By Alison Van Dyk
Sometimes the most amazing events are the most improbable. How, during a lunch of peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, did a spark ignite a movement that to this day grows and travels around the world? That is exactly what happened when Juliet Hollister, a housewife and mother of three, while having lunch with a friend, was commiserating over the dire state of the world. Her friend suddenly suggested that someone should bring the leaders of the world’s religions together to work towards peace. A flash of inspiration went off in Juliet’s heart and mind. From that moment on, magical things seemed to happen around Juliet and her “Wonderful Obsession,” a name coined by the Time-Life Magazine article about her, published in 1962.
Imagine a housewife, with no college education or theological degree, accomplishing this. Many of Juliet’s friends told her it was impossible, even dangerous. In 1960, bringing the religions of the world together was so controversial that three Christian ministers in her town felt compelled to visit her, telling her she had no right to pursue such a radical idea. Juliet had no resources except her vision, determination, and the love of a wise and supportive husband, Dickerman, who told her to pray for guidance.
In 1960 there were no interfaith organizations in North America. The International Association for Religious Freedom had relocated in Europe, an organization that began shortly after the First Historic Interfaith Conference in Chicago in 1890. Juliet saw an opportunity to develop interfaith understanding when so many religious traditions of her day were split on dogma and insistent on proselytizing. Juliet’s vision convinced her that interfaith understanding was the only way forward for the human family. Her journey to reignite the interfaith movement in the U.S. was fraught with struggle but ultimately succeeded.
Two days after Juliet began to pray for help, as her husband had suggested, a surprise invitation to dinner resulted in the opportunity to meet Eleanor Roosevelt at a salon in New York City. If anyone could help her, Juliet knew it was this great lady. But with many famous people in attendance, Juliet was about to despair of an audience with Ms. Roosevelt. Then she remembered Dickerman’s words, and she began to pray. Minutes later Eleanor Roosevelt turned to Juliet and asked what she could do to help, and thus began a deep and lasting friendship.
With Eleanor’s letters of introduction, Juliet was able to gain audience with Pope John XXIII, Prime Minister Nehru and President Nasser on a whirlwind tour with her young son Dickerman Jr. in tow. A delightful account of this magical adventure is documented in Juliet’s memoires, “Living My Dream.” Eleanor encouraged the fledgling organization to join the UN as an NGO and Eleanor coined the phrase “A Spiritual United Nations” to describe its mission. The name “Temple of Understanding” was given to Juliet in India by a diplomat’s wife to describe the sacred temple of the body, sacred space, and a place where the divine resides.
Obviously inheriting his mother’s belief in the impossible, 10-year-old Dickerman Jr. was “randomly” picking numbers out of the phone book in India to see who might be interested in supporting his mother’s ideas. Juliet’s subsequent cold call to the B.K. Birla household resulted in a meeting with one of the most powerful families in all of India, supporters who became patrons and provided major support for the first Temple of Understand Summit Conference in Calcutta in 1968.Was that luck, chance, or divine guidance? Juliet was always humble and reserved about her belief and deep connection with a universal spiritual guidance beyond any one faith but acknowledged by all religious traditions. She embraced diversity as the crucible in which a connection to the divine was accessible to all of humanity.
This first Summit was attended by eminent religious leaders, including Thomas Merton, who addressed the audience with the defining statement of the interfaith movement, “What we have to discover is that we are already one.” A young Tibetan monk listening to the conference via short wave radio in Dharamsala, India, was so impressed with this unique gathering that he sent his sister to invite Juliet to visit him. This began a lifelong friendship with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who years later, upon receiving the Hollister award, referred to Juliet as my “Lama Mama.”
To know Juliet was to love her. She had a flair for the dramatic and an incorrigible sense of humor. Her innocent curiosity was beguiling – yet many times I witnessed her sharp intellect at work surprising politicians, academics and religious leaders with her grasp of international affairs and her vision of interfaith understanding. Juliet rejoiced in the flourishing of the interfaith movement; she was in attendance when the Parliament of the World’s Religions was formed in 1993 and when United Religions Initiative began in 1995. One of the most remarkable persons in the interfaith movement, Juliet’s contributions were monumental in their scope, and yet her legacy is best remembered by those who knew her personally.