Deportation tore their family apart four years ago in Iowa, but now the Mennonite pastoral couple of Max and Gloria Villatoro — along with their three daughters — are reunited in Mexico and discovering how they can continue building new ministries.
Originally from Honduras, Max Villatoro was deported March 20, 2015, while he was co-pastor with his wife of Iglesia Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower Mennonite Church), a Central Plains Mennonite Conference congregation in Iowa City.
He had been licensed for ministry in 2012, two years after they started the church, and conference leaders were working to gain legal status for him.
In his absence, Gloria Villatoro continued pastoring the congregation and raising their four children. The oldest, Anthony, graduated from Hesston (Kan.) College in May and is starting classes at the University of Iowa.
Over time, Max Villatoro made his way to Mexico to be closer to his family. At the same time, Torre Fuerte worked with Central Plains to identify a pastor to take over Gloria’s role.
“Planting a church is not easy — starting something from nothing, and then you just leave it,” she said Aug. 9 from Reedley, Calif., days before crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. “It’s not my church. It’s the Lord’s church, and he’ll take care of it.”
No way back, for now
Living in Ensenada, a coastal city of half a million people roughly 70 miles south of the border, her husband was closer than if he were in Honduras. But because of Gloria Villatoro’s own situation, anywhere outside the U.S. may as well have been equally distant.
Born in Mexico, she was brought to the U.S. at the age of 2. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program allowed her to be in the country, but if she leaves she cannot return.
“It’s taken us over four years to do this,” she said. “I’ve been pretty busy in many ways. It’s not like you’re coming back next year. You don’t know when you’ll see your family again.”
While the daughters — Edna, Angela and Aileen — are coming along to be homeschooled because they lack formal Spanish required by the school system, Gloria Villatoro is leaving behind her son, sisters, cousins, nephews and other relatives — and does not know when she will see them again.
“I would tell the young people to appreciate their family and to not take for granted having their parents there with them supporting them,” she said, her voice breaking. “This just breaks my heart. Just leaving my son back in Iowa is really hard for me. . . .
“Appreciate the family you have around and hug them and try to spend quality time with them. Sometimes when we’re young we just don’t appreciate what we know is there. When we don’t have it is when we realize how important it is.”
A new, old, life
The reunion happened in a Tijuana gas station parking lot. Some things are beautiful no matter the setting.
“It’s about a week,” Max Villatoro said on Aug. 22 of his wife and daughters living with him. “I still feel it’s like a dream.”
Although the children were able to travel freely to visit him multiple times over the last four years, U.S. immigration authorities only allowed Gloria to travel to Honduras once, three and a half years ago, to visit her husband when his deportation order was being appealed.
But thanks to online communication, he was able to videochat with family almost twice a day. Still, smartphone apps like Facetime are not a complete substitute for being face-to-face.
“It was really hard for me to make the decision not to go back to the USA illegally,” he said. “ . . . In the beginning, my belief as a Christian was I don’t want to break the law. But you can lose your marriage. You can lose your family.
“You put everything in its place and ask what’s most important in life — respect the law or lose your marriage and your family?”
There are adjustments for everyone. The two oldest daughters left high school behind. Four years of bachelor life have been interrupted by four women with suggestions about things to do.
“I said maybe we won’t agree on some things; you’ll have to be patient,” he said. “It will be hard at the beginning. She kind of knows.”
A new conference
When Gloria began making plans to leave her son, wider family and congregation, it was clear she was also departing a conference that had supported the Villatoros throughout their deportation challenges.
Within Mennonite Church USA, Central Plains made connections with Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference, where the Villatoros were already familiar with Pacific Southwest board member Juan Montes when he was moderator of Iglesia Menonita Hispana (Hispanic Mennonite Church), an MC USA racial-ethnic constituency group.
Earlier this year, Montes contacted the Villatoros to discuss their sense of God’s direction and how the conference might be part of that. The conference raised $5,000 to help with the family’s transition to Mexico and it is continuing to give thought to whether it can branch into another country.
“She stayed about two weeks with us here so people could get to know Gloria and support them,” said Montes, who is also pastor of Primera Iglesia Menonita in Reedley. “. . . IMH and Pacific Southwest and Central Plains are working together to start planting a new Mennonite church in Ensenada.”
Known as Baja California Ministry, the project also includes conversations with Iglesia Anabautista Menonita Unida de Mexico (United Anabaptist Mennonite Church of Mexico), an umbrella organization of the eight Mennonite conferences in Mexico. IAMUM members are already relating to migrants and deportees in other parts of Mexico, and the Villatoros’ dreams may fit neatly into what is happening in similar fashion in other regions.
Although far from his Iowa City congregation, Villatoro couldn’t be separated from ministering to others. A construction job might pay the bills, but the close proximity to other deportees brought out his inner pastor. In the last few years he has already developed three cell groups and — with Gloria, as usual — the time has probably come to plant another church, and maybe even start a Bible institute to train others.
After the first priority of establishing an Anabaptist church in the Baja peninsula, Montes said they are also looking at getting into a marriage and family counseling ministry.
“Men have a lot of power, and we want to try to help people understand how they can live in the Mennonite Christian way with a wife and family,” he said. “And number three is establishing a ministry for people who have been deported from the United States to Mexico. We are trying to give them the opportunity to receive emotional help.”
They may get involved in helping deportees get reunited with their own families or eventually establish a Christian school.
Pacific Southwest is accepting donations to support the family’s ministry at fcproject.org/baja-anabaptist-ministry-project.
“It’s amazing how the Lord works,” Gloria Villatoro said.
She stressed the need to be obedient to God.
“I could say, ‘No, I’ll just stay in Iowa, we’ll wait until whenever,’ but God is opening a door, and regardless of the hardships we have been going through, it’s been a step of obedience, too,” she said. “. . . With obedience, while I know things won’t be easy, I’ll be OK.”