Juliet Hollister was “just a nice little mother,” in her words, when her life was transformed by a vision born over peanut butter sandwiches at her kitchen table. It was 1960, and the Cold War was at its height with nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union and the United States aimed threateningly at each other. “The world is in a mess,” she told a friend. So she decided to do something about it. Her response to the mess she saw was to promote dialogue and understanding among the world’s religions.
Hollister had earlier studied comparative religion at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York City. However, she found that the sexism in many institutions blocked her opportunities to pursue a career in theology. As she continued her studies she became convinced that all the world’s major religions shared some basic humane principles, whatever their expression might be.
An opportunity to meet Eleanor Roosevelt opened the door for her dream to become a reality. She shared her vision of ￼religious dialogue with the former First Lady, including the idea of taking a trip around the world to gain support for a “Temple of Understanding.” The Temple would not be a place of religious worship, but a place of interreligious encounter and education. Mrs. Roosevelt liked the idea and described it as a “spiritual United Nations.” She committed to write letters of introduction for Mrs. Hollister to use in approaching leaders such as Pope John XXIII, Albert Schweitzer, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, and UN Secretary General U Thant.
In the early 1960’s, supported by Mrs. Roosevelt’s letters of introduction, Mrs. Hollister and her 11-year old son began a journey around the world to promote the idea of the Temple of Understanding. The response was overwhelming. Albert Schweitzer told her, “My hopes and prayers are with you in the realization of the great Temple of Understanding, which has a profound significance … The Spirit burns in many flames.” She sought not just to build an institution, but a movement of all faiths that would work for universal understanding and harmony.
The Temple of Understanding office was first opened in Washington, D.C., and Hollister began the work of organizing regional and international conferences. The first Spiritual Summit Conference was held in Calcutta, India, in 1968. Many influential religious leaders attended, including the Catholic theologian and monk Thomas Merton. A Tibetan woman also attended that conference. She invited Hollister to meet her brother in Dharamsala. Her brother was the Dalai Lama, and their friendship began a period of support and involvement of the Dalai Lama in the Temple of Understanding.
The Temple of Understanding moved to New York where it was housed at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Then in the 1990s the Temple moved into a separate office, currently located at 43rd St. in Manhattan. The Temple organized a series of summits of religious leaders to discuss problems of intolerance, injustice and religious persecution worldwide. Regional conferences were organized throughout the U.S. in conjunction with universities such as Harvard, Princeton and Cornell. The Temple of Understanding also became affiliated with the United Nations as a registered Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). In the mid-1990s the Temple secured NGO consultative status with the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
In the 1970s as there was an influx of religious teachers coming to the United States from Asia, the Temple of Understanding opened up many opportunities for dialogues, classes and conferences. Hollister used this historical moment to stimulate interfaith education and interaction. She kept dreaming of the Temple of Understanding as a building with wings representing the world’s major religions leading to a library for learning and a pool and flame for meditation and prayer in the center. But the building kept being pushed aside in the passion for programs that brought people together.
Juliet Hollister died in 2000 at the age of 84. The Temple of Understanding has continued with the mission “to achieve peaceful coexistence among individuals, communities, and societies through interfaith education.” They have especially focused on religious literacy and the most effective methods for teaching people about other religions. More recently they have been developing experiential methods of education with community visits, learning through service, and immersion experiences. Hollister’s vision born over those peanut butter sandwiches has outlived her and spread around the world.
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This profile on Juliet Garretson Hollister comes from the pages of Interfaith Heroes 2. Interfaith Heroes 2 is one of the three books that inspired this website. Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.