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Growing up in a post-9/11 America, Sierra heard many negative things about Muslims. “Looking at the news,” she said, “I saw all the dangers, and people being killed. It was frightening.” But when she was 11 years old, her parents began bringing her to AAi compassion events and her view of Muslims quickly changed. During the first event she attended in Gilroy, Sierra buddied up with a Muslim girl of similar age named Noor. 

“We just clicked,” Sierra said. “I remember telling each other a lot of jokes ... and, of course, we enjoyed serving [a meal to] poor neighbors together.”

That opened the door for Sierra to see Muslims as people, even incredibly kind people who were nothing at all like she’d heard.

In addition to her personal experiences at several AAi compassion events, Sierra credits AAi’s seminar, Loving Muslim Neighbors, with removing numerous misconceptions about Muslims and Islam that are popular among Christians, and with illuminating the immense common ground shared.

Nonetheless, she continued to hear negative reports about Muslims at her Christian high school. These reports were so radically different from her own experience that she quickly determined her topic when she had to develop a persuasive speech for her speech and debate class: Befriending Muslims. She tackled Islamophobia with hard data, compelling stories of personal experience, and careful consideration of biblical commandments.
Sierra did an excellent job delivering her speech twice in the Bay Area, each before a different panel of adult Christian judges, some of whom said her talk pricked their hearts as they realized they’d been avoiding people they should befriend. Sierra then advanced to the national speech competition in Southern California where her topic split the panel of judges. Half gave her excellent marks; the other half did not. The controversial nature of her topic effectively exposed the bias among judges.
Some months later, AAi volunteers gathered for an Abrahamic Family Reunion BBQ. It was the first event of its kind. Volunteers had actually lobbied community leaders for years to make this happen since, “we are always so busy at meal service events,” volunteers insisted, “we just don’t get enough time to relax and have fun together.” So we gathered at Morgan Hill Community Park to enjoy a delicious lunch together, play games, have fun, and just enjoy each other’s company like any other family reunion.

Near the end of our time together, we had an open mic and invited all to share what they’ve learned or appreciated most about our holy work together over the years. Sierra, age 15, then employed her new skills in public speaking to share her story above. As she recounted her journey of transformation, her friendship with Noor, and how her speech ultimately revealed the bias among judges at the national competition, it was clear to all that she knew her controversial topic could jeopardize her chances of winning that competition.

Nonetheless, that was just fine with her, since she obviously won a much greater victory not only among Christian judges whose hearts were stimulated to befriend Muslim neighbors, but also among this amazing assembly of Jews, Christians, and Muslims at the park! In that moment, I looked around to see not a few glossy eyes, deeply touched by the reality that Sierra had truly become an amazing ally of a community that has suffered immense discrimination and opposition from their neighbors.

Unfortunately, ongoing acts of Anti-Semitism have left the Jewish community all too familiar with such discrimination and opposition.
Today Sierra is 23. After graduating from college, she was employed at a megachurch to work with youth and family ministries. We at AAi are so proud of Sierra’s courage and commitment to build bridges of understanding and respect between our communities.

Like Sierra, every Jewish, Christian, or Muslim volunteer who participates in AAi compassion returns to their community with personal experiences that obliterate popular stereotypes of each other. While each poor, homeless, or suffering person assisted by AAi compassion is most precious indeed, equally precious is the transformation of hearts and minds that occurs among many of our volunteers who collaborate in the holy work of serving the most vulnerable among us.
In buddy group discussions at AAi compassion events this month, volunteers were asked, “If you could invent one solution to a serious problem vexing our world today, what would it be?” One replied they would invent a way to replace fearful or hateful thoughts with genuine understanding, empathy, and compassion. Clearly, AAi was created to be part of this solution, and we believe Sierra’s journey can be repeated by countless others with your support.

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