ASHEVILLE, N.C. (ABP) — A Hispanic Baptist pastor arrested last summer by immigration authorities won't find out until September whether he will be deported for a crime committed in 1995.
Hector Villanueva, pastor of Bautista la Rocha in Siler City, N.C., accepted Christ while serving 16 months in prison and decided to turn his life around and become a pastor. Now married with children, he started his current congregation with help from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina in August 2010.
After just three services in the new church, Villanueva was arrested Aug. 19 by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. He was jailed in Raleigh and then Alamance County in North Carolina and then moved to Gainesville, Ga., while his family desperately tried to keep track of his movements over a two-week period.
Released from custody on $15,000 bail that was covered by the North Carolina CBF, Villanueva and his family now await a September hearing to find out if a court will decide to deport him to Mexico. Villanueva is also preparing a request for a pardon from North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue.
Villanueva has permanent-resident status in the U.S. That gives him every right of a citizen except to vote. His arrest came after he applied for citizenship and a background check surfaced a 1995 felony. That placed him under a law that mandates deportation for immigrants convicted of a felony, even though it wasn't passed until three years after Villanueva had committed the crime and had already served his punishment.
Villanueva said in an interview March 26 at the CBF of North Carolina annual meeting in Asheville that in 1995 he was "homeless, living on the street and starving." Another street person gave him a blank check stolen from someone else, and asked for half the money Villanueva might get if he filled in the blanks and cashed it. Villanueva tried to get $500 and was arrested.
A one-time gang member, he became a Christian early in his prison life, he said, thanks to the consistent, faithful prayers of his parents.
Villanueva's current church is his second church plant in North Carolina, the first being near Garner. But he felt compelled to return to Siler City, where he first tried to plant a church but attracted only "the empty-chair family."
La Rocha, The Rock, is doing much better than his first effort in town.
Villanueva and Martha, his wife of 12 years, have four children and are adopting two others. Age 41, he has been in the states for 38 years and Martha came when she was just 2. They came to North Carolina in 2006 as emissaries from Praise Chapel in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., to start a church.
In North Carolina Villanueva met the sister of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Hispanic church planter Javier Benitez at a children's basketball game. Benitez, who has planted 15 churches, took him under wing and got him involved in the CBF church-planting network.
After his arrest Villanueva said he was bewildered but mostly concerned about his family, who had no income while he was in jail. He agreed to a "speedy trial" but received only a bond hearing in the first two weeks.
"In jail I'm thinking that I'm going to eat. They are going to feed me. But how is my wife going to pay the house, the bills, how is she going to buy food?" Villanueva said. "I'm the only financial provider. What's going to happen with the girls we're trying to adopt? I couldn't talk to her and find out what's being done. The hardest part is not knowing how she's going to get by."
After the arrest, Martha said she changed instantly from mother-and-teacher mode into office manager and researcher. They had an "outpouring of support from friends and family," from Emmaus Baptist church and CBF, she said, but "emotionally I was a wreck."
Villanueva was gone 15 days. Now he actively waits for his Sept. 2 hearing, gathering testimonies of his character and enlisting persons who are willing to vouch for him before the judge.
He could leave that hearing in chains, bound for a Mexico he doesn't know.
When he jokes that if he is deported, he will get to preach the gospel in Mexico, Martha cringes. She knows that other families have been torn apart when, after decades in the U.S. one or both parents have been deported leaving children, who are citizens by birth, to stay behind in "the land of opportunity."
The Villanuevas said their children would not do well in Mexico, a land more foreign to them than the U.S. was initially to their parents. The children did not even do that well in school Spanish, and Hector is working hard to improve his own Spanish to avoid embarrassing mistakes that result when he mispronounces a word in a sermon or misses a nuance that gives an unintended meaning.
Norman Jameson is reporting and coordinating special projects for ABP on an interim basis. He is former editor of the North Carolina Biblical Recorder.