James 5:13 says, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.”
There’s a Timothy alum who lives out that mission in fullness. Except, she sings in her suffering and in her joy.
If you were in high school with Ariana Smith (‘17) and you remember anything about her, chances are you remember her singing. When she was a student at Timothy, Ariana led chapel band, was a frequent competitor in the variety show, a member of the Fine Arts Committee, and a classical vocal student at the Merit School of Music in Chicago. On the weekends, she’d lead worship at her church and compete in opera and musical theatre competitions; during the week, she’d lead worship at Timothy and hone her craft in all of her activities.
But while everyone knew her for her singing voice, fewer people knew about a different kind of voice she had been developing since first grade— that of a songwriter. Most of her life, Ariana kept those songs to herself, but this past year she finally released two of her original songs for the whole world to hear.
Her journey to this release started early. When most kids were learning their ABC’s, Ariana was recording songs onto her Dad’s Nokia phone and singing to the other kids on the playground. In middle school, she began to take her writing more seriously, and in high school she got her first guitar. Throughout high school, she says she was “pulled in a lot of different directions” musically, but her songwriting was how she found herself connecting with the Lord and with herself the most. She really started to pay attention to her written voice around her senior year of high school, but only her close friends at Timothy ever heard what she was capable of.
After graduating from Timothy, Ariana and all of her talent went to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. There, Ariana found a whole other host of musical activities to take part in— including an acapella group that would go on to open for a show at Radio City Music Hall (where she sang the solo) and that won an episode of the PBS show “Sing That Thing." As a solo performer or as the lead singer in a band, Ariana opened for several concerts, including for the R&B duo Lion Babe and the rapper tobi lou.
“Still,” Ariana says, “that wasn’t my own.”
Even though she was performing left and right, up until the end of her junior year, her original songs only existed as voice memos on her phone. That is, until the pandemic hit and Ariana was sent home from her junior year of college.
The pandemic was especially devastating for Ariana, being someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety for years (and is wonderfully open about that struggle). Throughout high school, she managed those issues through her relationships with Mrs. Garcia, who at the time was the school librarian (she now teaches 9th grade English) and Mrs. Piersma, the school counselor. Of course, she also has always found an outlet in her music. But like many others who suffer from anxiety, when the entire world was turned upside down this March, it was devastating to both Ariana’s creativity and her mind.
“I felt kind of trapped in my physical life,” Ariana remembers, “and I just wanted something that was mine out in the world.” So, she reached out and asked one of her friends to help her produce her first single, “Bridge to You”.
When the song came out this spring, “it felt like a load off,” Ariana remembers. “It was like, wow, I finally have something that’s mine out in the world.” The song was extremely well-received in the Bowdoin community and beyond.
Soon enough, Ariana’s creative flow came back. She released her second song, “nostalgia” this past September. She says the song is about the intense process of mourning she went through this past semester. Ariana remembers, “I was mourning the loss of my semester, lamenting over the state of the world...I was mourning the loss of my childhood.” “nostalgia” is about the wrestling and the personal growth that she and many others went through during the pandemic, but also demonstrates Ariana’s ability to wrestle something beautiful from that loss.
Even after her research project in the Arctic and a quarter of her junior year were cancelled, Ariana fervently believes that there is beauty to be gained from our losses— and not just new music. “The Lord is faithful,” she says. “I think that he’s using this time to pivot us to rely on him. When else would we have entirely stopped everything we are doing to be able to spend all day with Him?” Ariana says that because of the pandemic, she has a renewed sense of obedience to wherever the Lord calls her.
Which brings us to the most incredible part of Ariana’s character: her faith. While most people in the Midwest have never heard of Bowdoin College— where Ariana is now a senior— in the Northeast, it’s known as one of the most prestigious colleges in New England (their acceptance rate is around 10%). It’s also, according to the Princeton Review, the number eleven least religious college in the United States. Ariana remembers when she first arrived, it was jarringly different from the communities she had grown up in.
“I felt the Lord was calling me there,” she recalls. “And I was like, what? What do you mean?” But, true to her character, Ariana obeyed the Lord’s calling and went.
When she arrived at Bowdoin, she found there was zero Christian community on campus— no student groups, no Bible studies— nothing. She plugged into extracurriculars and found a close friend group that she loves, but she says “They don’t know the Lord like I do...there are aspects of my life and things that I feel that may never be understood.” Ariana felt alone in her faith.
So, she started something. She and one of her friends founded Bowdoin Women in Christ as a Sunday Bible study, with only around three to five attendees every week. But they kept meeting, and they kept growing until, inspired by Ariana’s endeavor, some other students founded the Christian Students Association. Suddenly, “from this small seed of loneliness”, Ariana remembers, “the Lord grew a large community of more than 30 people.” She knows now why God wanted her to be at Bowdoin.
“But,” she clarifies, “it wasn’t me...it was the Lord through me and his sustaining of me and his mercy and his grace.”
These days, because of the Lord’s work through Ariana, there are multiple Christian campus groups, a bus that will bring students to the local church every Sunday, and a growing community of disciples.
“I think me being at Bowdoin is a prime example to students who go to Timothy and then to a secular college, and are afraid of losing their faith,” she says. “Like, if you are seeking the Lord, he will provide. He is not just going to bring you out there and abandon you...that is not His nature at all.” Even far away from home, Ariana has been blessed with a Christian community.
To those who want to follow in her footsteps and venture out to a secular school, Ariana has plenty of advice. “First,” she says, “stay in your Word.” From personal experience, she says that even if you’re not getting anything out of your reading, the point is that you are still trying. She encourages any Christian to also not just be friends with other Christians, as Christ Himself was always building relationships with non-believers. Ariana knows from personal experience that when you adjust to a secular community, your faith and your identity will be challenged. “You have to know yourself and know who the Lord has created you to be,” and that you have to make your faith your own so that you’re not just fitting the mold of whatever community you’re in. Her main word of advice, however: “know Christ’s character before you say that you’re emulating him.”
As Ariana looks toward graduate school (where she’s planning on studying Indigineous studies), she’s going to carry that mindset, her fierce intellect, and her art with her in whatever community she ends up in. She’s prepared to make something beautiful from whatever she’s given.