Meet the Participants

Sarah Bassin
Executive Director, NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change

sarah bassinSarah Bassin grew up in Overland Park, Kansas and graduated summa cum laude with a BA in religion and history from Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Having served as student rabbi of Congregation Bamidbar Shel Ma’alah in Victorville, CA, and as rabbinic intern at the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, Sarah has spent the last portion of her rabbinic training as the program manager at the Center for Muslim/Jewish Engagement where she implemented the first comprehensive survey on Muslim-Jewish relations in the United States.  She received a certificate in Jewish Communal Service in August 2010 and was ordained as a rabbi in May 2011.  In 2012, Sarah received a fellowship with the Joshua Venture Group Dual Investment Program that supports rising Jewish innovators and their projects with a grant of $100,000 over two years.

I think that the most difficult part is remembering that I’m not in dialogue to convince others of my position.  No matter how much I practice dialogue, I think it is a natural human impulse to want others to agree with us.  It takes discipline and resiliency to remember that this is not the goal.

Ryan Bell
Senior Pastor, Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church

Ryan Bell Headshot_2013-5_Edit_lighterRyan Bell is the senior pastor of the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church in Hollywood, California, a clergy leader with LA Voice/PICO in Los Angeles, and serves on several interfaith councils including the Guibord Center and the Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative. He is Adjunct Professor of Global Studies at Azusa Pacific University as well as a regular contributor to the Religion section of Huffington Post. Ryan received his Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2011. He is co-founder and co-managing editor of The Hillhurst Review and maintains a personal blog at

What surprised me most about the dialogue is how easy it was. We came into the conversation with respect for each other. We sat face to face and looked each other in the eye. How can you disrespect someone under those circumstances? Disagree, yes; sometimes strongly. But it was not difficult to be respectful. This gives me hope for the world.

Judy Gilliland
Interfaith Relations, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

judyJudy Gilliland is a mother of eight children, grandmother to nineteen children, and wife to one husband. When she whistles, her children can hear her two blocks away.  She is the past President of the Interreligious Council of Southern California and sits on the boards of three other interfaith organizations. She makes Chocolate Avocado Mousse to die for! (Ask her for the recipe).

The most challenging aspect of this dialogue for me was being one of the “new kids on the block” and feeling inadequate to dialogue with the brilliant, articulate people in the group.   By moving ahead and trusting in God’s help, I was drawn into their circle and welcomed with open arms.   My views were heard and respected.  This warm acceptance freed me to really listen and understand their beliefs and experiences.  I look forward to working together with my new friends in projects that widen our circle and include others.

Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith
Pastor, Saint Andrew Russian Greek Catholic Church, Los Angeles Archdiocese

AlexieFather Alexei Smith was born and raised in the Hyde Park area of Los Angeles, CA, and attended local Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools. Awarded a Master of Divinity Degree, with High Distinction, in 1987, he was ordained a Greek Catholic Priest of the Eparchy of Newton, MA, that same year, and assigned as Pastor of Saint Andrew Russian Greek Catholic Church in El Segundo, CA, and also Administrator of Saint Paul Melkite Greek Catholic Mission in the same city.

Father Alexei served as an elected member of the Council of Priests of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for six years, serving as Vice President of the Council and Chair of the Priestly Life and Ministry Committee for the last two years of his service on the Council.  He is currently a member of the Spirituality Commission of the Archdiocese, and has been invested as a Knight Commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

Father Alexei served as president of the Interreligious Council of Southern California for five years and is the recipient of numerous commendations and awards: in 2007 he was awarded the prestigious Religious Leadership Award of the Valley Interfaith Council. .  In 2011, Father Alexei was elected President of the Southern California Ecumenical Council, the first Catholic to hold that position.

Rev. Damali “Najuma” Smith-Pollard
Pastor of Family Ministries, Christ Our Redeemer African Methodist Episcopal Church

Najuma2A native of Southern California, Rev. Najuma became a member of First AME Church in Los Angeles in September of 1989; a move that changed her life forever.  While there, under the leadership of Rev. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray, she immersed herself in the church’s ministries and served in the Sunday School Department, choir, usher board and as a counselor for the Youth “Lock-In” services.  Additionally, she served in ministries beyond the walls of the church, including the Social Concerns Commission. Rev. Najuma was ordained as a Deacon in 1996 and as an Itinerant Elder in the AME Church in 2000.  Since that time, she has served as Assistant Pastor at Christ Our Redeemer AME Church in Irvine, California; Pastor of A.K. Quinn AME Church in Moreno Valley, California; Pastor of St. James AME Church, in Los Angeles, California for 7 years and has recently returned to Christ Our Redeemer AME Church in Irvine, California to serve as Pastor of Family Ministries.

In addition to her ministerial duties, Rev. Najuma is Program Manager for the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement, and Executive Director for the Southern California School of Ministry. She is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Ministry, with United Theological Seminary. Najuma has several hobbies including reading, going to movies, skiing, snowboarding, writing and traveling. She is wonderfully married to Felix Pollard and they have three sons Daniel, Dillon and Dorian.

I tell my congregation that while our church has its position, and I have to honor that as a clergy, my personal stand is and has evolved. And I’m looking at this through a different lens.

Rev. Dr. Neil Thomas
Senior Pastor, Metropolitan Community Church, Los Angeles

Neil-Thomas-2012Reverend Dr. Neil G. Thomas is currently the Senior Pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church, Los Angeles, the founding church of Metropolitan Community Churches, an international movement of churches reaching in and beyond the gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, and inter-sex community. In 2002 he enrolled in the Doctoral program at San Francisco Theological College (Presbyterian)  He graduated with his Doctor of Ministry in October 2009. Reverend Thomas served as the Senior Pastor of Metropolitan Community Church, Bournemouth following his Ordination, serving in this capacity for 12 years.  In 2002 he answered a call to ministry in Los Angeles where he continues to serve as Senior Pastor.

Well known for his social activism, he has been instrumental in feeding programs for the homeless, night and day shelters, safer sex initiatives, establishing relations with police and LGBTQ communities, Over the Rainbow, (a drop in center offering counseling, support and information), LGBTQ youth services, as well as challenging laws that continue discrimination and intolerance. Reverend Thomas currently serves as President of California Faith for Equality, an interfaith coalition that is building a strong voice in bringing about Marriage Equality and LGBTQQI equality in California.


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