to society. When the City of Wheeling invited different religious organizations to tackle social issues like drug addiction, for instance, they included amongst their speakers devotees such as Vrindavan Das, who suggested Krishna conscious solutions.
It’s a move toward Srila Prabhupada’s vision of New Vrindaban as a center for spiritual education. So too is is the increase in invitations devotees regularly get from professors to give lectures on Krishna conscious lifestyle and philosophy at local institutions such as Bethany College. Student groups from Ohio State University, Carnegie Mellon University, West Virginia University, Wheeling Jesuit University, West Liberty University and more regularly visit New Vrindaban for field trips.
Prabhupada also put a lot of emphasis on reaching the leaders of society. Trying to follow in his footsteps, New Vrindaban devotees have begun to build relationships with the local governor, tourism commissioner and US Senator. And next spring, many politicians and other leaders are expected to attend a VIP event for New Vrindaban’s 50th anniversary.
But perhaps nowhere is the change in attitudes more evident than amongst New Vrindaban’s neighbors. Whereas before there was mutual distrust and judgement, devotees have gone a long way towards healing relationships with the public by getting involved in their community, making friends, developing a more humble attitude and reaching out through festivals.
Festival of Colors, launched in 2012, leads these. Drawing several thousand people from neighboring areas like Wheeling and Moundsville WV, Washington PA, and St. Clairsville OH for a day of Mantra Music and color throwing, it’s growing every year.
“At first, mainly youth unfamiliar with New Vrindaban’s past came,” says Vrindavan. “But over the last two or three years, a lot of family people who have lived in the area for 30 or 40 years have started attending too, showing that we’ve started building up their trust again. Now many know us as the fun, peace-loving, colorful people.”
An open-house inviting all New Vrindaban’s neighbors for its 50th anniversary should go even further to building that trusting, mutually appreciative relationship.
Meanwhile, relationship-building has also affected tourism. Devotees are now on the board of the Marshall County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB); Vrindavan Das serves as its vice president; and Prabhupada’s Palace is seen as one of the four main attractions in the county.
This official standing comes with a lot of benefits. All marketing costs are covered by the State’s tourism budget. This includes free ads in the State Travel Guide and county tourism office, and displays and brochures in two highway welcome centers on the West Virginia State border.
In addition the other three main attractions in the county – Grand Vue Park, Grave Creek Mound and West Virginia Penitentiary – also all recommend New Vrindaban to their visitors.
The result is that the number of tourists, pilgrims and visitors has considerably increased in the last few years.
What’s more, New Vrindaban recently hosted the bi-monthly West Virginia Regional Tourism Meeting for the second time on June 21st this year, with 23 representatives from five surrounding counties.
After their meeting the representatives all took a tour of Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra’s Temple, Prabhupada’s Palace, and the goshala, and asked many questions about Krishna conscious philosophy and lifestyle.
“It’s definitely got to the point where people now feel that we are part of the greater community, and that we contribute substantially,” Vrindavan says.
He adds: “Srila Prabhupada envisioned New Vrindaban as a place of pilgrimage for all. So having good relationships with our neighbors is important – it creates trust and appreciation.”
He encourages devotees at other ISKCON temples around the world to also reach out to their local officials, send press releases to the media about special events, and connect with neighbors.
“Srila Prabhupada’s transcendental movement is for everyone – so share it,” he says. “Reach out and tell people how you plan to contribute to your community and help make your country a better place.”