Personal Essay: A Green Building Project Made A Spiritual Calling Concrete

illustration by Corey Brickley

illustration by Corey Brickley

Building A Beacon For the City and The World

by Patricia McBee

Fifteen years ago, I made a commitment to put my shoulder to the wheel of caring for the earth. I’d made lifestyle changes, but yearned to make a bigger contribution, and I started visiting the homes of members of my Quaker meeting. We spoke about the impacts of our lifestyle, discussed how we use and invest our money, what we do at our workplace and how we can learn from disadvantaged communities. 

Then, Friends Center, the complex of Quaker buildings at 15th and Cherry that included my meeting house, began renovation plans. They asked me to lead the effort to raise the money to bring the buildings into the 21st Century—they knew I wouldn’t refuse if it was going to be a green building. 

We tied the project to the basic Quaker principles of peace, equality, simplicity and integrity. How could we live in integrity with our peace testimony in the face of wars over energy and water resources? How could we speak of equality when a large portion of the earth’s population doesn’t have access to clean air and clean water? How could we claim to live in simplicity if we are over-consuming the earth’s resources?  

As we planned for the renovations, we asked these questions as we drew together 100 relatively conservative Quakers who headed Quaker funds or had personal wealth. Whatever we undertook would require their support. We gave them each a green sticky dot to put on a chart that showed a range of choices from “fix things when they break,” to “be a beacon to the city and the world.” To my delighted amazement, these practical-minded Quakers placed a cascade of green on the side of “be a beacon”! We put the chart on the wall of the capital campaign office, and it lifted our spirits on discouraging days. We raised the money.

I also dickered with vendors about using less toxic products. For years, I used every public presentation and living room solicitation as a platform to talk about the state of the planet and our personal responsibility for it. From donors and schoolchildren to foreign delegations, hundreds of people heard from me about our moral responsibility, green roofs and geothermal wells. 

In 2009, our 30-year-old office building was renovated in 2009 to LEED Platinum standards. At the time, it was the highest LEED rated building in Pennsylvania and the rest of the campus, originally built in the mid-19th century, is a healthy place to work and worship, fossil-fuel free, carbon-neutral and protective of the watershed.

I have a deep longing to live with reverence for the earth and all its inhabitants. Through this unexpected work, I was able to combine that longing with Quaker principles and
apply them to a concrete project. Along the way, wonderful people deepened my knowledge and my commitment. I’m ready for whatever may come next.

In 2006, Patricia McBee was the director of the capital campaign for the Friends Center renovation project, and then served as the center’s executive director until her retirement in 2014.