This exciting report from the Riga, Latvia temple, shows how a bad public perception of ISKCON can be dramatically changed. It is a great example of how, by applying communications principles, our mission becomes recognised and respected by all levels of society.
Latvia, one of the Baltic Republics, has a population of 2.5 million people. ISKCON has had a presence here since the early eighties. There are presently two temples located here; the main one (opened in 1990) is situated in the heart of the capital, Riga, and houses fifty devotees. Public response to ISKCON was initially very positive; many people visited the temple and attended festivals such as the annual Ratha Yatra. However, it wasn't long before opposition to 'the new eastern religion' began to emerge. One lady in particular - the disturbed parent of a young member - began a campaign that nearly caused the closure of the Riga temple.
In the spring of 1990, the girl in question began regularly visiting the temple. She was a music student at the Lutheran seminary and her mother didn't appreciate her new interest in Krsna consciousness. In fact she became so disturbed by it she began beating her daughter, who subsequently ran away from home and moved into a flat with a school friend. She continued to practise Krsna consciousness despite her mother's protests. Seeing the situation as hopeless, the irate mother approached the media pleading, 'Please help me to save my daughter from this satanic sect'.
The vigorous media campaign which followed aroused other parents, who eventually got together to stage a lively demonstration in front of Parliament House. The Hare Krsna movement was suddenly viewed as a 'destructive cult' that broke up families. ISKCON Riga decided to take the matter to court, charging the parents' group and one major newspaper with misrepresentation and slander. Unfortunately, the devotees had never undertaken this kind of action before and did not understand the legal system. In early 1993 the court reached a decision - it neither ruled in ISKCON's favour nor did it exonerate the defendants. In the interim, negative media articles had continued to circulate and with the resultant court findings, the future looked bleak. The temple was struggling to pay the rent, the public had began to despise ISKCON and the council was threatening to move the devotees out. In addition, the government department responsible for the registration of religions met with temple representatives and expressed their concern about ISKCON's reputation. The situation looked grim.
Back in the spring of 1992, however, the temple had started a Food for Life programme. The service began humbly with only plain porridge being distributed from the temple premises to approximately sixty elderly people. During the winter of 1992, the programme began to gain momentum - the word was out that the Hare Krsnas were serving free food. Soon more than three hundred people were queuing to receive their portion of hot porridge, bread, vegetables and tea. A registration system was subsequently introduced to control the increasing numbers, with recipients being required to produce documents that proved they were socially disadvantaged. Qualifying individuals received a numbered card which indicated the time they should arrive for their free meal. In this way, the large queues were avoided as people were coming throughout the afternoon instead of at lunch time alone.
By the spring of 1993, the programme had expanded to approximately eight hundred meals served per day, with queues of people stretching down the main street of the city. The public and council began to take note. At that time H. H. Gopal Krsna Goswami visited Riga and represented Hare Krsna Food for Life as an international co-ordinator. He met with the mayor of Riga, following which the mayor wrote a recommendation for the programme.
The number of people being served food soon became unmanageable again. The only solution was to relocate the operation to the car park at the side of temple. At the same time, the programme reached a milestone - the serving of the one hundred thousandth free meal. The mayor was invited as an honoured guest to serve the meal, and the event was covered by local newspapers and television - public opinion was turning once more.
With the mayor's assistance, ISKCON Riga was granted a five year lease on the temple building and free rent until 1996. Favourable articles started appearing in the press. Food and money donations have increased to the extent that the temple no longer needs to buy provisions and all its running costs are covered. ISKCON's reputation had changed completely.
To date, ISKCON Riga has distributed one hundred and ninety thousand meals, making it the biggest free food distribution centre in Latvia. Up to five hundred people a day, six days a week, are served food from the temple premises, with a further 700 meals being distributed to needy people in their own homes. Six full-time devotees are needed to manage this operation. The programme primarily caters for people from four disadvantaged categories: pensioners, invalids, large families and the unemployed. Distribution begins at 4.00 p.m. each day and continues until 8.00 p.m.
The programme receives weekly donations of grapes, oranges, bananas, pears, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, rice, carrots and sugar. In addition, approximately three thousand US dollars has been received in cash, as well as cooking equipment and building materials. However, the best result has been the overwhelming appreciation from the general public. Practically everyone in Riga now recognises the Hare Krsnas as the 'people who are caring for the needy'. There has not been a single negative media report during 1993 and the relationship with local government officials is excellent.
Hare Krsna Food for Life in Riga is officially registered as a charity, with bank accounts and book-keeping independent of ISKCON. The latest addition to the programme is a non profit-making vegetarian restaurant for low income earners, which was opened by city officials on 30 September 1993, together with a clothes 'give-away' service and discount shop. Latvian devotees also plan to apply for overseas food and clothes donations in the near future.