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Hillsborough County judge gave up gavel for service, found love

TAMPA Monica Sierra sacrificed dearly last year when she resigned her Hillsborough circuit court judgeship and moved to the Middle East to minister to Palestinian refugees. • The devout Christian felt called to join Living Bread International Church, but the decision would cost the respect of family and many supporters who worked so hard to get her elected in 2002. • Sierra, at the time Hillsborough County's youngest elected judge, fasted and prayed. Was she really meant to leave a six-figure salary, Mercedes-Benz and full social life for evangelical and humanitarian work?

Confirmation came months later when New England banker Doug Schaefer arrived in Jerusalem, sent by his church to learn more about Living Bread's mission.

During his brief stay of just over a week, he and Sierra went for a walk along the streets of Jerusalem.

"It defies logic, but it was clear to me our coming together was in God's hands," he said.

The feeling wasn't mutual —at least not at first. While pleased to have his help, especially as she wrote a business plan for the ministry, Sierra called Schaefer "a distraction."

"I asked him not to call or write," she says. "I had given up too much to lose focus."

Call to serve

Sierra booked her first visit to Israel two years ago, after hearing Living Bread founder the Rev. Karen Dunham speak about the nondenominational church to a Bible study group. At a five-star hotel that summer, Sierra enjoyed a week "strictly as a tourist, with no intention of going back."

But she heard Dunham speak a second time and Sierra saw herself in Jerusalem establishing an office for ministry volunteers.

"The Lord called me back,'' said Sierra, a self-professed Type A personality. "They didn't even have one file folder.''

Chief Judge Manuel Menendez granted a three-month leave of absence and Sierra left after Christmas 2007, shocking colleagues, voters and family who had raised $100,000 for her campaign.

"It was a tremendous sacrifice … my future as a judge. My parents were so hurt they didn't speak to me,'' said Sierra, who grew up attending St. Lawrence Catholic Church on Himes Avenue until joining Bayshore United Methodist in South Tampa six years ago.

She kept her townhouse in the Bayshore area, taking only two suitcases and three pairs of shoes, leaving at least 150 pairs behind.

"I thought it would be wonderful for someone else to do,'' said her father, lawyer Michael Sierra. "I was not in favor of her going into that dangerous region and unequivocally let her know that."

But she's "stubborn" and "strong-headed," her father said.

Sierra divided her time between the organization's ministry house in Jerusalem and a Hebron office in the West Bank, navigating guarded checkpoints and optimizing sporadic water and electricity.

Beyond administrative duties, she organized English classes and soccer games in refugee camps and helped distribute food, clothing and baby formula, "always with Christian education attached, Old and New Testaments in Arabic," she adds.

To her parents' dismay, less than one month into her sabbatical, Judge Sierra wrote to Gov. Charlie Crist, resigning from the bench one year shy of completing her first term.

Praying for guidance

At the behest of his pastor, Doug Schaefer, 46, flew to Israel in July 2008 to spend a week volunteering with Living Bread. On a quiet Saturday walk, the divorced father of two young sons told Sierra that the Lord sent him.

To be her husband.

Sierra, now 42 and never married, sent him packing.

Then, she says, she prayed intensely. A week or so later, she picked up the phone.

"I don't know when," she told him, "but we're supposed to be together."

The couple grew closer with every e-mail, Skype chat and call. They saw each other in Canada and Florida when Sierra went on a speaking tour for the mission last fall. She was back in Hebron by October when unrest broke out.

"I could hear bombs as Israelis exploded tunnels," she said. When she prayed for guidance, she saw herself in Tampa, voting in her precinct.

"I don't get visions," she says, "but the image was clear." She was to come home. Her plane landed in Tampa the day before the presidential election.

Back in her townhouse, weighing 25 pounds less than when she left, she looked forward to Schaefer spending Thanksgiving with her family. He looked forward to asking her father's permission to marry her.

"I was overjoyed that the Lord brought Doug into her life," says Michael Sierra. "She had offers in the past … this time she felt the Lord had sent him."

The couple incorporated ancient Jewish elements in the March 21 black-tie wedding at the Vinoy Renaissance Resort in St. Petersburg, featuring '50s band the Fabulous Rockers.

Sierra's three nephews opened the ceremony by blowing the shofar ram's horn. They signed a Ketubah (Hebrew wedding certificate) and Sierra circled Schaefer seven times in a Jericho march to symbolically knock down walls between them.

"The marriage was arranged by our Father," Sierra said.

Since returning from a honeymoon in Hawaii, the newlyweds share their homes in Florida and Connecticut, traveling frequently between the two. Sierra is studying for the Connecticut bar exam and working with her former law partner, her father.

Life as husband and wife will be "whatever God ordains,'' says Schaefer.

Adds Sierra: "We're just waiting for his next assignment."

Amy Scherzer can be reached at ascherzer@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3332.

Hillsborough County judge gave up gavel for service, found love 07/09/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 9, 2009 3:41pm]

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