Bradenton teen's passion for Christ lives through tragedy

MANATEE -- Sierra Johnson had a passion: to share her love for Christ with others, usually through music.

During the week her voice filled the hallways at Manatee School for the Arts, where she would sing on her way to class. And at church, she was part of the Journey Assembly of God worship team.

Despite spending the final days of her life silent at a Lakeland hospital where she died Thursday, Sierra touched the lives of others, and still does.

"It speaks to the greatness of our God; He is still honoring Sierra's main passion and desire while she was on this earth," said her cousin, Caleb DeHart. "For that and more, we can't help but rejoice in our time of ache."

The 17-year-old from Manatee County died six days after sustaining critical brain injuries Sept. 8 when she was ejected from an SUV on Interstate 4 in Polk County. Sierra, five other teenagers and a 26-year-old from Journey Assembly of God were injured when a tire failed, causing their SUV to flip. The group was part of a four-vehicle caravan traveling to a Christian music festival in Orlando.

As loved ones stood by Sierra, her story quickly spread outside the hospital walls. DeHart created a Facebook page called "Prayer For Sierra Johnson" following the accident as a way for family and friends to receive updates on Sierra's condition.

The page, created Sunday, had almost 10,000 "likes" Friday afternoon

from people throughout Florida, across the country and around the world. People from South America, California, Virginia, Tennessee and places in between continue to write words of encouragement. Many share scriptures, song lyrics and similar personal experiences to remind the family they are not alone. Most of the posts begin with some variation of "I don't know you, but ..."

DeHart said the family has been baffled by the number of strangers offering help, prayers and support.

"It doesn't make sense in your mind, but people come together in the body of Christ," DeHart said. "When you see it in action, it overwhelms you."

The family has asked themselves numerous times what made Sierra's story captivate the hearts of others.

"There is nothing ordinary about her," DeHart said. "We've had a couple of people say there's a twinkle in her eye that catches you. I can't say what that is, but I believe it's the spirit of God in her."

DeHart said one of the greatest blessings the family has received is seeing how Sierra's struggles have affected the faith of nonbelievers and those who's faith has wavered.

"God does nothing in vain and the Lord does incredible things," DeHart said. "People have said Sierra brought them back to the Lord just by praying for us and that alone is huge."

Sierra, nicknamed Bubblez, wore her heart on her sleeve and a smile on her face. DeHart said she would be overjoyed to see the unity of those praying for and supporting her family.

"She had been saying the last few weeks to her parents that it felt like she was going to do something bigger, it was going to happen soon," DeHart said. "She wanted to be famous, not for herself, so she could lead people to the Lord in a greater way."

Sierra, in her short life, has left a lasting impact on her family, friends and strangers.

"She was a very positive influence on everybody," said Terry Divine, assistant principal at Manatee School for the Arts. "There's no way that she couldn't have had an impact on everybody."

And though the school is grieving, Divine said her happiness is still contagious.

"One of the students came in (Friday) and looked at me and said, 'I just want to dance.' And that's what Sierra would've wanted to do as well," Divine said.

In fact, the family announced on Facebook that Sierra had passed and is now dancing with Jesus. In less than 24 hours, the post received more than 900 comments and almost 3,000 "likes."

"The only thing Sierra wanted in life was to be the catalyst to bring people to their knees to seek the Lord's face in prayer," the statement reads. "The amazing thing is that these past remaining few days of her life have been turned into just that. We know some on here right now have stated they aren't Christians, don't believe in God, or haven't prayed like this ever before or in a long time, but you did on behalf of Sierra. You spoke to her best friend, Jesus. Her life's goal accomplished. You were getting to know God."

Donations can be made at www.sierrajohnson.org or at Bank of America. Bracelets, reading "This too shall pass," are being sold at local businesses, with 100 percent of the profits benefiting the family.

Elizabeth Johnson, Herald crime reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041.