An anniversary will slip by today that is relevant only to a certain group of people. Thursday marks the day, I joined a prayer fast, along with many other members of First Mennonite Church in Iowa City. You see, just about a year ago, the pastor of the Spanish-speaking church that shared space with First Mennonite ran out of legal options to stay in the country. His name was Max Villatoro. He was deported. He had committed crimes in his past and had served his sentence for those crimes, but after turning his life around and becoming a pastor, his application for a work permit got him flagged as a priority for Immigration and Customs Enforcement because of his "poor moral turpitude." ICE saw fit to make the local pastor a priority, not because he committed another crime, but because he was lawfully trying to contribute to his community.
Needless to say, that process was very frustrating for those of us who knew them. Hundreds of calls were made to ICE (and many are still being made), rallies and vigils were held and letters were sent. Max's wife and children even traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with staff members in Sen. Chuck Grassley's office as well as Sen. Joni Ernst's office. Yet, Max's case has made little headway.
In some ways, prayer and fasting is the most productive thing we can do as a congregation. Some committed to abstaining from one meal on a given Tuesday each month. I personally decided to give up lunch every Tuesday (frankly, I read the email wrong, but fasting and praying each week has taught me a lot, so I've stuck with it). It's been a real learning experience for me. At first, it wasn't terribly hard to do. But, as time went on, I started to notice the food that is everywhere.
I was covering the Clay County Board of Supervisors meetings every other week back when I started this thing and the board always had goodies of some kind. They would, of course, tell me I was free to have some. I would thank them and say no. It was nothing major, but the treats were a celebration of sorts — one I chose not to partake in. After a time, it made me realize the distance that's created when you can't share something in common. And while I was choosing to maintain that distance, Max was not. His distance from his family, congregation and community was both literal and figurative.
Even in the quiet times at my desk when my stomach rumbles, I have made it a habit to pray for Max's return. They're simple prayers, not long, barely even enunciated echoes in my mind, but it helps me remember. That's not to say I never forget. I recall spitting out a peppermint one particularly busy Tuesday. I had grabbed it from the tin in the Daily Reporter's newsroom, as was my custom when going over my photos for a story. I felt guilty knowing I had forgotten. Surely Max feels alone, but the prayer fast was also a way to be sure he never truly was alone. I failed again when I spent two weeks with my newborn daughter.
In the time since Max was deported, I've become a father. In a fitting twist, my prayer fasts coincide with press night here at the Dickinson County News, so I often stay a little bit later, stay a little bit hungrier and think of coming home to my wife and daughter. Election nights also happen to land on Tuesdays. Newsrooms large and small are a bit busier as writers wait for results to be posted, be it an election for the President of the United States or for the Okoboji School Board. The time I spend away from my family those nights is cast in a different light as I finish off two or three bottles of water, knowing Max's state of mind is likely seven-fold.
In that spirit, I also chose to not eat until I return home each night, because I choose to hunger because of Max, and returning home is what will satisfy that hunger.
On some nights it's been particularly difficult. Sometimes community events or political rallies land on a Tuesday night. Now, this is Iowa and there's often food of various sorts at such things. But again, I distance myself from the celebration for Max's sake, because the legal system has fallen short and disciplined prayer is one of the few options left available. I've taken a more direct approach in the latter half of this first year of fasting. I make a point to specifically say I won't be eating during such events because I'm on a prayer fast. That in itself is sometimes more difficult than I ever anticipated. I've listened to some of the very politicians who heard from Max's family tell of all the progress the legislature has made, yet the hunger persists, because I've not returned home and neither has Max.
In time, Max will be able to apply for entry into the country. I believe the last figure I heard was seven years. So, I think we've got six to go. If I got the math right, by the time this is potentially over, I will have given up more than a year's worth of lunches. That may strike some as less than healthy, but the solution is simple.
Bring Max home.