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From the Underground Railroad to asylum seekers today, MI faith leaders have long offered sanctuary

Flora Rranxburgaj, left, and her husband Ded Rranxburgaj, right,
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
Flora Rranxburgaj, left, and her husband Ded Rranxburgaj, right, have sought sanctuary in Detroit's Central United Methodist Church for nearly two years after Ded was issued a deportation order in 2017.

It's been nearly two years since Albanian immigrant Ded Rranxburgaj and his wife, Flora, took refuge at Central United Methodist Church in Detroit.

Flora has multiple sclerosis and Ded is her sole caregiver. He had been allowed to stay in the United States on humanitarian grounds until a deportation order from ICE came down in 2017, prompting the couple to seek sanctuary at the church.

Reverend Jill Hardt Zundel is the pastor of Central United Methodist Church. She said that a federal judge recently refused to make a decision on Ded Rranxburgaj's request to remove the label “fugitive” from his case. The judge instead pointed the family to the U.S. Court of Appeals, where it could take up to nine months for their case to be heard. 

Flora is a “humanitarian stay,” meaning she can leave the church without fear of deportation. But Ded has not stepped off of church grounds since the couple first sought sanctuary. The church provides on-site medical and dental care when he needs it. 

Zundel said that the church’s congregation works together to support the Rranxburgaj family by hosting fundraisers and volunteering to drive Flora and her youngest son to the doctor and to school. They receive additional support from a Jewish temple and other religious groups.

“It takes a lot of money because it’s a family of four and the main breadwinner — Ded — cannot leave and cannot have a job,” Zundel said.

University of Detroit Mercy professor Roy Finkenbine specializes in the history of the Civil War era and the Underground Railroad. He said that religious institutions have a long history of being involved in America’s “sanctuary movement.” In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, churches provided those escaping slavery with “food, clothing, medical care” and transportation to safer parts of North America.

Today, Zundel said that faith communities in Michigan—whether churches, mosques, or temples—are offering both public and private sanctuary to those in need. She noted that public-facing sanctuary efforts often garner media attention, which gives the public a sense of what asylum seekers experience.

Finkenbine said that reformers across United States history have fought to make this country “a welcoming place for immigrants of all stripes.” He believes that “every few generations,” people tend to forget about that history. 

“I think that the tradition of America is one where we historically point to positive change in the past and forget that there are contemporary analogies,” Finkenbine said.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.

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