Many communities around the world celebrated Earth Day this April 22nd. But on Saturday April 19th, several days early, They Call Us Friends -- a non-profit organization run by ISKCON devotees -- staged its own Earth Day event at Atlanta’s Historic Fourth Ward Park for the first time.
Once one of the most violent and crime-riddled areas of the city, the Old Fourth Ward has undergone gentrification in recent years, with apartments and condominiums rising and businesspeople and students moving in. And the Historic Fourth Ward Park is now a beautiful space of ponds, walkways and greenery.
They Call Us Friends’ use of this space was significant. The organization, founded in 2005 by Lalita Labanga Dasi and just revived last fall, fosters educational trainings, resources and learning tools for Atlanta’s under-served inner city community.
“Our vision is to address social issues with Krishna consciousness,” says Balabhadra Bhattacharya Das, president of They Call Us Friends and former president of ISKCON Atlanta. “Our unique focus is the urban environment, and trying to empower the local people.”
The organization’s Earth Day celebration ran from 10:00am till 5:00pm, and although rainy weather decreased the expected attendance, those who did come were in for a treat.
The performances from the stage, covered with a circular white tent, were God-conscious and often Krishna-influenced, but were nonsectarian and involved the local community.
The Murari Band, which includes three disciples of Srila Prabhupada in its lineup and has released several well-received albums since its inception back in 1976, belted out its special brand of philosophical progressive rock.
Also providing music was The New Panihati Youth with their beautiful bhajans, and Bhakta Steven, a Christian youth minister who is a regular visitor to ISKCON Atlanta, with his powerhouse reggae performance.
Meanwhile, Georgia Tech University student Nicholas Britt wowed with his urban poetry slam performance of a powerful piece about the Earth and sustainability; as did well-known local poet Steven Wing with his own Earth Day piece.
Bringing in even more variety, there was also an energetic Indian dance performance by Sagnika Mukherjee, and a martial arts demonstration by the Hapkido group from Georgia Tech.
While watching the entertainment, passersby could browse and purchase Srila Prabhupada’s books, granola bars made by Jaya Govardhana Das’s company Pure Bliss Organics, and vegetable and fruit seeds from a local vendor. They could also learn about the Vedic Friends Association, a global network which, according to its website, “promotes the universal truths found in Vedic Dharma.”
Despite the lower-than-expected turnout, the event drew enthusiastic feedback from those who did attend, including local Councilman Andre Dickens, and is expected to generate positive word-of-mouth. It also helped Balabhadra and his colleagues develop good relationships with the City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Department.
“We wanted to create an event where the general public and the devotees could interact in a positive environment,” says Balabhadra. “And it was just beautiful, seeing that we could work together with local people for this issue of preserving the earth.”
They Call Us Friends will continue to hold its Earth Day event every year from now on, with plans to expand the amount of performers, vendors and attendees.
The organization also has a number of other exciting projects on its list. The devotees volunteering for it are currently developing a leadership empowerment training program based on the Bhagavad-gita for inner city communities, which they hope to introduce in August.
In November, they plan to present a multi-cultural performance featuring not only The Murari Band and other ISKCON performers, but also local students from Georgia Tech, Emory University, Georgia State University, and all-male historically black collge Morehouse.
“We want to create an opportunity for talented students with a positive message to showcase their music, poetry and art and associate with devotees in a positive environment,” says Balabhadra.
At Thanksgiving time, They Call Us Friends will host its own vegetarian Thanksgiving Dinner, where devotees will read from the Bhagavad-gita as well as inviting Christian ministers to speak.
And at Christmas time, volunteers from the organization will distribute prasadam fresh fruit in inner city areas.
“We made that one of our signature programs last year, and were just shocked at how excited people were about it,” Balabhadra says. “This year we’re going to increase the amount, and in the future we plan to do it maybe four or five other times during the year too.”
For Balabhadra, all these activities are a way to bring value to the local community through Krishna consciousness. They’re also a way to affect major change in the long run.
“We believe in empowering the individual first, which empowers the family, which in turn empowers the community,” he says.[ atlanta ] [ environment ]