Young Leaders Stand for Welcome: An Interview with Taryn Connelly | LIRS
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Young Leaders Stand for Welcome: An Interview with Taryn Connelly

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If you’re looking for evidence that young people have the determination and leadership ability to  “Stand for Welcome,” you need look no further than Taryn Connelly and her friends.

She and fellow high school student Stephanie Gaines were key to the Southeastern Synod Lutheran Youth Organization (SESLYO)’s introduction of a resolution at the Southeastern Synod supporting “just, humane and comprehensive immigration reform and the adoption of the DREAM Act.” The resolution also encouraged “the rostered leaders, congregations, and youth of the Southeastern Synod to be involved actively in conversations about immigration with their congregations and communities and to advocate for the rights and humane treatment of all people no matter their race, gender, age, or citizenship status.” You can read the entire resolution by clicking here.

We’re grateful to Taryn Connelly and her fellow members of SESLYO, an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) organization, for their resolution. To learn more, we asked her about the details of the SESLYO effort in an email interview.

What got you interested in immigration issues?

To be honest, I only recently became aware of what is happening in regard to immigration in our country around the time Georgia passed its new laws on immigration. Obviously, we hear about illegal immigration in school and on the news, and since the immigration bill passed in Georgia just last year, it’s hard not to hear something about it.

At our SESLYO Assembly in February, we opened up discussion to see if there was anything transpiring in our Synod that we felt the Youth should be active in and aware of.  The topic of immigration came up and after talking just a short time, it was clear that this was a topic that SESLYO wanted to take on.  Just to be sure, I did some of my own research and found that much of what we’re told and what is reported on this subject is not always true. My research on the topic of immigration, accompanied by an upcoming week of volunteer service just after the Synod Assembly with the Migrant Farmworker Project, really got me fired up about the injustices that are happening every day.  The Migrant Farmworker Project is a collaborative project with other healthcare schools in which basic healthcare is provided to migrant farm workers at no charge. I volunteered through the School of Nursing at Emory University for a Senior Capstone Project I was working on for my senior year at my high school.

How did you all come up with the idea for this resolution?

SESLYO is by no means new to the idea of presenting a resolution to our Southeastern Synod Assembly. Two years ago, we authored a resolution and letter addressed to every congregation in our synod, asking them to lay down their arms and walk with us; our goal was to inspire harmony after the discord that occurred during the 2009 Churchwide Assembly after the sexuality statement was made. It seemed to work. The goal of our resolution was really to get the conversation started and to encourage churches to discuss within their own congregations what can be done to help and how we can advocate in our communities and as a church for the rights of all.

What is the immigration resolution about?

The Immigration Reform, Dream Act, and Bishop Gordy’s own work with immigration legislation in the Southeast created a solid foundation for our work in immigration.  Our SESLYO board created a task force and worked together over the course of the two months.  We talked about ideas and beliefs, trying to narrow down what we wanted to say in our reform. Then, the week before resolutions were due, Stephanie Gaines and I, with the aid of one of our adult advisors, Pastor Michael Jannett, spent time working together writing, researching, citing, and editing the resolution.

A big part of what the Immigration Task Force talked about was the unequal treatment of immigrant students. The SESLYO board felt that it was unfair for motivated, high-caliber students, who had as much a chance of changing the world as any of us “documented” students, to be at such a great disadvantage when it came to attending college and earning a degree. We felt that it wasn’t enough for just a few people to know about the misconceptions in the immigration information reported day to day. As a church, the idea of sanctuary is one that rings true for many; we want to provide that shelter, warm meal, and care, but because of some of the laws we can’t, and that’s just not something we were okay with.

How did it go with the vote on the resolution?

It was voted on Saturday, June 2, 2012 at the ELCA Southeastern Synod Assembly. In theory, there would be between two and four lay voting members from each congregation, as well as clergy from each congregation in the synod. The resolution was announced and read, recommended for acceptance by the Referencing Council Committee, then the floor was opened for discussion. Stephanie spoke to it, being that she was the SESLYO Representative on Synod Council and therefore she submitted the resolution formally. Then I spoke to it as well. A vote was taken — not unanimous, but there was a large majority in favor of the resolution.

There are lots of choices for young people when it comes to making a difference. What made you choose the synod, as opposed to some other avenue, to change the world for the better?

One reason I felt confident going through our synod is that it’s a safe place; church is a safe place, and I thought that the resolution would be well received and at least we’d get a chance to speak our mind before being shot down.  It also seemed like a good place to get an honest opinion from others that could guide us in stating our case.  It may seem silly, but when you’re sailing into rough water, it’s nice to have a lifeboat nearby. Also, our church is comprised of some pretty forward thinkers and I knew that with the work the bishop had done and from conversations with lay members and clergy, our synod would not only listen to what we had to say, but would also be willing and excited to help us.  I thought by working with other congregations we could have open discussions about the current legislation and what we can do to ratify it.

Did you encounter any skepticism from people who aren’t your age, and how did you respond?

Actually, no! Aside from a few “red cards” during the actual vote, everyone I spoke to afterwards seemed impressed and proud of us. I was surprised by the number of people who were willing to provide us with some positive feedback; surprised and relieved, to be honest.

Where do you see yourselves taking your work on behalf of immigrants, once this is done?

I actually just got back from a five-day-long trip down to Moultrie, Georgia where I was able to work with migrant farm workers who are not receiving healthcare because of a lack of insurance, the inability to take time off from work, or a question of documentation status. While this doesn’t do much for the injustice in the system, it’s a start. It was such an eye-opening experience! There were men working in the fields who had serious physical ailments, the kind that would not only inhibit their ability to work but also disrupt their personal lives, and they’d been living with them for months, even a year! It’s disturbing to think that even though there are laws protecting these individuals — the documented ones — their lives are not in any way easy.  It shook me to the core… I’m also hoping to start an internship with Inspiritus in their Immigration and Refugee Services area, so I’m really excited for that now. We were all immigrants at one point or another and I think we should extend the same liberties to men and women of every nationality as our forefathers had done.

As it stands now, SESLYO is in the process of working on a devotion or a small discussion to be approved for next year’s assembly. We didn’t get a chance to submit a letter or devotion to be sent to the congregations this past assembly, so the plan is to work on one and have it voted on next assembly for distribution throughout the synod. The devotion would be designed to open a conversation and get the individual members aware — not just those in attendance at Assembly Weekend.

Taryn Connelly’s comments from the discussion in assembly on June 2, 2012:

This resolution was written in order to get the conversation started. This is not the easiest or friendliest conversation, especially in the southeast, but it’s one that has to be had and in my opinion is well overdue. We realize this is not a favored topic, but in order to move forward toward Christ’s kingdom, I ask everyone to reflect thoughtfully with open hearts and open minds and try to educate yourself further in order to make a fair and understood decision. We are blessed to live in a world of opportunity.

What kind of humans – what kind of Christians – would we be if we took the same opportunities, education, or refuge away from those willing to fight for it? Our “privileges” are opportunities a majority of our world couldn’t even dream of. What harm is done in opening our arms? What pain is caused in offering a hand to someone in need? What is wrong with helping strong, driven young men and women through higher education in order to help shape our society? How is it fair to divide families for years? We are called to evangelize, to open our hearts and doors, to be disciples and Jesus to others… when did Jesus ever close the door to anyone?

No matter the decision you come to today, I ask you to go forth with an open heart and always seek the truth, do not lean on just the media or stereotypes when faced with a difficult decision – especially one which affects the lives of more than just yourself.


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