By Madhava Smullen for ISKCON New Vrindaban Communications
The sixth New Vrindaban Service Appreciation Ceremony, held on Sunday March 26th during the ISKCON New Vrindaban and ECO-Vrindaban Spring 2017 weekend gathering, reached an impressive benchmark.
Including Sunday’s event, the ceremony, launched by board members in November 2014, has now honored 25 of Srila Prabhupada’s ‘jewels’ with an astounding 1,000 years of service between them.
MC Chaitanya Mangala Das opened the event with a moving quote from “A Life of Unalloyed Devotion,” the biography of celebrated ISKCON devotee Yamuna Devi.
“Yamuna always retained a deep and abiding respect for the often unheralded devotees of New Vrindaban,” the quote read in part, “Who served Srila Prabhupada’s mission under extremely austere and trying circumstances.”
Five more of these special souls – whose stories often interweaved — were honored and given commemorative plaques by INV and ECO-V.
The first was Kelly Howard Carter, a teacher at Hilltop elementary in Moundsville who never ‘joined’ ISKCON, but who has been an intrinsic part of the community since she moved to McCreary’s Ridge at one year old in 1968 – making her one of New Vrindaban’s earliest pioneers.
As a child, Kelly could see the original Vrindaban farm from her yard. Her first memories of devotees were of them being a little odd – asking to pick flowers in her field to fry and eat, and refusing to say “hi” back to her, insisting instead on ‘Haribol.’
In 1974, when Kelly was about seven years old, she saw devotees carrying Srila Prabhupada in a procession, and waved at him. He waved back and smiled at her, and she was struck by how kind and compassionate he seemed compared to the average devotee she had met up until that point.
Soon after, Kelly did make friends with many of the devotees, and by her young teens was a familiar face in the community. She learned how to make garlands and helped build Prabhupada’s Palace, assisting Narendra Das with stained glass and Jala-kolahali with gold leaf.
Growing up, Kelly’s whole life was interconnected with New Vrindaban. A photo of her ready to go to prom shows Sankirtan Dasa’s house in the background. She got her first job in New Vrindaban, working in the Palace restaurant; and also served in the Palace gardens.
Now with her own grown-up children, Kelly feels that her experience meeting people from all over the world in New Vrindaban helped make her the broadminded woman she is today. She is also passionate about connecting the devotee and local communities, saying that she is glad to see both dropping their prejudices and working together more in recent years.
After the presentation, New Vrindaban residents shared their appreciation of Kelly’s friendship and exemplary service attitude. Many appreciated how she had raised her children Brayden, Parker and Jaimie to also be very open-minded and good friends with the devotee kids.
Kelly continues to care for New Vrindaban children to this day, bringing Murahari Das, her young student from Hilltop elementary, along to the ceremony as her ‘date.’
“I really appreciate the friendships I made here,” she said, addressing the assembled devotees. “I can’t imagine what my life would be like without New Vrindaban and all of you.”
Next, Tejomaya Das, who has been serving at New Vrindaban for 43 years, and his wife Kelly were honored.
Tejo grew up in the Bronx. In 1973, he joined ISKCON in New Vrindaban with his friend Manonatha, after they read an article about the community in Mother Earth magazine.
From the very beginning, Tejomaya braved many austerities. He and Manonatha worked with Madhava Gosh in the garden, and would get badly sunburnt after a whole day in the sun. By night, they would mix and carry cement used to build Prabhupada’s Palace.
In October 1974, the two friends were initiated by Srila Prabhupada. Tejo was transferred full-time to the Palace construction crew, and became integral to the team of whom Prabhupada said, “These devotees are my jewels.”
In 1979, he moved back to New York City, where he ran his own plumbing business and met his wife Kelly, who had grown up in Queens with several New Vrindaban devotees. The couple had two children, Gopala and Haridas, and served at the New Vrindaban outpost in Brooklyn.
In the 1990s, they moved back to New Vrindaban, and Tejomaya took over the service of maintenance and plumbing from Jaya Murari, which he continues to do to this day.
When everyone was invited to share their appreciations, several called Tejomaya the most hard-working devotee in the history of New Vrindaban to date.
Many shared stories of how he would drop whatever he was doing at any time of the day or night to help a devotee with plumbing problems – there were tales of him coming over at 3:00am, and even fixing a busted pipe on his way out for the evening in his finest suit.
