Deported Iowa pastor holds on to hope
Central Plains Conference recognizes Villatoro family’s peacemaking witness
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Father’s Day was set to be difficult for the Villatoro family. Father and children, husband and wife were separated by thousands of miles and a 10-year ban on re-entry to the United States. Yet alongside the pain rang testimonies of hope.
On June 20, three months to the day after Max Villatoro’s deportation to his birth country, Honduras, hundreds of delegates from Mennonite Church USA’s Central Plains Mennonite Conference gathered with Villatoro’s wife, Gloria, and their children, Anthony, Edna, Angela and Aileen.
Pastor Max, as he is affectionately called, loomed large on the video screens in the meeting hall, giving encouragement and testimony while being interviewed live by David Boshart, executive conference minister.
“It’s like they took my life away, my family, when they deported me,” Villatoro said.
When asked about the experience, his response was immediate and terse: “Terrible.” In earlier interviews Villatoro described inhumane conditions in U.S. detention. Not allowed to receive his identification documents while in prison, he arrived in his native Honduras unable to prove his citizenship and work eligibility there, either.
Yet he expressed hope.
“I have faith,” he said. “God answered me before; he’ll do it again. I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but I’m going to keep asking, believing him.”
Family’s peace witness
As the video connection across 2,000 miles wavered in and out, Villatoro continued watching from Honduras as Gloria and their eldest, Anthony, received the conference’s 2015 Peace Mug recognition on behalf of the whole family. The annual award goes to those who give witness to Jesus’ way of peacemaking and is marked with encouragement from Psalm 34:14, “Seek peace and pursue it.”
Before the deportation ordeal, the Villatoros exemplified Jesus’ pursuit of justice, reconciliation and peace in their pastoral ministry with Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) Mennonite Church and with other migrant families through broader community efforts in Iowa City, Iowa.
In the travails of the detention, the family has found opportunities to witness to God’s vision for justice and peace. Boshart said the testimony of the family and their supporting churches has reached to the highest places in the U.S. government.
Villatoro told those gathered that he saw God bringing down walls through their presence.
“One of the reasons I keep going, that I’m not depressed right now, [is that] I can see how God has been supporting — how you have been supporting — my family, not just me,” he said. “It’s going to be hard on my family, but I see you holding them.”
Knowing that he has not been forgotten fills him with hope for an eventual return to the U.S.
“I say to God, ‘I know you’re going to do something,’ ” he said. “We’re going to see God’s glory, God’s hand in all this.”
As the delegates concluded their conversation with Villatoro, Boshart said to him: “You strengthen our faith as we see the strength of your faith. We pray that we will see you here next year, in person.”
Villatoro was licensed for ministry by Central Plains and was nearing ordination when he was deported.
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