Historic Central United Methodist Church in Detroit Is Now a Sanctuary

Jason A. Michael

Rev. Dr. Jill Zundel of Central United Methodist Church in Detroit. Photo courtesy of Rev. Dr. Jill Zundel

With a president and administration that is anything but immigrant friendly, several religious leaders in Michigan have declared their churches to be sanctuaries – safe spaces for undocumented immigrants facing possible deportation. One of those churches is historic Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit, long active in the civil rights and social justice movements.
"When the Syrian refugee crisis was happening we started having a conversation about taking a family in," said Rev. Dr. Jill Zundel, Central's pastor for the past three years. "We have a four-bedroom apartment on our fifth floor. So we kind of revamped that apartment … we put bunk beds in all of the bedrooms. So that was the discussion we had until the election came up. Then the rhetoric that Donald Trump was spewing got all of us heated. So we actually had a press conference here the day after he was elected to say we were going to stand in solidarity with undocumented immigrants and do whatever we could do."
Central's ministry team made the decision in January to become a sanctuary church, becoming the first church in the state to make that bold move. Since then eight additional churches have stepped up and also become sanctuary churches. Central took in their first family in February, an African family that was seeking political asylum and trying to get into Canada. Having been stopped at the border and turned back, the family went to a local immigration attorney who reached out to Central.
"Basically, they were homeless and didn't know what to do," said Zundel. "So they showed up at the immigration attorney's office. The man's father had been murdered for speaking out against the government and his wife had been thrown out a second story window. She was hospitalized once she got here."
Since taking the family in, reaction has been largely positive.
"If you know the history of Central you know this was a no brainer for us," Zundel said. "It was an easy sell for us. I know at some of the other churches I've served at it wouldn't be so easy to talk them into it. But not here. We've got people at our church taking her to the doctors. We've got people grocery shopping. We had one young mom bring her kids to play with the other kids.
"The response from outside the church has been tremendous, especially since we've been in the Free Press," Zundel continued. "We've been getting money mailed to us from people who believe in the cause or different churches that believe in the cause but can't take it upon themselves. So that's been helping us out tremendously."
Right now, Zundel said the primary way for those seeking to support Central's sanctuary efforts is through cash donations.
"It just seems like when I think we're running low we get a donation" said Zundel. "I got a $200 check today that said 'I'm not Methodist but I'm the daughter of an immigrant and I want to help.' So when that comes in that gives us breathing room to continue. The family now has been able to access some of their money so they've been helping with groceries and things. In the beginning they didn't have any car seats or anything so we had to step up. But there's always been just what we needed just at the right time. We even had the UAW Local 600 come in with $300 in cash one day."
Not all the feedback the church has received has been positive however. Outside agitators responding to the Free Press article inundated Central with negative phone calls and emails for a time.
"When the article first came out we had such tremendous support and then we started getting the nasty phone calls and the nasty emails," Zundel said. "One day I had to be walked to my car. It was such a nasty email that I received. That's died down. Every once in a while someone tweets that we should lose our tax exempt status for what we're doing. But that's died down tremendously."
Zundel said Central is working with Michigan United, a group dedicated to putting a face on the undocumented immigrant crisis.
"They really put the families out before the press," said Zundel. "But because we don't know who is looking for the family we have, we're protecting them and not doing that. But we want to get to a point where we're changing policies. We're trying to get the story out that this is real and there are real people affected by these policies now."
Other metro Detroit churches and synagogues that have declared themselves as sanctuaries include First United Methodist Church in Ferndale, the Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Farmington Hills, Hope United Methodist Church in Southfield, Metropolitan Zion AME Church in Detroit, and Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Hamtramck. The statewide organization, Michigan United, has partnered with several other churches – some in secret – that have agreed to act as safe havens for people concerned they may be at risk of deportation.