Out of shyness, Tejo and Kelly were not present at the appreciation ceremony, but Tejo did send a letter which was read out loud. In it, he praised his wife, who raised their children, put herself through college, maintained a full-time job as a nurse for decades and always supported him.
“Just try to imagine waking up for thirty-five years and the first person you see is Tejo. I bet that is beyond everyone’s imagination,” he wrote, sending the audience into peals of laughter.
Tejo, known for being a New York tough guy with a heart of gold, moved many with his last paragraph. “I thank Prabhupada every day for giving me such a beautiful family that also includes all you guys,” he wrote. “I pray that all the newcomers can experience what Prabhupada has given us.”
Finally, Advaitacarya Das and his wife Madri Dasi were honored. Interestingly, Advaita and Madri’s paths often interweaved with the other honorees of the evening – for instance, they gave Kelly Carter her first job at the Palace Restaurant. Tejomaya met his wife Kelly through Madri, who was friends with her in New York. And Advaita was the first devotee Tejomaya met when he arrived in New Vrindaban.
Like Tejomaya, Advaita grew up in a rough part of New York – Brooklyn. After seeing devotees chant in Washington Square Park in 1968, and then reading a Back to Godhead magazine, he began visiting the New York temple in 1972. In 1974, he visited New Vrindaban, immediately felt a connection, and moved there. Later that year, he was initiated by Srila Prabhupada.
Madri, who had moved in the same circles as Advaita in New York and gone to the same school, saw him introduce all their friends to Krishna consciousness, but was initially skeptical. Later, however, as she heard more about New Vrindaban from Advaita and Tejo, she moved there and joined ISKCON in 1978.
In the 1970s, Advaita’s services in New Vrindaban included driving teams of horses and assisting Sudhanu with festival cooking. He also managed the Bahulaban devotee kitchen, the Palace restaurant, and the Pittsburgh restaurant Simply Wonderful.
In the mid 1980s, he and Madri moved back to New York, where they started the New Vrindaban outpost in Brooklyn that Tejo was also part of. They ran many outreach efforts including a dinner program for people with AIDS, and sold fruit and vegetables to earn a living. In the early 90s, they moved back to New Vrindaban and have been there ever since, with Advaita running his own business and helping in community building efforts like the Village Association.
For her part, Madri served in the front office in New Vrindaban in the early days, worked at the Palace Restaurant with Advaita in the early 1980s, and later cooked the Sunday Feasts at the Brooklyn outpost. She also cared for their six sons and two daughters, and cooked offerings for Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra — to this day, her four o’clock offering of cheesecake is one of the most sought-after pieces of maha-prasadam around.
With the audience well warmed up by this time, the sharing of appreciations for Advaita and Madri lasted the longest. Many praised Madri’s steadiness and determination, as well as her kindness for all. One devotee told a story of how, when she was at the front desk at ISKCON New Vrindaban, she would take calls from a devotee in a mental institution that no one else wanted to talk to. Not only did she spend time speaking with him, but for many years she would personally cook prasadam for him which Advaita would personally deliver to him in Pittsburgh.
Many of the couple’s adult children and seven grandchildren were present, and expressed their gratitude for such kind and loving parents. “You taught us how to be good people,” they told their mom. Their father was also recognized for being such a dedicated advocate for devotee care over the years.
In one particularly sweet (pun intentional) moment, pujari Venkatachalapati Das shared how he had lived in New Vrindaban for the past four years, but had never met Madri before – only learning of her steady, quiet devotion through her incredible cheesecake offerings. He also called Advaita’s sweet rice the best he had ever tasted, and confessed to stealing a gallon so he could drink a cup every day.
In response, Advaita laughed, “I’m glad some New Vrindaban traditions are being carried on! There is hope for the future!”
The service appreciation ceremony ended with everyone chatting, sharing more memories and tucking into Lakshman Ishvara’s banana-nut cake inscribed with the names of the five honorees.
It was another heartwarming and enlivening event that embodied the ceremony’s mission, encapsulated in a quote from Bhaktivinode Thakura’s song Suddha Bhakata Charana Renu, which Chaitanya Mangala shared: “Service to the devotees is itself the Supreme Perfection and the root of the tender creeper of Divine Love.”