Alumna Shauna Niequist ’98, Alumna of the Year at Homecoming, spoke in chapel Oct. 12 about the three greatest things Westmont gave her: friends, vocation and a deeper faith.
Niequist, New York Times best-selling author of “Cold Tangerines,” “Bittersweet,” “Bread & Wine, Savor,” and “Present Over Perfect,” did an interview with Oprah Winfrey in a special program about “Faith and Perfectionism.”
She says hospitality and storytelling are two of her greatest passions. “My story is about God,” she says. “It’s a story about redemption. It’s a story about what God can do within the human heart, and so is your story. The gift we give each other when we tell our stories is we make space and possibility for the things that we are all longing for. If you can rebuild your heart, maybe He can rebuild mine. If redemption can come to this broken part of your life, then maybe it can come to mine. Storytelling is a sacred gift that we can offer each other.”
At Westmont, Niequist met friends for the entire journey of her life — lifelong friends and lifeline friends. “Invest yourself as deeply as possible in the relationships that you find yourself in right now,” she says. “You may not be able to see it now, but these might be the people who walk you through the most difficult and dark passages of your life, and the investment you’re making now will never be wasted.”
Westmont gave Niequist a vision for her vocation as a writer. “Westmont taught me what books, language and storytelling can do,” she says. “When I left Westmont, I had within me a deep desire to be a part of that conversation. I knew that words were going to be my greatest tools, and I knew that I would do anything. God used books in my life in extraordinary ways. I so badly wanted to possibly someday have that kind of effect in another person’s life.”
But fear and practicality consumed her for the 10 years after she graduated. “I encourage you to hold the fear and the sort of obsessive focus on practicality at bay as long as you can,” she says. “Pay attention to your deep passions. Pay attention to what you love. Pay attention to what makes you come alive. Those are clues to your vocation. Pay attention now to the seeds of your vocation that are being watered and coming to life right now. I am so thankful for what Westmont gave me in terms of a vision for the work I hope to do for the whole of my life.”
Most importantly, Westmont gave her the skills, space and the bravery to work out her own salvation. “To walk my own, difficult, messy, circuitous spiritual journey,” she says. She quoted Philippians 2 to demonstrate that her salvation involves fear and trembling. “There’s action to it. It’s not done. You don’t figure it out all at once. You don’t finish it. You work it out in an ongoing basis. And there’s fear and trembling because it’s hard, because it’s difficult to say I have real serious doubts. It’s difficult to say I have questions about my faith that, I am scared to say out loud. But this was a place I was able to do that and I believe it saved my faith — and it saved my life.”
She encouraged students to be more honest and brave in their spiritual journey. “I believe in being born again and again in the continual process of conversion — becoming more deeply devoted, more deeply honest, more deeply brave and more completely transformed,” she says. “And I think this is an extraordinary place for you to take those next several steps.”
She encouraged students to bring their doubts out to the light and to let their wounds heal in meaningful ways. “You’re going to have to do it over and over,” she said. “If you learn the skills now to dismantle and rebuild your faith, to let it transform, to leave behind some practices that no longer serve you and learn some new ones, to ask hard questions, this is the work of spiritual maturity: conversion upon conversion upon conversion.”
She says she was truly transformed her senior year, but admitted that it never would have happened without the Westmont community.
“Continue to have a truly brave, sometimes awkward, deeply honest spiritual journey, because there will be a time in your life when you need your faith to sustain you to even make it through the day,” she says. “You will need the grounding of your faith as an anchor in a terrible storm, and if all you have are the answers you were given as a child, never tested never wrestled with, if you shut those doubts up tight in a box and say you’ll deal with it later, you will not have the durable, grounding, sustaining faith that you need for the most difficult passages in your life.
“Wherever you are on your journey, in the bleakest, most lonely places, or in the most lovely, life-giving places, I pray you will always find your home as you settle deeply and more deeply into the very heart of Jesus.”