Although the small sun-filled penthouse, reached through a well-hidden set of stairs from above the 15th floor of a modest but chic building on Fifth Avenue in New York City; has its own special aura, it is not a Zen palace as one might imagine. The offices of the Temple of Understanding, the oldest global interfaith organization in the United States, may be a far cry from the grand building envisioned by its founder, but the global interfaith movement, which includes spiritual traditions as diverse as Jainism, Christianity and Native American, continues to promote dialogue and understanding among all the religions of the world.
The Temple of Understanding was the brainchild of Juliet Hollister, an American housewife who, while eating a peanut-butter sandwich with a friend one day, happened to wonder what the world would be like if the many different religions began conversing instead of feuding. Ms. Hollister began to form a vision of an organization that would promote understanding among the world's religions, recognize the oneness of the human family and achieve a "spiritual United Nations". Through prayer and determination, she attracted such prominent supporters as Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Schweitzer, Jawaharlal Nehru, Pope John XXIII, Anwar el-Sadat and United Nations Secretary-General U Thant. In 1960, the Temple of Understanding came into being.
The Temple knows it still has a long way to go in realizing that vision of an American housewife, but it continues to sustain her hope which informs its mission and work. Sister Joan Kirby, the current Executive Director of the Temple of Understanding, believes that the organization evolved essentially as a mobilizing force, with only a small staff and no actual "temple", for a reason: its longevity is due in part to the fact that it is not a centralized entity, as spirituality cannot be institutionalized or localized. In fact, since 1968, the Temple has sponsored six "Spiritual Summit" conferences, producing a worldwide network of spiritual leaders, all devoted to the principles of the interfaith movement, whose modem character can be most easily traced back to the first World's Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago, United States, in 1893. It has progressed from the creation of a model of interfaith cooperation to generating understanding and a sense of unity among religious traditions, which nonetheles s retained their individual belief systems and autonomy.
The Temple collaborates in...