for ISKCON News on July 16, 2010
The July 4th weekend is a day of celebration for all Americans; but for ISKCON Chicago devotees, it was especially joyous this year, as they opened their new center in the suburb of Naperville.
The festivities took place on July 3rd, as part of Chicago’s annual four-day Festival of the Holy Name. “Our GBC Romapada Swami and kirtan leader Badahari Dasa joined us for a wonderful series of lectures and kirtans glorifying the holy names of God,” says the center’s director Srivallabha Dasa. “Devotees from as far as Seattle, Houston, and other parts of the country came for the event, which culminated in chanting thirty-two rounds of the maha-mantra on our japa beads on the 4th of July.”
The Festival of the Holy Name consists of various programs which are usually held in rented locations around the city, including Naperville. This time, however, devotees could hold the Naperville program in their own center.
“It was exciting,” says Srivallabha. “We were able to invite people in, serve them, and let them know we were open and that we would be having regular Sunday programs from now on.”
Chicago is already served by an ISKCON temple in the Rogers Park business district, which was inaugurated by ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada in the early 1970s, and is presided over by Deities of Sri-Sri Kisora-Kisori.
However despite its popularity—visitors hail from all corners of the Midwest, and local businessmen and families show tremendous support—the distance from the suburbs and heavy traffic make it difficult for many to attend on a regular basis.
“So back in the mid 1990s, we began to think about how we could better serve the needs of the community,” Srivallabha says. “Efforts didn’t go into high gear, however, until the summer of 2002, when Romapada Swami, former president Prithu-Shrava Dasa, Premananda Dasi and myself took on the project. And even then, progress was slow. It was extremely challenging to find land in the Chicago suburbs that wasn’t burdened with flood and wetland issues and that was within our price range.”
Finally, the project leaders found an old Baptist Church in Naperville, their ideal location. A fast growing city that’s consistently featured on CNN’s top 5 places to live in the US, Naperville is a busy, dynamic hub. It also has a large Indian community, with 300 to 400 Indian families in Naperville proper, and more in surrounding suburbs.
The building was a 1976 cinderblock structure—not the most attractive on the inside—but it was very well maintained, and sat on 2.8 acres of carefully-landscaped land surrounded by a burbling creek. To liven up the coal look of the building, devotees put up drywall and painted it with warm colors. They also removed the Baptism tub and built a welcoming altar for Sri-Sri Radha Madhava, small “Utsav deities” who will only be brought to the center on Sundays and festival days.
The main floor of the building houses the temple hall, which can accommodate 200 to 250 congregational members for aratis and other functions. The lower level, meanwhile, features six Sunday School classrooms for children and youth of various age groups.
“Romapada Swami has been instrumental in setting up a Sunday school program in Chicago to give our youth a good foundation of Krishna conscious qualities and skills right from the start,” Srivallabha explains. “As a result, they are all doing very well both spiritually and materially. Badahari Prabhu just sent me a letter appreciating how nicely our youth sing kirtan, putting the focus on devotion rather than showmanship. And to give an example of their material achievements my oldest daughter, who has been in the Sunday School program since kindergarten, is doing her pre-med at Northwestern University and studying to become a doctor.”
The Sunday School program, previously taught at the Rogers Park temple, will now continue under senior devotees at the Naperville center and will include systematic study of the Bhagavad-gita, Vaishnava etiquette, loving devotee relationships, and kirtan.
Alongside their studies, the Chicago youth are extremely active in creating outreach programs, meeting during the week in their classrooms to strategically plan efforts for the entire year.
These include establishing clubs at the very prominent Northwestern University and University of Illinois, and reaching out to students by celebrating Gita Jayanti, distributing books, holding kirtans and lecture series, and setting up booths on campus.
Their parents, meanwhile, also focus on book distribution, and hold regular Indian cultural festivals which each draw three to four thousand people. The next such event, on August 21st, will precede Sri Krishna Janmastami and Radha Krishna Fest, a cultural program featuring lectures by visiting gurus.
“Right now, we don’t have a huge concentration of families—about thirty to forty,” says Srivallabha. “But the potential for this project to grow into something very large in a short time is tremendous. We will put a strong focuscus on kirtan and prasadam, but most of all we aim to be a center for systematic education.
There are several Hindu temples in the area, and what sets us apart is Prabhupada’s mission of educating humanity.”
The Naperville center is under the umbrella of a greater project called the ISKCON Temple of Greater Chicago. In the future, the devotees plan to grow further in other areas around the city, with Naperville simply being one of the founding centers.
But for now, Srivallabha is just happy to be getting started. “This didn’t happen by chance,” he says. “We’ve been looking for a place for so many years, and the fact that we found one right here in the heart of Naperville, where all the families and congregation are—and not thirty miles away on the outskirts—is amazing. I think we’re on the verge of something big here. Every morning I wake up and think about how much potential there is. It’s so exciting.”