Jagai Nitai Das is a busy man who has done many services as a devotee. Earlier in his life, after joining ISKCON in 1987, he was a temple president and a book distributor. Today, the father and software developer helps with morning services and kirtan programs at the Laguna Beach temple in California, and organizes its Rathayatra festival.
But Krishna Food Relief, in which he does Harinama Sankirtana while feeding homeless people, tops it all.
“It’s by far the sweetest and most moving service I’ve ever done,” he says.
The project began about nine months ago, when Manohar Das, a devotee from the ISKCON ashram in Long Beach, asked Jagai Nitai to take him and several others out on Harinama. Jagai Nitai agreed and soon, the little group were chanting on the streets every Saturday.
“One day on my way there, I saw an old lady eating out of a garbage can,” Jagai says. “That really disturbed me, and I could not stop thinking about her. The next weekend on Harinama, a devotee family showed up with leftover sack lunches they had been distributing to homeless people in their neighborhood. We passed them out on Harinama, and I was so enlivened by the experience that the next weekend I made about thirty lunches myself and it became a regular program.”
Jagai Nitai also thought about how Srila Prabhupada had famously seen a similar sight in Mayapur, after the Govardhana Puja festival. Looking over his balcony, the ISKCON Founder-Acharya spotted poor children fighting dogs over discarded plates in the garbage. He then told the devotees, “Nobody should go hungry within a ten-mile radius of any of our temples.”
The prasadam distribution program that grew from this order was known as ISKCON Food Relief. Jagai Nitai decided to name his effort after it, calling it “Krishna Food Relief,” as they were chanting Krishna’s names while distributing prasadam.
Every Saturday, Jagai Nitai, his fiancée Priya Gopi Dasi, and their five children make sandwiches and offer them to their Salagrama Sila, along with fresh fruit and packaged food such as crackers or power bars. They then bag these items with bottled water and socks.
“The kids are very enthusiastic to help,” says Jagai. “My boy Kishor, who is ten years old, gave up his Christmas money of $100 to feed the homeless.”
Jagai Nitai’s ten-year-old son Kishor gives his $100 Christmas money to feed the homeless
About eight devotees, incuding a core team of Manohar, Jordan and Devin from the Long Beach ashram, couple Deuce and Sophie, and Jagai Nitai then head out on Harinama around the Long Beach area, where many are homeless.
Homeless people are often on the defensive if approached by strangers, says Jagai, but the Harinama party lowers their defenses. Rather than simply handing them prasadam and passing on by, devotees approach each person individually, and as some continue the kirtan very softly in the background, others sit and talk to the homeless person, getting their name and asking them how they’re doing. Finally they give them the sandwiches, packaged goods, fresh fruit, bottled water and socks before wishing them well and moving on.
Many homeless people are in extremely desperate situations, and cry and hug the devotees in response to their kindness. Recently, one old, grizzled fellow with no teeth approached the Harinama, his clothes dirty and ripped to shreds. Sitting with him and giving him some packed lunches, Jagai Nitai asked him, “How are you?”
“How am I?” the man retorted. “I’m blessed. More blessed than I deserve.”
“You are?” Jagai replied, surprised.
“Yes – because I met you guys.”
Some get to know the devotees and seek them out. One man ran up to the group saying, “I could hear your chanting through the streets, and I’ve been searching everywhere for you!”
Manohara Das, Deuce, Devin, Deuce’s wife Sophie, and Jagai Nitai Das bring the Holy Names and packed prasadam lunches to homeless people in Long Beach, California
Others are very special souls indeed. On one occasion, the Harinama party happened upon a man sleeping in the bushes. As they approached, he suddenly hopped up, his eyes wide. “I haven’t seen you guys in so long!” he exclaimed. “You’re so rare – I’m so grateful to have met people like you.”
“He went on for a good twenty minutes, eloquently glorifying the devotees, and glorifying kirtan and prasadam,” Jagai Nitai says. “He told us that he chooses to live as he does – that he follows a spiritual path, and doesn’t want to be entangled in this world. To have run into people singing God’s Names and distributing sacred food, he said, was like God coming and speaking to him through us. I was so blown away!”
Krishna Food Relief also makes an impact on other people besides the homeless. Nearly every time the group goes out, they are stopped by pedestrians who ask them who they are and what they’re doing.
“When we tell them we’re the Hare Krishnas, and we’re feeding and helping the homeless, they are super appreciative,” Jagai Nitai says. “We’ve made many connections with people that way.”
Jagai is completely convinced by the power of combining Harinama and prasadam distribution.
“I think that moving forward, during every Harinama ever, we should have prasadam that we hand out to homeless people,” he says.
The benefits do seem to be boundless. For it’s a service that not only helps and connects with homeless people and passersby, but also deeply affects the devotees carrying it out.
“Every time I meet somebody who is so thankful and grateful to receive prasadam that they’re in tears, it’s a very spiritual moment for me,” Jagai Nitai says. “I hope that someday I have that level of gratitude – that when devotees approach me with prasadam and kirtan, I no longer take it for granted, but am in tears too.”
Jan 22, 2022
Sunanda Das, tovp.org