Seven-Foot Jagannath Makes a Splash on Detroit’s Belle Isle
Back on August 11th, Chicago devotees connected with the African-American community at the Bud Billiken Parade, chanting and dancing in front of 1.5 million people on the parade route and 25 million watching at home on their TVs.
On September 1st—on Labor Day Weekend, a major US holiday—the same team of devotees, with the same Jagannath Deity that graces the Bud Billiken Parade, continued to make inroads with the African American community, this time in Detroit.
Labor Day’s effort began when Rasa Sudakari Dasi, 61, who served Lord Jagannath in New Vrindaban, West Virginia for many years but now lives in Detroit, had a dream.
“I couldn’t see His face, but I knew Lord Jagannath was there,” she says. “Soon after, I had a second dream, and this time I saw the Lord, and He was coming to Detroit!”
Rasa Sudakari prayed that her dream would come true. Sure enough, a year later, Chicago devotees arranged to bring their Jagannath Deity, who had participated in the Bud Billiken Parade, for a parade around Detroit’s Belle Isle.
A 982-acre island park on the Detroit River, Belle Isle is a famous summer destination for IndyCar Races and family reunions.
Devotees attempted to schedule their parade for June 16th, but were rescheduled by the island’s managers for September 1st. This they saw as a blessing, however.
“Lord Jagannath arranged to come instead on Labor Day Weekend, the busiest time of the year,” says Antariksa Das, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada from Lansing, Michigan, who came to participate.
He was one of around fifty devotees who attended the parade on Saturday September 1st, hailing from Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Lansing, Michigan; and of course Detroit.
In the morning, devotees dressed Chicago’s huge, seven-foot tall, beaming Lord Jagannath in splendid garments, and placed Him on the back of a pick-up truck.
Then, at 1:00pm, they set off on a 2.4 mile route around the beautiful Belle Isle, chanting the Hare Krishna mantra and dancing enthusiastically.
Thousands of people, mostly African American families, were holding family reunions and relaxing on the island, under its twelve giant picnic shelters. As the devotees passed, many began dancing beneath their picnic shelters, while some were brave enough to approach the devotes and chant and dance with them.
Others received “Chant and Be Happy” pamphlets about the benefits of chanting Hare Krishna, as well as small books on Krishna consciousness such as “Krishna, the Reservoir of Pleasure.”
“We interacted with the crowd in the same way that we’ve learned to do over the years at the Bud Billiken Parade,” says Antariksa Das. “We made eye contact, seeing the soul within and the Lord in everyone’s heart, while smiling and chanting the Holy Name. In return, people were very receptive.”
One small boy, perhaps two years old, was sitting in a car with his parents when he spotted the devotees going by with Lord Jagannath. Hearing the music and chanting, he began dancing so energetically in his seat that his mother brought him over to take a closer look.
“He danced with us for ten minutes, with the devotees and members of the public gathering around to see the fun,” says Antariksa. “At one point, Kulashekhara Das lowered his drum and the boy started beating on it with his little hand, in perfect rhythm. Then we turned him around and showed him Lord Jagannath. It was wonderful.”
“The form of Lord Jagannath we took is very special: He has hands,” comments Rasa Sudakari. “I’d never seen that before. It was like the Lord was reaching out for everyone, saying ‘Come to Me.’”
When the parade concluded at 4:00pm, the tired yet happy devotees had a picnic of their own.
The delicious prasadam feast, cooked by Bhakti Tirtha Swami disciples Avadhuta Dasa and Agnihotra Dasi from Cleveland, as well as former ISKCON Detroit head cook Ananda Svarupa and his wife Laksmana, consisted of spaghetti, tofu nuggets, barbecued gluten, apple crisp, chickpeas, matter paneer, rice, salad, and watermelon.
While some devotees ate, others continued to interact with members of the public and serve prasadam to anyone who wanted it, until leaving the island at 6:00pm.
“This was a very positive event,” says Antariksa. “Our congregation in ISKCON Detroit right now is over 90% Indian, a group which represents at most only 5% of the Detroit Demographic. We’ve been neglecting the African American majority in the area, so this was an excellent opportunity.”
Devotees hope to visit Belle Isle with Lord Jagannatha again on Labor Day Weekend next year. This time, they’ll plan to hold the parade later in the day, at 5 or 6pm, when the crowds have reached their peak at hundreds of thousands.
And no one could be more excited about this than Rasa Sudakari Dasi, who saw her dream come true this year when Lord Jagannath came to Detroit.
“I was in total bliss,” she says. “When the Lord comes, it’s like He’s going to lift all the fallen conditioned souls. I was so happy I could have cried.”