With apologies to the seminary graduates and biblical scholars in her audience at Fresno Pacific University’s 2108 Spring Commencement May 5, 2018, speaker Ashley Swearengin talked about what the university theme Bible verse meant to her and could mean to the graduates.

The verse is Matthew 19:26: “For mortals it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” “I have had so many opportunities over the years to wrestle with what is contained and what is promised in this Scripture,” she said.

The passage follows Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler, who was crestfallen when Jesus told him to sell his many possessions and follow him if he truly wanted to be perfect—to be complete. Jesus was telling the man to surrender what he valued most, which the ruler could not. “As a public official, I’ve been challenged many times by the Lord to walk in a place of surrender, when I had to sacrifice my ego and my own ideas of how I thought things should go,” Swearingen said.

The former Fresno mayor (2009-16) spoke to more than 7,000 people at Selland Arena in downtown Fresno. Some 646 students were eligible to participate: 244 from bachelor’s degree completion programs, 215 from traditional undergraduate programs and 187 from master’s degree programs, including 19 from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. Graduates represented the main Fresno campus and regional campuses in Merced, North Fresno, Visalia and Bakersfield.

Two weeks from a final vote in a particularly brutal political fight, Swearengin recalls sitting at a red light, praying to God while plotting her next move. “I hear him ask me, ‘Ashley, do you trust me with a win?’’’

Her response was immediate. “Oh, yes Lord! I trust you. You can do anything!”

Swearengin sat, admiring her own faith and righteousness. “Then, in my heart, I heard the Lord say, ‘Do you trust me with a loss?’”

The oxygen seemed to leave Swearengin’s body as she thought of what that would do to her reputation, her credibility and her political capital. The answer was “no.” “And there it was,” she said, “I could trust the Lord with the impossible when it was what I wanted.”  

Two weeks later, Swearengin lost the vote, and disaster did not ensue. Today she is president and CEO of Central Valley Community Foundation, a charitable agency serving the six counties of Central California and providing over $100 million in funding to over 650 community benefit organizations over the last decade. “I can honestly say, though, that by losing the vote, I won a renewed heart of surrender to God,” she said.

“As you embark on this season of advancement, my encouragement to and my blessing for you is that you would know the completeness that God has for you. A completeness that doesn’t come from circumstances going your way, but that comes only from surrendering to what God wants and treasuring his will in your hearts more than your own,” Swearengin said.

Student, faculty, community awards

Two graduates shared the prize for highest grade point average, with scores of 4.0, the best available: Hailey Elizabeth Millhollen, communication with an emphasis in media and film studies, and Christa Marie DenHartog, accounting. Millhollen also won the Harold H. Haak Academic Achievement Award.

Elizabeth Lake, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, received the Nickel Excellence in Teaching Award (NETA). The Seminary Service Award went to Central Valley Justice Coalition, a Fresno nonprofit composed of churches, agencies and individuals fighting human trafficking in the region.

The ceremony is available for viewing at fresno.edu/live