For many years I have wondered why it is so difficult to find devotees who are inspired to not only correspond with inmates but to do so steadily as well. It’s been quite a bottleneck since there are far more inmates who write than there are volunteers to reply to them.
It seems that often the devotees who volunteer with IPM have an unrealistic, romantic view of what this service is and they get discouraged when reality turns out to be different. I am wondering if, in some way, this IPM NEWS itself contributes to this misconception. Why?
Maybe because, naturally, only the best letter excerpts are published. It may give the impression that every letter we receive is ecstatic and that every inmate is that introspective and enthusiastic. But it’s not a fact. Not every inmate becomes a long term bhakta. Far from it. For every letter of substance we receive, there are a dozen more which are shallow. Comparatively few are the inmates who correspond for years on end. Many will write for a year or two and many will write for a few months only. Some will not even write twice. It is a bewildering reality that some inmates, even if deeply touched by Krsna consciousness, will nonetheless stop writing.
I remember a Bhakta Mark who wrote me for about four years; his sincerity was palpable, his questions insightful, and his realizations powerful. I had absolutely no doubt that he would keep in touch after his release. Wrong. I never heard from him again. I was surprised, concerned, and really, really disappointed by his sudden silence. I still think about and pray for him regularly. But his case is not unique. So what to make of this? Is this preaching not “working”; is it worth our time, energy and resources?
Many IPM volunteers get discouraged and feel their efforts are in vain. Or they conclude that they are not good at this service. They couldn’t be more wrong.
IPM is very much like book distribution on the street. We’ve all heard the stories, right? You give a book to someone, knowing you will probably never see him again. Some will receive a book and put it on their bookshelf; years later, they may pick it up, read it, and visit a temple. Or one of their friends might end up with the book and he becomes a devotee. Or the book may be left on a bench or even thrown in the garbage and someone else finds it and it changes his/her life.
Interestingly enough, these same scenarios are applicable to inmates, albeit in a prison setting. Just as with regular book distribution, we are rarely privy to what happens next; once the book is given and the letter sent, we are often left in the dark. That is because we are entitled to doing our duty but not to enjoy its fruit. Sounds familiar? It’s Bhagavad-gita 101; we’ve all read it. This IPM service is a wonderful opportunity to apply and realize this instruction. Being detached is at the core of this challenging service. However, from time to time, because Krsna is so kind, we are given glimpses of Krsna’s transcendental touch in the inmates’ lives. These glimpses fill us with bliss, deep within our heart; they strengthen our faith, and keep our enthusiasm alive.
A few inmates write on and off. Sometimes there’s a “radio silence” for one, two, three years and then, they write back, once again seeking Krsna’s shelter. One inmate told me that he had to go in and out of prison three times before he finally realized that Krsna consciousness was really important. As Prabhupada said many, many times; it’s a gradual process.
Prisons are notorious for being “revolving doors”; many go in, are released, and come right back in again. That’s because people tend to keep the same kind of association and activities, which lead them to commit the same crimes (environment is stronger than will). The good thing is that these repeat offenders know they can always reach out to IPM and get more mercy. I know, for example, that the Bhakta Mark I was talking about earlier may pop up again at any time; even if he doesn’t, I know he can never forget the precious experiences he’s had in Krsna’s service.
Each time inmates practice Krsna consciousness, they make a little bit more progress. It is the principle of the drop of water falling on a hard rock; little by little, it makes a dent. Each time they chant, read Prabhupada’s books, offer their food, and tell someone else about Krsna, they make deposits in their spiritual bank account. Every deposit counts and is eternal.
“That I have already explained. You are coming here, even though you are not initiated. That is also service. If you deposit one cent daily, one day it may become $100. So, when you get the $100, you can get the business.” (Laughter.) “So you come here daily, one cent, one cent. When it will be $100, you will be a devotee.”
Prabhupada Lecture, Melbourne, 5/22/1975
Even when the inmates don't seem to stick around we know that the seed has been planted. Whether in this life or in the next, this seed will fructify; there is absolutely no doubt about that.
Wanting to personally see the seed sprout into a plant is my own personal desire, my own sense gratification. What matters is Prabhupada’s pleasure and desire. Whatever happens in the heart of those conditions souls (who happen to be inmates in this lifetime) is completely between them and Krishna.
I for one simply feel fortunate, grateful, and thrilled just to be allowed to do this service; to be given the chance to play this very little part in Srila Prabhupada’s huge mission. The real satisfaction is to do one’s service to the best of one’s ability, even if it sometimes seems like it’s going nowhere.
I pray that more devotees will be inspired to assist Prabhupada in planting the seed in the heart of some of the most unfortunate souls. I hope more will be willing to tolerate what appears like a lack of results, while praying to Lord Caitanya on behalf of the inmates, and having faith that Krsna is completely in control.
If you are called to give this service a try, you can reach me at: email@example.com
Your grateful servant, Bhakti-lata Dasi
This article is just a part of IPM NEWS, our bi-monthly electronic newsletter. To read whole issues, please go to: http://www.iskconprisonministry.org/
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Excerpts of inmate letters and also their artwork are available on our website at: www.iskconprisonministry.org