Reason to Believe: The sustainability movement takes root in Philadelphia's religious communities

Story by Jacob Lambert | Illustration by Melissa McFeetersThe idea of environmentalism can be found in all sacred texts,” says Stacey Kennealy, the certification program and sustainability director at GreenFaith. “However, it’s only recently that the religious environmental movement has taken root.” Nowhere is this movement more apparent than in Philadelphia, where local religious groups have taken up sustainability issues. Their work is striking and subtle, involving everything from energy efficiency to protesting natural gas drilling, but more importantly their actions show that now, more than ever, religious faith and environmentalism are deeply connected.

The local go-to for “green faith”

Based in Highland Park, N.J., GreenFaith is a national nonprofit that works to integrate environmental stewardship into the life and work of religious communities. When Christian and Jewish clergy formed the organization in 1992, its focus was small and local—helping religious organizations in New Jersey purchase wind power for their facilities. Over time, that focus has expanded to a national scale and includes environmental justice advocacy, energy conservation, environmental education and a green certification program. “We’ll work with houses of worship to integrate environmentalism into every aspect of their community, from the services they hold to the coffee they serve—right down to the flowers,” says Kennealy.

Although it is a national organization, GreenFaith does a lot of work locally. Last April, the nonprofit helped to host “Ground for Hope—Philadelphia,” a two-day event designed to educate religious leaders. The event was a collaboration among various Philadelphia-area organizations, including the Academy of Natural Sciences’ Interfaith Environmental Network—an online directory meant to facilitate communication and collaboration on sustainability among faith-based and religious groups.

Another local GreenFaith program is the Environmental Health and Justice Tours. Started in 2005, these tours bring interfaith groups to visit contaminated sites in cities such as Newark and Camden. The tours, now held twice a year, allow participants to witness environmental problems firsthand as well as interact with community activists. “We’ll have Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Christians on the same bus… having a very rich conversation on the topic,” says Kennealy. “While everyone is affected by environmental burdens, the most vulnerable communities are at the most risk. We feel it’s important for people of faith to learn about this fact and to take action around it.”

This sort of work dovetails with the most basic of religious tenets: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Yet Kennealy admits she often contends with the popular view that religion and environmentalism are conflicting. “When people find out what I do for a living, I often get that confused look at first,” she says with a laugh. Nonetheless, she sees great potential in the union of those words. “I believe that the religious community is going to be a game-changer in the wider environmental movement… it will be the group that helps turn this ship around.”

Environment and faith: an age-old link

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of West Mount Airy’s Shalom Center, agrees with Kennealy. “We have a responsibility to God’s sacred creation to make sure it’s going okay,” he says. Established in 1983, one of the Shalom Center’s stated aims is to “help create a world of peace, justice, healing for the earth, and respect for the interconnectedness of all life.” Since the center’s founding, Waskow has been at the vanguard of religious activism in the region, beginning with his opposition to nuclear arms in 1983. By the 1990s, he had become focused “more on major environmental issues, especially the climate question and the connection with big oil and big coal,” he says. “One of our major concerns is the power relationship behind the dangers of the [climate] crisis.”

Rather than seeing current events as isolated from religious history, Waskow views them as continuations of age-old problems. He relates BP’s behavior in the Gulf to the Pharaoh’s response to the plagues in ancient Egypt. “The plagues resulted from a systemic response of the land of Egypt to an oppressive and exploitative ruler. In our view, [the BP disaster] wasn’t magic… it didn’t require God out of Heaven to point his finger and say, ‘The well is going to blow its stack.’ It was the underlying response of the interwovenness of life.”

To Waskow, this connection is essential. “The Hebrew word for human is adam; the word for earth is adama,” he says. “You can’t say either one of them without hearing the other one. They’re intertwined.” To promote awareness of this bond, Waskow works tirelessly—protesting (on Capitol Hill and against hydraulic fracturing), writing (Trees, Earth, and Torah and Torah of the Earth are among his 22 books), and organizing events such as an interfaith Seder which, in his words, “refocused Passover” to reflect modern ecological concerns.

When it comes to those concerns, religious groups are seemingly coming around to his point of view. Waskow recounts a story about Seasons of Our Joy, his 1982 book that connected the Jewish festival cycle with the natural world or, as he puts it, “the dance of the moon and the sun and the earth.”
“The first review, in a prominent Jewish magazine, called this Paganism,” he says with a chuckle, “but it would not happen today. There would be no Jewish magazine that would sneer at this idea.” He pauses before adding, “that’s my own private humorous measuring stick for measuring the degree of social change on this issue since then.”

Faith (and action) for a green future

This change is coming partly out of necessity, explains Khiet Luong, project coordinator for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council’s southeast office. For groups both religious and secular, “it’s impossible not to run up against things like green jobs and stormwater management,” he says. “Everyone’s talking about ‘green’ stuff because the nation is moving this way and the region is moving this way.”

Luong, a practicing Catholic, praises his faith’s often-overlooked commitment to the environment. “The Catholic Church has done some amazing things to advance thinking on our connection to the natural world,” he says, citing Francis of Assisi—the Patron Saint of Ecology—and national groups such as the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change. But on all fronts, says Luong, much more must be done. “In the Christian and Jewish traditions, we need to reclaim that part of our tradition, the respect and care of creation,” he says. “The secular environmental movement could use the moral authority of the various faith traditions to help it. Any tool is a good tool, and we need all the tools we can get.”

For Patricia McBee, director of development for Philadelphia’s Friends Center, green building methods are one of those good tools. Environmentally, she says, “Quakers are all over the map. They go from being aware of all the environmental issues that the heart can hold all the way to living the standard American life.” It’s obvious which side of that map McBee lies on. Her office sits amid a tidy Center City complex renovated in 2009 to maximize sustainability. “The wars of the 21st Century are over water and resources,” she says. Thus, as Quakers—a group known for pacifism and progressivism—McBee and her colleagues felt that they had to build conscientiously.

“There was some fear of adding a layer of cost and complexity” when planning the $16 million project, she says. “But in the long run, it wasn’t going to cost us any more to do the building right.” Today, the center’s three buildings—one of them more than 150 years old—produce zero emissions through an impressive combination of cutting-edge improvements. Six geothermal wells descend 1,000 feet to deliver fossil fuel-free heating and cooling to the center’s offices. Six 600-gallon tanks redirect stormwater to the center’s toilets, at once reducing outflows and consumption of fresh water. A vegetated roof—seven species of green, orange and purple sedum—captures “100 percent of the rain from 90 percent of the storms,” according to McBee, while absorbing summer heat. Solar panels produce five percent of the buildings’ electricity, and offices were redesigned to let in ample light, further cutting bills.

But the Friends Center’s worship room is, in its way, the complex’s most inspiring aspect. The high, dim sanctuary has changed little since it was built in 1856 (McBee says the heating system has only been changed about four times), but it speaks to an austerity that serves our current moment well. The white-walled space was designed for day lighting long before the concept became an architectural trend. The room’s quiet, comforting bareness fosters the sort of inward thought the Quaker religion—and, at their best, all religions—strive to facilitate. The environmental answer that Kennealy, Waskow and others in the area seek may lie as much in religion’s past as in its future. “In part,” says McBee, looking around the worship room, “we’re trying to keep up with what our forebears already knew.”