When I was young, Lent was the time of year our family ate fish sandwiches more frequently than usual — we weren't Catholic, they were just on sale. When I grew older, like many still do, I began intentionally giving up things for the six weeks ahead of Easter. I'd deny myself things like TV, soda and even arguing with my wife (best Lenten discipline ever by the way).
Then came the Lent of 2015. I don't remember what I gave up that year, if I remembered to give up anything at all. What I remember is what Iowa City Pastor Max Villatoro was forced to give up that year — his family. As of March 20, it has been four years since Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported Max to Honduras. For me, it's a classic example of the letter of the law falling short of true justice.
No one involved in Max's case denies he entered the U.S. illegally — that fact was revealed after he got picked up for a DUI in the late '90s. Rather, we're saying the Obama administration's Operation Cross-check missed the bigger picture. A legalistic approach to the immigration system in this country fails to ask whether the presence of an illegal immigrant can better a community. No one involved in Max's case denies he has a criminal record. We're more interested in what he did during the 17 years between the end of his sentence and his deportation. He found Christ. He began to co-pastor a Spanish-speaking church in Iowa City with his wife — though it didn't exactly pay the bills. He went door to door in his trailer park helping non-English speakers fill out library card applications. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration even granted him a work permit for about 11 years, according to the Iowa City Press Citizen.
But ICE deemed him to be a threat to public safety. I didn't know him as well as others, but I can say with great certainty he was not a threat to the public — quite the opposite.
And though I had moved from Iowa City by the time of the ICE raid, I joined my former church congregation in advocating for Max's release. You see, ICE can defer a deportation if they believe the person is indeed not a threat. But it didn't work. Max was put on a plane, and his legal team ran out of options.
Today, we still remember through regular prayer fasting in recognition of the life Max was forced to give up four years ago. For me, it's been several years of Tuesdays without lunch, and I don't know how long it might continue. Of course, I screw up from time to time, and my body has adjusted to it. When I began this journey with/for Max, each hunger pang would be accompanied by a brief internal prayer and unmitigated hope. The last year or so was more mitigated than not. Frankly, Max's situation became a tiny rattling which came and went most days.
It's a constant companion with which I hate to share my space. It's an spindly extension of a Lent four years in the past. It's not just a sacrifice for the six weeks leading up to a day filled with jelly beans and chocolate eggs. It's a familiar, embedded void in my gut that reminds me a church is still without its pastor and a family is without its father. The initial anger of it all has died down. It all seems calmer — more somber — but Max is still in the background. Like the moon on a cloudy night, I can see it, and I know it's there, but it doesn't break through as often now as it once did.
It's that spiritual and emotional distance which saddens me the most. I haven't heard how Max is doing in quite some time — gang violence isn't uncommon in Honduras – and that worries me. The Villatoro's situation was at one point a chaffing wound on my heart — stitches I couldn't help but pop with every urge to eat. It's still bleeding, but it's mostly scabbed over, and I fear a doubtful callus is overtaking my hope and compassion. It's hard to maintain hope over a period of years, while little changes.
But this anniversary, I was somehow able to focus on a day years from now, when the Villatoro family will be reunited. I think about what it will be like for the burden of the prayer fast to be lifted, and I think of how much more of a relief it will be for Max, his wife and his children. I think about that oh so simple freedom, it's marvelous. It's hope. This journey we're all on, it is really about hope. It's about understanding what it truly is to hope for justice — to rely on God. And, I pray Max can say the same at this point.