This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Iowa pastor who was deported gives testimony

Photo: Pastor Max Villatoro joined the annual meeting of Central Plains Mennonite Conference via teleconference on Father’s Day weekend. Here is interviewed by David Boshart. Photo by Stan Harder.

This Father’s Day weekend was set to be a difficult holiday for the Villatoro family. Father and children, husband and wife separated by thousands of miles and a ten-year bar on re-entry to the United States.

Yet alongside the pain rang testimonies of hope.

Central Villatoros and mug
Gloria Villatoro (center) and her children Angela, Anthony and Edna receive the peace mug honoring their witness for peace during and since Pastor Max Villatoro’s detention and deportation. Photo by Stan Harder.

Three months to the day after Max Villatoro’s deportation to his birth country, Honduras, hundreds of church delegates and pastor colleagues from Central Plains Mennonite Conference (CPMC) gathered with Villatoro’s wife Gloria and their children, Anthony, Edna, Angela, and Aileen.

Central Plains Mennonite Conference is an area conference of Mennonite Church USA. Max Villatoro was licensed for ministry by Central Plains and was nearing ordination when he was deported on March 20. The conference’s assembly was held in St. Paul, Minn., June 18-21.

Pastor Max, as he is affectionately called, loomed large on the big screens in the large meeting hall giving encouragement and testimony while interviewed live by his mentor, David Boshart, CPMC’s executive conference minister.

Villatoro was blunt about the difficulties faced.

“It’s like they took my life away, my family, when they deported me,” he said.

When asked about the experience his response came immediate and terse: “Terrible.”

In earlier interviews Villatoro described inhumane conditions and animal-like treatment in U.S. detention.

Not allowed to receive his personal identification documents while in prison, he arrived in his native Honduras unable to prove his citizenship and work eligibility there, either.

Yet Villatoro expressed resilient hope in the face of unwavering challenges: “I have faith. God answered me before, he’ll do it again,” he said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but I’m going to keep asking, believing him. He’ll open a door and someday I’ll be able to testify of it.”

Testimony was certainly the byword for the conversation taking place across 2,000 miles.

Even as the video connection wavered in and out in at the end of the interview, Max continued watching from rural Honduras as Gloria and their eldest, Anthony, received the Conference’s 2015 Peace Mug recognition on behalf of the whole family.

The annual award goes to those who give witness to Jesus’ way of peacemaking and is marked with encouragement from Psalm 34:14, “Seek peace and pursue it.”

Before the deportation ordeal, Gloria and Max exemplified Jesus’ pursuit of justice, reconciliation and peace in their pastoral ministry with Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) Mennonite Church and with other migrant families through broader community efforts in Iowa City, Iowa.

But in the unbidden travails of Max’s detention, the family found new opportunities to serve as unshakable witnesses to God’s vision for justice and peace in the world. As Boshart confirmed, the testimony of this family and their supporting churches has reached even to the highest places in the U.S. government.

In the midst of turmoil and injustice Gloria, Anthony and the girls have given ample public testimony to the prisoner-releasing, wall-demolishing work of Jesus Christ even as their own husband and father was detained behind unmoving walls and eventually separated from them by thousands of miles and several national borders.

In the closing prayer, Boshart summarized this testimony to God’s good news.

“God, we come to you because we know your kingdom has no borders,” he said. “In Jesus all the walls that divide have been torn down. In Christ we can all be reconciled brothers and sisters without enmity and division.”

Pastor Max assured those gathered that he saw God bringing down walls through their presence, “One of the reasons I keep going, that I’m not depressed right now, [is that] I can see how God has been supporting—how you have been supporting—my family, not just me. It’s going to be hard on my family, but I see you holding them.”

Villatoro has not been forgotten by his family or the church, and he has not been forgotten by his God.

Seeing this fills him with hope for an eventual return to the U.S., “I say to God, ‘I know you’re going to do something!’ We’re going to see God’s glory, God’s hand in all this…For me it will be a good testimony when I can come back to my family and fix my status in that country.”

As the assembled delegates concluded their conversation with Villatoro, Boshart expressed gratitude for his witness to them, “You strengthen our faith as we see the strength of your faith. We pray that we will see you here next year—in person!”

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