Michael Nichols, MA(TS) ’19, an aspiring lawyer, and Kerwin Webb, MDiv ’19, preparing to be a pastor, found themselves at a Washington, D.C. nonpartisan Christian political think tank during the summer of 2018. Their experiences couldn’t have been more different, but what they both experienced was learning the meaning and importance of respectful discussion.
While working at the Center for Public Justice (CPJ), Nichols and Webb were introduced to a new curriculum called “Political Discipleship” which they transitioned into a less formal setting when they returned to campus. Meeting for over an hour for 11 Tuesdays during fall semester, the group brought together students from different denominations, who grew up in areas across the country, and whose career goals ranged from ministry to law and beyond.
“A lot of Christians today know they can vote and they can protest,” Nichols says. “But political engagement actually is way more robust than that. To sustain it for the long term, for the common good, you need a lot more tools.”
The Center for Public Justice’s “Political Discipleship” curriculum fills that gap by giving Christians a practical toolbox of resources for engaging in politics that is grounded in faith. As they wrapped up their time together, four members of the group met with the New Jersey Attorney General’s office to learn about the cash bail reform it enacted in 2017. This provided a practical local connection to the concepts they had been discussing together.
Webb grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, but came to New Jersey five years ago to help Habitat for Humanity rebuild houses after Hurricane Sandy. He is currently pursuing ordination in the Baptist church and was one of three Princeton Seminary students chosen for the inaugural year of the Sacred Sector Fellowship, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. After a week of intensive training with students from seven different seminaries across the country, Webb spent the rest of his time working as a consultant at First Rock Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.
Sacred Sector placed each student at a local nonprofit or faith-based organization. At First Rock, Webb worked with the pastor, served on committees, and formed relationships that he’s found very helpful in preparing his ministry after Princeton Seminary. “All of these things that the church is doing are things I want to do,” Webb says. In particular, he loves the church’s community investment. Just one example of this is a recent community health fair, where First Rock brought health-care practitioners to the area, so people with barriers like transportation could have access to their services.
While Webb is headed for church ministry, Nichols will begin law school after Seminary. Raised in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Nichols studied theology and English in college. He chose to attend seminary before law school to get a theological and moral grounding before beginning his JD, taking a cue from Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other Christian leaders who have studied both theology and law.
“I wanted to be able to ask theological questions about politics and government … to allow myself to ask some of these ethical questions, to investigate the history of law, to investigate the relationship between the church and the government over time,” he says. “Law school, in general, isn't designed to do that.”
Earning a Master of Arts in theological studies gives him a biblical and theological framework from which to approach law.
Though he and Webb both worked at CPJ, Nichols was in a traditional intern role — fulfilling his CPE requirement — not part of Webb’s Sacred Sector cohort. For about 20 years, CPJ has regularly worked with Seminary interns who aren’t looking to complete their required field education in a traditional church setting. “Because I don't anticipate being in a full-time ministry role, I wanted to be outside of a church context,” Nichols says.
“The fact there was a think tank that was Christian, and that was thoughtfully Christian in how they did things, was very appealing,” he says.
Looking back over the semester of working through the “Political Discipleship” curriculum together, both Nichols and Webb highlight how meaningful the group members have found this time of respectful discussion. “That’s been encouraging that a group of people from different backgrounds, different traditions, has sat down and has freely discussed substantive issues related to politics,” Nichols says.
Even if they have not reached a consensus, “it was good that we got together as Christians and talked about these substantive issues and sought change,” he says, “or thought about how our Christian faith informs our desire for change, or what it would mean to create change politically.”