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Get off the fence

I’ve managed to get this far in life without ever putting pen to paper to sign a petition. I have an irrational fear that this signature will later be used against me in some wanton, undemocratic move to rid a country of its dissenters or its non-nationals. I’ve managed to get this far without ever taking to the streets to march in protest against something that sets my teeth on edge and keeps me awake at night, lest my face be captured on camera and my image filed in a folder marked ‘dissenter’. To my shame, I’ve wanted to get along by, well, getting along. I’ve chosen the easy option; I’ve chosen to believe that in everyone, there is some good. And from every government policy, someone will benefit. And although I might not see or understand what lies behind it, I’ve somewhat naively believed that elected officials have the interests of their electorate at heart. But today, I cast aside my naivety. I’m too old, I’ve lived too long, and I’ve seen too much to be able to hide behind it any more.

Standing in solidarity

Today, Tuesday, 13th December 2011, I finally got down off the fence that straddles what is and what might be. Not only did I sign a petition, I forwarded it to everyone I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. Around the world, virtual strangers are opening up their emails and dredging through the annals of their minds in the vain hope of remembering how they know me and why I might be emailing them about the Hare Krishnas in Hungary.

Today, I stood alongside hundreds of others at Kossuth tér in the wintry sun to show my support for the Hare Krishna movement and this latest, completely asinine act by the government to cut off at the knees those who are doing the most good for those less fortunate in our society.

Earlier this year, the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness (HSKCON) was one of many religions that lost its religious status as a ‘recognized church’. Under the provisions of the new Act on Religious Communities, as of 1 January 2012, HSKCON and others should surrender all their property (real estate and arable lands) to those religious communities that have been granted legal status as a recognized church. Figuring out the formula that determines what exactly constitutes a ‘recognized church’ is beyond my basic math and logic. It seems to me to be suspiciously subjective.

Neutered and neutralized

Divested of their ‘wealth’, these religious communities may continue their religious activities as non-governmental organizations but without the right to preach or conduct religious services. What’s the point, one wonders. What’s the point in being allowed to practice medicine as long as you don’t treat any patients? What’s the point in being allowed to play football as long as you don’t score any goals?

HSKCON isn’t the only one to suffer: add to the mix at least two others that I know of – the Buddhists and the Methodist Church – and conspiracy theorists might be justified in thinking that there’s a move afoot to neutralise those who work with the homeless. HSKCON, through its Food for Life programme, feeds 1000 homeless people in Budapest each day. When it can no longer grow the food it needs on its farm in Krishna Valley; when it can no longer rear cows in peace and harmony with nature (a project much lauded in the international environmental community and held in very high regard globally); when it can no longer live the sustainable life envied by so many around the world, what then? Where is the logic here? What am I missing?

Human dignity

I’m an Irish Catholic. I go to mass every Sunday. I try to do good when I can, to be good more often than not, and to give to those less fortunate. I was brought up to believe that Christianity is more than sitting in Church on Sunday and tithing money to the collection plate. It is about feeding your fellow man when he has no food; it’s about sheltering him when he has no home; it’s about giving of yourself when it’s less than convenient. What makes the HSKCON faith, its work, its religion, less legitimate than mine, boggles my mind. When it’s been effectively disposed of by this act, who then will feed the homeless, help the needy, and remind us all that a peaceful life of sustainable living is not just a dream?

Rumour has it that a last-minute reprieve was granted this afternoon by the government that will allow HSKCON keep its land. While this is a very timely Christmas present for so many, its battle for recognition as a religious entity is still to be won. It looks like today was a good day to get down off the fence.

First published in the Budapest Times 16 December 2011

Going back for seconds

Passing through Blaha Lujza tér on my way to have lunch at Jelen, I noticed that the Hare Krishna’s food line had moved from the square itself to just around the corner onto Márkus Emilia utca. Three thoughts hit me in quick succession: the first, a brief ‘how sad’; the second, a short invocation – there but for the grace of God go I; and the third, most telling, the material recognition of the aesthetic improvement to Blaha Lujza tér. Had I been on my own when the magnitude of this final thought hit me, I’d probably have launched headlong into a bout of severe self-loathing at such callousness, but I had company and I was hungry.

The great unwanted

Some days later, I read a piece in the Budapest Times about the city’s homeless – the Great Unwanted – and realised that this move around the corner was a prelude to a second move out to Teleki László Tér, near Kerepesi cemetery. Again, three thoughts flashed into my mind:  the irony of moving one literal step closer to the grave; a vague recollection from my flat-hunting days of Teleki tér not exactly being a choice neighbourhood; and a somewhat self-righteous disgust at the City’s attempt to sweep the problem under the carpet. But it wasn’t my problem. I had other things to worry about: appointments to fix, bills to pay, clients to meet…

The grand delusion

Then just last week, I found myself visiting the Hare Krishnas in Csillaghegy. As I walked across the road from the local Catholic church to the temple, I had a strange sense of crossing a great divide – something far wider than the 20 feet or so of tarmac that separates the two. I was nervous. I was brought up Irish Catholic and had survived convent school with all my prejudices intact. Back in 1980s Ireland, this new-fangled religion that made grown men dress in orange, shave their heads, and spend their days singing in the streets while banging on drums had met with walls of suspicion and fear that Ireland’s young and impressionable might be caught up in the madness and disappear, never to be seen again. It’s funny what you remember and how you remember it. Even thirty years later, some miniscule part of me wondered fleetingly if I’d make that hév back to Budapest. A little nervously, I ventured inside, completely unprepared to have all my delusions shattered.

The global phenomenon

ISKCON (the International Society for Krisha Consciousness) is just one month older than me. In its lifetime, it has developed into a global confederation of some 250,000 devotees. That surprised me. When compared to other religions, it’s not a big number – and yet the effect that just one of the ISKCON programmes is having worldwide, would blow the lid off any religious Richter scale.

In 1972, looking out a window in Mayapur, a small village near Calcutta, His Divine Grace A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada saw a group of children fighting with street dogs over scraps of food. His reaction? The promise that no one within ten miles of a Krishna centre would go hungry. And so began the Food for Life programme, which recognised that starvation isn’t a problem of supply, but rather of fair distribution. Each day, this programme alone feeds over 800,000 people worldwide.  Ételt az életért began in Budapest in 1989, with the occasional distribution of vegetarian food during Christian holidays. In 2001, now officially registered as a non-profit organization, it took up residence in Blaha Lujza tér. From the back of a van, devotees distribute as many as 500 hot meals most days of the week with a further 500 to needy families near the Budapest temple. That’s 1000 meals a day from produce grown on their farm and food donated by the public. Ten years ago, most of their clientele may well have been homeless; today, many have homes to go to but are unemployed, surviving on a meagre pension, or victims of the foreign-currency mortgage fiasco. All are ordinary people, just like me.

The grave truth

The right to human dignity is enshrined in the new Hungarian constitution.  But where’s the dignity in having to stand in line for some hot food? Where’s the dignity in having to parade your poverty in front of strangers? Where’s the dignity in being ignored by so many and helped by so few? Rather than simply relocate the problem, wouldn’t the dignity of the homeless and the needy be better served by providing the Food for Life programme with a permanent home? Surely there’s an unoccupied building, centrally located, that could be put to better use? Sprucing up Blaha Lujza tér is one thing; relocating the in-your-face evidence of the City’s failure to preserve the dignity of its poor is another.

My grandmothers will be turning in their graves as they read this. Not only did I survive my first encounter with the Hare Krishnas, I plan on going back for seconds.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 June 2011