This question hangs in the air, ever-present among us after weeks of our time, energy, prayer, and hope were focused on the release of Pastor Max Villatoro. We dared to believe that Max would be returned to his family, to his church, and to his community. But on March 20, the beloved pastor, husband, father, and Iowa City community leader was deported to Honduras. And we are all devastated.
For the last several weeks, members of Central Plains Mennonite Conference (Max’s regional network of churches), Mennonite Church USA (his national denomination), and others from across the country signed petitions, made phone calls, rallied, and made speeches in support of Pastor Max. But despite these efforts, Immigration and Customs Enforcement remained unmoved.
Max was taken into ICE custody on the morning of March 3 just outside his home. He was held for more than two weeks before being sent back to Honduras where he grew up. Max’s childhood years were difficult as his family was poor – a typical situation in a country where the average annual income is $2,070. As a teenager he traveled alone to the city to continue his education, but this proved to be impossible due to financial constraints. At age 20, Max decided to risk the dangerous journey to the United States. And he’s lived here for more than 20 years.
Like many undocumented immigrants, when Max arrived in the U.S., he illegally obtained a social security number in order to be able to work here. Later, Max was charged with an aggravated misdemeanor, pleaded guilty, and paid a fine for his crime. Around this time he was also convicted of a DUI. In 2000 however, Max was granted a work permit and has been working legally in the U.S. since. It was also during this time that Max began to follow Christ. He met his wife Gloria, started a family, and, compelled by his faith, began co-pastoring a Spanish-speaking Mennonite church, Torre Fuerte, in Iowa City. But now, Gloria is left to provide and care for the couple’s four children alone. And the Villatoro children are left without a father.
Their story is heartbreaking. One can only imagine the pain the Villatoro family is experiencing at this loss. But sadly this is not an isolated case. In a recent blog post, Iris De León-Hartshorn, Director of Transformative Peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA wrote, “Pastor Max Villatoro’s case and recent deportation has brought to the forefront that undocumented people are part of our church. And not only that, they are mothers, fathers, pastors, and important members of their local communities.”
And this breaking apart of families, tearing people from their roots, has been happening for years – right under our noses. But unfortunately, it seems that it takes cases like the Villatoros,’ when this tearing apart affects us more directly, that we begin to take notice.
As Christians across the country, we are beginning to realize that right in our communities – in our workplaces, in our kids’ schools, in our churches – we are connected to families who are affected by these unjust immigration policies. These are our sisters and brothers: their stories are part of our story, and our liberation is bound together in theirs.
Considering all this, the question still looms – what now? How do we begin to build bridges of connection with our immigrant brothers and sisters? What role can we play in naming injustice as it happens among us? How do we stand with the most vulnerable – choosing love and not fear?
We can look back to Leviticus 19 for insight, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Jesus affirms this further in Matthew 25. He says, “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.”
We can start by getting to know people who are different from us, and building authentic relationships with those we normally wouldn’t, without agenda. These relationships transform us. They bring richness and depth to our lives and a greater understanding of people and experiences so outside of our own.
We can talk about immigration with our families, churches, and communities. If you don’t know where to start, Mennonite Church USA recently produced a six-week curriculum and Bible study focusing on immigration called Radical Hospitality: Responding to the Issue of Immigration.
We can continue to call on our leaders – our Congress people, our representatives, our president and our ICE officials – to enact comprehensive immigration reform, so that a legal channel might be available for immigrants seeking a better life.
We can support families who are in the midst of navigating our complex legal system as well as the Villatoros and other families that are broken because of this system.
We can pray. Pray for the Villatoro family – that a miraculous way might be made for their reunion. Pray for all of our brothers and sisters who are also victims of our country’s unjust laws. Pray that we may we be channels of God’s justice and peace.
Jenny Castro is a communications associate for Mennonite Church USA. She is also the coordinator of the denomination’s Women in Leadership Project.
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