Hearing a young mother’s plea for mercy

The Rev. Evodia Villalvia, pastor of El Buen Samaritano UMC in West Chester, sought help in October for one of her members, a young Latina immigrant mother whose husband had been detained and then deported back to Honduras. “Isabella” and her husband came to the U.S. with their young son in 2013, escaping gang violence that threatened their son’s life. She then gave birth to a daughter, got a job, joined the church and was given three years to seek asylum. But her work permit expired, and she recently was denied asylum. Thus, she may be deported at any time.

Villalvia sought help from West Chester UMC, El Buen Samaritano’s partner church, and from South District Superintendent, the Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm. Isabella shared her story with Bishop Peggy Johnson and the Rev. Luky Cotto, Latino Ministries Coordinator and pastor of the Casa del Pueblo ministry in Hatboro. Local immigration attorneys and Casa del Pueblo’s part-time attorney were unable to help Isabella under current political conditions, with a broken immigration justice system. But both churches are helping her with food and other basic necessities, plus English lessons.

“It is quite sad that there seems to be nothing that can be done legally at this time,” said the Rev. Molly Dee Rounsley, West Chester UMC’s Associate Pastor. Pictured here after the meeting are (from right) Taylor-Storm, Rounsley, Villalvia, Cotto, Bishop Johnson, who wrote about Isabella’s ordeal in her Bishop’s Blog (“Via Dolorosa”), and Luis Castillo, a translator. John Coleman photo

Doing justice, loving mercy for our neighbors

By John W. Coleman

When 6-year-old “Mariana” came from Guatemala with her aunt and cousin ­this year to join her mother in Warrington, Pa., she got separated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers at the U.S. southwest border in Arizona and placed in detention with other children. And then she got lost in the system.

Rev. Lillian “Luky” Cotto

Her mother, who came here several years ago to escape domestic violence, was frantic with fear. Lacking adequate English skills, she relied on her pastor, the Rev. Lillian “Luky” Cotto, to contact ICE officials almost daily with urgent appeals for updates on their search. After three weeks, “Mariana” was found at a center in nearby New York, and she was finally reunited with her family, who are members of Cotto’s Casa del Pueblo congregation at St. Paul’s UMC Warrington.

‘I’m her pastor’

When immigration officials asked Cotto who she was and why she kept calling on the distraught mother’s behalf, she replied with a simple answer that seemed to satisfy them: “I’m her pastor.”

“Her pastor” has since helped “Mariana,” now more talkative but still disturbed by her ordeal, get enrolled in school and get needed counseling to help her recover. And her pastor is helping other families and children, including young teens who must work to send money back home to help pay the “coyotes” who escorted them across the border.

Many of Cotto’s members cannot attend worship on Sundays because they must work in low-paying service jobs to afford housing and other basic needs. But she is still their pastor; and that means she and her lay leaders visit their homes weekly to lead Bible study and share the gospel, to build relationships and address various concerns.

The Rev. Lucky Cotto (left with hands raised) offers a benediction to Casa del Pueblo’s satellite congregation at St. Paul’s UMC in Warrington, Pa.

Indeed, Cotto and other pastors and churches in the Eastern PA Conference, although far from the southwest border, are nonetheless on the front lines of rendering assistance to many Central American migrants and refugees seeking protective asylum and legal residency in this area.

Cotto’s face shows the anguish she feels when she describes the desperate, unmet needs of immigrants she and her church try to care for—needs that include affordable housing and basic furnishings, food and clothing, transportation, work permits, tutoring, counseling, legal assistance and so on.

Profit-driven landlords are charging recent arrivals up to $4000 for rent, deposits and utilities, she said. Thus, families are crowding—up to a dozen people at a time—into sponsors’ homes or two-bedroom apartments until they can afford their own places. But they have to remain where they are initially for weekly ICE visits to confirm their addresses. And they have to make monthly check-in visits to ICE offices in Philadelphia, always fearful that they will be denied asylum and scheduled for deportation. Helping them overcome their fears, while getting settled and making progress is a daily challenge.

Generous help and donations

But Cotto’s joy and gratitude—and yes, her faith—are also evident when she describes children like “Mariana,” who eagerly participate in worship and other church activities, and also when she speaks of the generous help and donations she receives from several churches, United Methodist Women groups and other benefactors.

Cotto is the lead pastor of Casa del Pueblo, the 11-year-old Latino congregation and ministry sponsored by Lehman Memorial UMC in Hatboro. She also oversees Casa’s fledgling satellite congregation about six miles away, meeting at St. Paul’s UMC in Warrington. Both sponsoring churches are predominantly white, but St. Paul’s pastor is also her supportive husband, the Rev. Irving Cotto. Of even greater support are Imelda Zuniga and Andrea Rodriguez, two Christ Servant Ministers who are both preparing to become lay pastors.

The Rev. Lucky Cotto (right) speaks with other Latino clergy about immigration justice and mercy concerns during a Eastern PA Conference Latino Commission meeting.

“The Lord has sent us many angels,” said the busy pastor known affectionately as “Luky.” A skilled networker and support-seeker, she is also a National Hispanic Ministry Plan Missionary and a participant in the national Community Developers Program—both administered by the UMC’s Global Ministries agency. In addition, she recently became the Eastern PA Conference’s Coordinator of Latino Ministries.

Among the “angels” the Lord has sent her way are the churches across all four districts who responded to a recent appeal for donations of money, clothing and furnishings from the conference’s Immigration Rapid Response Team. Now Cotto and her crew plan to start a tutoring ministry at St. Paul’s in December to help the many young children who “are getting frustrated because they do not understand enough English, even though they go to ESL class. They are not producing, and I am getting calls from teachers about them.”

Cotto and her helpers get calls regularly from teachers and school administrators, employers, landlords, community leaders, church members and constituents. Those calls—either about problems, needs or potential solutions—are really about doing justice and loving mercy for the neighbors she and others strive daily to serve. And her motivation is simple: because she is their pastor.

Learn—and please share with us—more information about United Methodist churches and groups reaching out to “do justice and love mercy” among the sojourners arriving in our communities from distant lands. Read and contribute to ongoing coverage on our website and various NEWSpirit publications.