When Ded and Flora walked through the doors of Central UMC in Detroit in January 2018, little did they know they would still call the church home 18 months later.
JOHN E. HARNISH
Michigan Conference Communications
Michigan has the second highest rate of arrests of immigrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). According to a front page article in the Detroit Free Press, Michigan’s rate of arrest is about twice as high as the national average. Diego Bonesatti, an immigrant advocate and Director of Legal Services at Michigan United, says, “You have families ripped apart. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the immigrant communities, a feeling there is nowhere to turn.” (Detroit Free Press, June 20, 2019.) Flora and Ded Rranxburgaj and their sons turned to Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit and it’s been their home for a year and a half.
Originally from Albania, the family fled the oppression and hardship of communism, lived for a time in Europe and Canada before finally coming to the USA in 2001. Ded has worked as a cook, construction worker and landscaper. “I did whatever I could to earn money”, he said. “I worked for 17 years without a break.” Flora suffers from multiple sclerosis and Ded has been her primary caregiver while their sons, one who is a DACA recipient and the other a U.S. citizen, go to school. The eldest son, Lawrence, just graduated from U of M Dearborn with a double major in finance and business and the younger son, Eric, is a junior in high school.
The Rranxburgajs came to the USA seeking political asylum and when their appeals were denied, they were able to stay on a humanitarian basis because of Flora’s illness. Ded has a work authorization card, has earned his living and paid taxes, but he is not safe from deportation. With the more aggressive approach of ICE under current immigration policies, there has been an upsurge in “community arrests”, meaning that people like Ded can be arrested at home, in the workplace, when arriving for an appointment with Immigration Services, or on the street even if they have no criminal record. The threat of arrest led them to seek sanctuary, and Central Church welcomed them.
In January, 2017, the congregation at Central voted to become a “sanctuary congregation”. The Rranxburgaj family is the second family they have housed, following a family from Africa with nowhere else to go. The Rev. Dr. Jill Hardt Zundel, Senior Pastor at Central, says, “Protecting the weak and vulnerable—that’s what this church has always done and will always do.” Central UMC is the only United Methodist church in Michigan to take in sanctuary families. First UMC in Ferndale has approved becoming a sanctuary church but has not housed anyone yet.
Zundel reports that after 18 months, the family is showing the strain. Ded has developed diabetes and high cholesterol, and Flora has had complications with her illness. “They only expected to be here for a couple months, but now after 18 months, the stress is wearing on them and they sometimes feel hopeless.” As a way of encouraging hope, the Central congregation hosted a fund-raising dinner on July 2. Ded used his skill as a cook to prepare the meal and raise money for their expenses.
“In the light of the increasingly hostile rhetoric toward immigrants and more aggressive ICE policies,” says Zundel, “every congregation needs to ask what it means for them to fulfill the call of Jesus–‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’ Every church can’t be a sanctuary church, but all churches can be part of the sanctuary movement.”
For example, First United Methodist Church Birmingham gave $2,500 to the sanctuary fund at Detroit Central to support their sanctuary ministry. Other churches have offered to provide rides for Flora to go to her doctor appointments and other forms of assistance. Many Michigan congregations are actively involved with JFON (Justice for Our Neighbors) which offers free legal assistance to immigrants in the state.
JFON is supported by the Michigan Conference. You can learn more about their work on their Facebook Page, Justice For Our Neighbors – Michigan. If you would like more information about ways you can participate in Central’s sanctuary ministry in support of the Rranxburgaj family, contact Rev. Zundel at 313/965-5422.
Flora and Ded are still waiting for the final outcome of their case, but while they are waiting, they have found a home at Central United Methodist Church in Detroit.