The crisp autumn air brings a lot of memories with it, many of them pleasant. The wind carries the scent of homecoming football games, comfortable sweaters and, for some, the seasonal resurrection of pumpkin spice. I share in most of those, but I've been mentally blindsided by a more somber memory the last few years. It's been two years since I gave up my Tuesday lunches in support of an Iowa City pastor who was deported. I remember sitting on the floor of a newly-rented duplex reading an email from a good friend back in the old capitol telling me our mutual acquaintance Max Villatoro had been taken by ICE as he left for work.
Max led a Spanish-speaking church called Torre Fuerte in the basement of our church in Iowa City. I didn't know Max as well as some, but we crossed paths a few times. We saw him at the church's fundraisers. We sat near his family at a University of Iowa concert. That sort of thing. But for all the good Max was doing in the community as part of a budding church, he was one of about 2,000 immigrants caught up in ICE's sweep March 3, 2015— a sweep pushed by the Obama administration I might add.
Both churches, along with parts of the community, protested Max's pending deportation. A petition for his release was delivered to a regional ICE hub in Omaha, Nebraska, and contained more than 20,000 signatures (keep in mind, that's a group of people larger than the last official population of Dickinson County). Phone calls were made. Legislators were met. Marches were held.
It didn't take.
A pair of convictions from 1998 and 1999 for a DUI and an attempt to illegally obtain a drivers license were cited as "moral turpitude" in Max's case. Max doesn't deny those things happened, but he also served his sentences for those crimes and he turned his life around, ultimately leading his church. If there is a better example of the law spurring transformational character change rather than simply being a punishment, I don't know of it. Regardless, he was sent back to Honduras. According to the Des Moines Register, his cousin was killed by a gang the year before our government sent Max back — and we wonder why parents would take children across deserts to enter the United States. By mid-September 2016, Max's lawyers had run out of options, and our church body decided all we could do was organize a prayer fast, which continues today.
Each of us does it a bit differently. Each Tuesday, I keep my hunger with me through the work day and let a small prayer for Max follow every pang in my stomach. I only eat after I return home, as I hope he too will do in the years to come. And it will likely be years — seven if I recall — until he can apply to live in the U.S. with his family again. At this point, I've skipped more than 100 lunches and listened while we birthright citizens argue over who has earned the right to share this land and blame immigrants for our various problems. Of course, individual experiences, thoughts and instincts shape each of our views but, in the end, we've come to expect a heated debate. Frankly, my pulse sped up some while writing this, and I'm sure some of the responses I've heard before in our northwest Iowa community have already begun bubbling over keyboards, but there's no reason for me to stop them. Go ahead and say it. Feel free to tell me how I'm wrong. Tell me how Max didn't meet our blended interpretation of legality and morality. Tell me how he should have stayed where gangs killed his family. Tell me how he had no right to barge here in unannounced, get arrested, serve his sentence, be released, find God and serve his community in a way few Americans are willing to do. Tell me how reading something just a little bit closer will help justify ending a pastor's service to his community. Tell me how simple the whole thing really is.
While we're at it, tell your neighbor. Tell your family. Tell your elders and tell your children. Simply put, if we don't keep the discussion alive, the issue will never satisfy anyone. But I will tell you this — it is easy to make absolute statements and say things are simple from afar. Trust me. I know. I was there. When I first met Max and the first rumblings of his deportation came, I was calloused. I didn't much think the church should be defending someone who didn't obey the law. But, in time, I understood. In talking about situations like Max's, and more importantly listening to others, I found the idea of putting faith into practice so much more complex than checking boxes off of any set of rules or laws — American or otherwise. It's far removed from the idea of equating someone's value as a human being with their public record. Honestly, it's probably one of the most significant and valuable lessons I've learned and, in learning it, I've drawn just a bit closer to the issue. Let me tell you, once you so much as dip your toe in, it is far more difficult to rely on stoic legalism (and I freely admit I'm much closer to the toe-dipping side of the pool than the waste-deep side). Yet, there's no denying everyone from every walk of life is the same as you and the same as me. There's no denying that calling a policy good because it benefits those closest to us falls short of the full definition of the term if it fails to benefit those we don't yet know. And, there is no denying the reality of the pain which pulled tears from Max's eyes as the church set up a video chat so he could speak with his family. Ultimately, on the second anniversary of this prayer fast, I've got to admit, my certainty is only getting stronger on the issue.
So, say what you will.
Below are screen captures of readers who did just that: