BY SARAH MESSNER
As a young man, M.Div. senior Andrew Wilkes was inspired by Aaron Parker, his pastor at Zion Hill Baptist Church in Atlanta and a professor of philosophy and religion at Morehouse College, to seek a theological education that was both spiritually fulfilling and intellectually engaging. Wilkes has found just that fusion at PTS, most recently in the form of a unique field education placement as a policy intern for City of Newark Mayor Cory Booker. As an intern, Wilkes engages with Newark citizens on a variety of issues ranging from environmental justice and green retrofitting to prisoner reintegration and educational programming for disconnected youth. This distinctive field education placement has allowed for the synthesis of Wilkes’s deeply held faith and his passion for politics.
While studying business management at Hampton University, Wilkes chanced upon a book that redefined his sense of calling. “I read The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallace, and realized for the first time that I could bring together religion and policy,” Wilkes said. This insight followed him to PTS, where he took related courses such as Professor Gordon Graham’s on political philosophy and public theology, and a graduate seminar on African American religion and politics at Princeton University. In 2008, a summer internship at Sojourners in Washington DC (which Jim Wallis helped to found) further solidified Wilkes’s political theology.
Wilkes credits his next “great awakening” to a lecture given by Booker, who delivered the 2008 Toni Morrison Lecture Series at Princeton University. Booker, who graduated from Stanford University, studied at OxfordUniversity as a Rhodes Scholar, and earned a J.D. from Yale Law School, addressed “The Unfinished Journey of America’s Spirit.” He spoke passionately about the promise and shortcomings of America’s historical legacy, and the moral demands of the present day.
Wilkes regards this decisive moment as a kind of “civic altar call.” In his lectures, Booker described the possibility of a “citizenship drenched in love.” He painted a picture of everyday citizens working together to improve their neighborhood, whether by advocating for better housing, nurturing green space, or encouraging former gang members to mentor youth. In Booker’s final lecture, he delivered an “invitational call to love and serve our own communities,” Wilkes remembered.
Wilkes responded to Booker’s civic altar call by working with Chester Polk in the Seminary’s Office of Field Education to establish a field education placement at the Mayor of Newark’s office, a position Wilkes has held since the spring of 2009. Terrence Gilchrist, a policy analyst for the City of Newark, is Wilkes’s field education supervisor. Gilchrist accompanies Wilkes in discerning how to engage in public service as a ministry and reflect upon his experiences, incorporating the action/reflection model of pedagogy used by PTS for its field education curriculum. In Polk’s view, it is insufficient for Seminary students to simply “do the work” of their field education placements; rather, it is critical to “meaningfully reflect on what they’re doing, and understand it through a theological lens.”
As a policy intern, Wilkes contributes to the public safety of Newark by addressing gang activity and enhancing community development opportunities in destabilized neighborhoods. His first assignment involved coordinating the Newark Interfaith Coalition for Hope and Peace network, which drew together people from diverse faith backgrounds to promote gang prevention and rehabilitation through means both symbolic, such as religious vigils, and direct, such as a new gun buyback program. Wilkes is also overseeing the creation of a green career fair, with a mission to target youth reentering society from the juvenile justice system. The fair will connect attendees with green employment opportunities, including paid jobs restoring abandoned industrial zones, retrofitting homes for greater energy efficiency, and installing solar panels. The fair organizers also seek to educate the community about environmental justice, and to encourage community stakeholders to promote a “green-collar economy” by providing relevant, ecologically sound employment and skills development courses for at-risk youth. By working on initiatives such as the green career fair, Wilkes hopes to “ensure that communities that have historically borne the burden of pollution be invited to influence decision making, have increased access to jobs, and ultimately benefit from the burgeoning green economy.” He views his work in advocacy as an important application of his theological education.
Wilkes credits his coursework at PTS and field education experience in Newark with supporting his calling to integrate faith, social justice, and political engagement in the public service sector. “It’s important to me to dance between a socially informed and politically engaged faith and a commitment to a critical—yet reverent—engagement with scripture. Often there’s a commitment to only dance to one side and not the other—but I’m striving for a back-and-forth rhythm.” Following his graduation in the spring, Wilkes plans to pursue additional studies in public policy and public affairs, while continuing to serve Christ and the church.
Click here to read more from Andrew Wilkes, see his guest blogs for Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics.
Click here to listen to City of Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s lectures, “The Unfinished Journey of America’s Spirit,” for the 2008 Toni Morrison Lecture Series.