Iowa City pastor was deported to Honduras in March
The connection left a lot to be desired. But, actually, that was the point.
Pastor Max Villatoro and his son, Anthony, reunited in a public setting this week to discuss their first Father’s Day apart. The Villatoro family has been separated since the man known simply as Pastor Max was arrested in Iowa City as part of a federal immigration sting and deported to Honduras in March.
Father and son were brought together with the help of technology on Thursday as part of a webcast by advocacy group America’s Voice. In so many ways, it was a heartbreaking reunion to hear and watch.
“Life dramatically changed for us four [children] when this happened,” said 15-year-old Anthony, noting that the separation is especially difficult for his youngest sister because she doesn’t understand it. The children felt supported at school, he added, and are currently attending weekly therapy sessions to cope with the grief.
“I have to come back,” Pastor Max said. “It isn’t just that I want to or need to, I must.
“If there is someone out there who has feelings, who has kids, who cares, please help me. My family looks OK on the outside, but I know they aren’t on the inside.”
The deportation took place despite public outcry that the 41-year-old Mennonite pastor shouldn’t be forced out of the country for a misdemeanor that was sorted years ago. Villatoro pleaded guilty to the charge against him in 1999, paid a fine and completed two years of probation.
The immigration sting was billed and promoted as targeting “the worst of the worst” — rapists and murderers. Tens of thousands petitioned and argued the Iowa City pastor, who had become a community role model, didn’t meet the standard.
The Honduras he was sent to is a different place than the one he left 21 years ago, Pastor Max said. His parents are now deceased, although he has reconnected with some siblings.
“I’m in Honduras,” he said, “but my mind, my life still is [in Iowa].
“You can imagine how difficult it will be for me and my family this Father’s Day.”
Torre Fuete, a Spanish-speaking congregation at First Mennonite Church in Iowa City, was led for more than five years by Pastor Max and his wife, Gloria. The congregation will honor fathers for the holiday and Anthony is hopeful his dad will be able to join the service through Skype.
But as the America’s Voice webcast showed, technology doesn’t always provide a clear connection. Several times during the event audio or video failed. A few times both failed at once, leaving participants to wonder what might be happening on the other side of our blackened window into the place where Pastor Max now lives.
Despite the overwhelming odds against a deportee being allowed to once again enter the country, both Anthony and Pastor Max expressed hope that they would eventually be reunited on U.S. soil and their gratitude for those who continue to fight on their behalf.
“You have to fight it,” Anthony said. “You can’t just let it pass by like nothing has happened. It is wrong, we should say so.”
The Villatoro family remains “blessed,” said Pastor Max because of all the people — family, church congregants, organizations — who continue to work on U.S. policies that would allow the family to be reunited.
“I am so glad to have all of these people offering support,” he said. “Otherwise this would be truly awful for me and my family.”
And Iowans shouldn’t expect for the Villatoros to stop speaking out about their grief and loss.
“If you are fighting for me, do you think I can give up?” Pastor Max asked. “No. I can’t.
“Every time I get an opportunity to talk, I know that’s an opening for God — for him to do something.”
Here’s hoping that Iowans offer God a helping hand as part of the first-in-the-nation caucus season. The next time a politician laments “deadbeat dads” or single mothers as a root cause of what ails the nation, remind them of the devoted Iowa City husband and father who was stripped away by failed government policies.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on June 21, 2015.