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'Buddhist' Catholic nun's interfaith leadership

Two weeks ago Eureka Street TV featured a conversation with American Episcopal bishop, William Swing, founder of one of the world's largest interfaith organisations. Continuing in the same vein, this week's interview is with a Catholic nun who is one of America's most prominent female interfaith activists. Joan Kirby, a sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is a veteran of inter-religious dialogue.

Since 2000 she has been the representative at the UN of one of the oldest interfaith organisations in the US, the Temple of Understanding. Prior to that, from 1993 till 2000, she was the Temple's director.

The Temple of Understanding was founded in 1960 by an American lay woman from Connecticut, Juliet Hollister. Appalled at inter-religious conflict around the globe, Hollister was inspired to start an organisation to promote understanding among the major world faiths.

Hollister was well connected and a skilled networker. One early ally was Eleanor Roosevelt, who at that time was working with the UN. Roosevelt wrote letters of introduction to many religious leaders around the world in which she described the proposed organisation as a 'Spiritual United Nations'. Then Hollister set off on a journey around the globe to discuss it with them.

Initially Hollister called the project 'A Centre for World Religions'. But when she reached India, she discussed it with Harriet Bunker, wife of the American Ambassador, who suggested the name the Temple of Understanding. Her logic was that while 'centre for ...' sounded particularly Western, the word 'temple' is a common denominator for all religions.

Hollister's original vision was to construct a physical temple, with wings for each major religion, a large library and a central pool and flame for meditation and prayer. An 18 acre site was purchased near Washington DC, an architect drew plans, and a model was made. But the building never went ahead.

In the beginning, the focus was on organising big international conferences for religious leaders from different faiths. The first meeting was held in India in 1968. Subsequently they took place in Switzerland and at several locations in the USA. The final one took place in Oxford, England in 1988.

After this the Temple changed direction. Its leadership decided the message needed to be taken to the grassroots. Now its focus is on providing educational opportunities for ordinary people to experience other cultures and faiths. Kirby's contribution to this is in organising and mentoring interns from the US and other countries who spend time at the UN in New York.

The Temple of Understanding is now based in an office building just a few blocks from the UN headquarters, and much of Kirby's time is spent there. In 2010 she was honoured with the Temple's Interfaith Visionary Lifetime Achievement Award.

In his congratulatory message for the award, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon wrote that he was mindful of the special role she had played 'in interfaith and intercultural dialogue, as well as confronting climate change. I am also thankful that you have taken the time to nurture young global citizens from all parts of the world. Your leadership has been exemplary. Your influence profound.' 

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Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity. 

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Joan Kirby, Temple of Understanding