How can Quaker work spaces reflect our values and priorities? How is the environment we create a part of our effort to look for the Light in all those we encounter?
These are the questions Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) considered as we planned to rebuild our Quaker home in the heart of Washington, D.C., in the 1990s. We are returning to them now as we begin a new renovation project to create a Quaker Welcome Center next door to our existing office on Capitol Hill.
While I wasn’t on FCNL’s governing committee during the first renovation, in my current role as the clerk of its capital campaign committee, I’ve learned a lot about the past and our ongoing effort as Friends to walk gently on the earth.
FCNL has inhabited offices at 245 Second Street NE since 1959, when Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) provided the loan guarantee that allowed FCNL to purchase and refurbish a Civil War-era row house and former grocery store down the block from the Senate. Forty years later, in 1999, we began a renovation that was both a challenge and an opportunity to let our lives speak through the space that FCNL occupies. We called the campaign to raise the money for this renovation “A Place Just Right,” speaking to the importance of Friends presence on Capitol Hill.
From the start, the plans for that first renovation were guided by our commitment to practice simplicity and to seek an earth restored. While the renovation’s timing was driven by the prosaic considerations of a collapsing roof and a growing staff, it nevertheless provided an opportunity to create a building that reflected our values as a Quaker lobby.
One way these values were manifested was in deciding to build green. The FCNL office building was the first LEED-certified green building on Capitol Hill. Its environmentally friendly features include a sedum-covered green roof that absorbs rainwater and heat; bamboo floors, a material far easier to replenish than traditional hardwood; and energy-efficient windows that, unlike those of most office buildings, can be opened to let in fresh air. The building is heated and cooled by a ground-coupled, geothermal system that helps stabilize the building temperature throughout the seasons and reduces the need for fossil fuels.
Many of these features are now a common part of building practices, but at the time deciding to build green was a leap of faith. Living in the building, which FCNL reoccupied in 2005, continues to be a learning process. As the building ages and our community develops in new ways, FCNL continues to reflect upon and adjust, always with a commitment to walking lightly on the earth.
In addition to its environmental features, the building’s design also reflects FCNL’s Quaker identity. A rooftop “light scoop” both conserves energy by bringing daylight into the core of the building and serves as a visual representation of the Inner Light. Walking into the building, FCNL staff and visitors are reminded of the importance of looking for the Light within all.
Additionally, FCNL’s building has increased our lobbying effectiveness. The new headquarters quickly became an inspiring symbol of environmental stewardship and a popular meeting place on the Hill. FCNL’s legislative neighbors, many of whom had watched the construction with curiosity, dropped by to see the results and to view the building’s green features. Staff have referred to the building as being—by its very presence—an additional lobbyist.
“Congratulations to the Friends for doing something that ultimately will be replicated all across Capitol Hill and all across the United States,” declared then Massachusetts Representative Ed Markey when he spoke at the building shortly after we had achieved LEED certification in 2007. “The Friends have given the leadership that is going to be necessary for solving this problem.” And Dan Beard, the top official in the House of Representatives charged with greening Congress, brought a steady stream of people to the building, showing lawmakers and their staff what could be done.
In addition to the building’s role in environmental lobbying, it is an important and strong Quaker presence at the corner of Second and C Streets. Today, political polarization and partisanship are a significant problem in getting legislation—any legislation—through Congress. For more than 73 years, Friends through FCNL have engaged in lobbying as a spiritual practice. Our building has provided us with a space in which to practice our faith and our advocacy, and to offer space to others seeking a deeper conversation. Our location has enabled us to bring together members of Congress, their staff, and people around the country for listening conversations where we seek to understand each other and to look for ways forward through difficult policy questions.
These kinds of conversations need to happen more often and FCNL’s location puts us in the right place to host them. We realized, however, that an office building is not conducive for these conversations, so we began to explore ways to provide the kind of space needed on Capitol Hill.
Beginning this year, we are transforming the three-story residential building next to our office into a new Quaker Welcome Center. This renovation, which we plan to complete in mid-2017, is a cornerstone of our current capital campaign “The World We Seek: Now Is the Time.” This new space will provide a living room in which Friends and like-minded folks can have quiet, listening conversations. Building on the legacy of our existing office, we want the design and use of the new space to be a gathering place for visiting Friends, interfaith partners, and members of Congress and their staff.
During the past 18 months, the vision of a Quaker gathering space on Capitol Hill gradually has begun to take shape. So many people have contributed to the discussions and planning that led to clarity on the facility’s purpose and design, from my fellow members on the capital campaign committee to FCNL executive secretary Diane Randall to the architects and consultants who have provided guidance along the way. We all share the conviction that FCNL’s new facility should be a place where Friends can practice their faith—in worship and in action—and where all people are welcome, heard, and respected.
Our staff and committee members are deeply engaged in raising funds and beginning construction on what we anticipate will be a net-zero energy building. As with FCNL’s office building, the new building will give our community a way to live out our faith, showing what is possible when a commitment to working for an earth restored is at the forefront of the planning.
I’m particularly excited about the ways in which the new center will expand the welcoming presence and Spirit-led advocacy for which the FCNL community has become known. In addition to providing a neutral meeting space where conversations can happen and relationships can build, the new space will enable us to better welcome and equip Friends to meet with members of Congress.
The building’s second and third floors, housing four one-bedroom apartments, will continue to be devoted to residential use. One of the apartments will be permanently reserved for use by long-term, out-of-town volunteers in FCNL’s Friend in Washington program. These volunteers strengthen FCNL’s lobbying and public witness through their knowledge and expertise. Our own spirit will continually be enriched and renewed by the presence of visiting Friends walking among us and sharing their experiences with us. The remaining three apartments will be rented at market rate, providing FCNL with a sound, reliable business plan through which the revenue from the units will be used to cover the operating costs of the building.
While my tenure as clerk of the FCNL capital campaign has been immensely gratifying, this has also been a time of challenge and loss for me. In April, my husband, Jerry, died from Alzheimer’s after a six-year struggle with the disease. Jerry was an enthusiastic advocate of the public witness of FCNL and the importance of its physical presence in Washington. In the midst of his illness, Jerry encouraged me to become involved in the capital campaign and he was a supporter of the renovation of the Second Street building from day one.
Jerry would be dancing in the street to know that the new Quaker Welcome Center will soon be opening on Capitol Hill. May the public witness of FCNL and its network of grassroots advocates continue to strengthen and grow, and may FCNL continue to be a welcoming and inspiring presence on Capitol Hill.