Rev. Jose Landaverde is retiring in May from Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission, the church he founded in 2007. [File photo by Lucio Villa]

The Rev. Jose Landaverde couldn’t hold back his rage during a February 2013 congressional hearing on comprehensive immigration reform. Minutes after then U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano started testifying about immigration enforcement, Landaverde abruptly interrupted her.

“You’re the devil,” he yelled. “You’re separating families.”

Police arrested the 43-year-old Chicago pastor, along with other immigration activists. Landaverde said he didn’t plan to get arrested that day in Washington, D.C. He went to the nation’s capital to lobby for immigration reform.

Landaverde is one of the most visible immigrant-rights advocates in Chicago. He has blocked traffic outside Broadview Detention Center, the last stop for immigrants being deported. He held a sit-in outside immigration court holding a sign that read, “Judges are racist.”

His moral compass, not politics, guides his actions, he said. This sensibility was shaped in his home country of El Salvador where he fought in the jungle with leftist guerillas at the height of the civil war in the Central American nation in the 1980s.

“I’ve pissed off a lot of people. I’m the type of person that gives everything to his community. I was born in the movement,” he said. “I’m not here to look out for the political or monetary interest of others.”

After years of advocating for immigrants’ rights, Landaverde is retiring in May from Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission, the church he founded in 2007. He said he wants to take care of his health problems, including diabetes, an ulcer caused by his hunger strikes and symptoms resembling a stroke.

“It has been really hard for me. I’m sick and I don’t have the same energy I had before,” he said. “ This job has become too stressful.”

The church and many in the undocumented immigrant community said they are losing a great leader. Jorge Mariscal, 24, said Landaverde went on a hunger strike to encourage Loyola University Medical Center to perform a kidney transplant on him. After years of waiting, in 2012, Mariscal finally received a kidney from his mother. Landaverde negotiated with the hospital to donate the surgeon’s time and the operating room.

“He has sacrificed a lot to help others. He’s done it all,” Mariscal said. “Anyone who sacrifices themselves like that deserves recognition. I just hope he was able to inspire others. That’s how leaders are born because of influences from people like Landaverde.”

Yet Landaverde has grown disillusioned with the movement’s ability to make any significant change.

“Everyone in other groups and networks are focused on continuing to support the Democrats and Republicans. I get totally frustrated,” he said. “There’s so much need and [those groups] are focusing on getting deals with the Democrats and Republicans, but no one is talking about the reality that the community is going through.”

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A polarizing figure

Landaverde’s not shy about telling politicians he disapproves of how they are handling immigration reform. He’s not shy about telling organizations they are not putting enough pressure on politicians. And that’s made him a polarizing figure. But he doesn’t care. Take a meeting Landaverde and other immigration leaders had with Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White. Advocates were lobbying for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Landaverde became so enraged by White’s response that he gave the secretary of state his driver’s license and told him to “shove it.”

The driver’s licenses were eventually granted last year. But the pastor’s tactics annoyed many immigration activists, none of whom wanted to speak on the record about Landaverde. The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) declined to comment about rumors that it didn’t work with the pastor and issued this statement:

“Rev. Landaverde is a leader in the immigrant-rights movement, a true ally to working families and a relentless fighter for the undocumented,” the organization’s spokeswoman Monica Treviño wrote in an email.

Within church denominations Landaverde has also been a controversial figure.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission sits at the heart of Little Village neighborhood. In 2007, the church opened in a converted bar with only $900, which was Landaverde’s rent money. The church grew from a few members to 500 members — the vast majority is undocumented. The church also has hundreds of supporters who participate in rallies around violence, jobs and immigration.

The church was part of the Anglican Catholic Church and the Diocese of Quincy until the relationship with the Anglican Church became strained last November and Landaverde’s license was revoked. As of last fall, he is no longer connected to the Diocese of Quincy, said the Rev. Thomas Janikowski, spokesman for the church. Janikowski refused to talk about the separation.

“We had clashes with the church because we were supporting the LGBT movement, same marriage and because of our activism,” Landaverde said.

The church is now part of the United American Catholic Church.

“We want a more inclusive church, one where same-sex marriage is accepted and ordained women ministers are allowed,” he said.

From El Salvador to the United States

Landaverde was about 8 years old when the civil war broke out in El Salvador, following the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980. People wanted a democratically elected government, among other things. His mother, a socialist, left him to join the revolution. Shortly after she left, he joined the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, a guerilla organization.

That experience shaped his view of the world, and his role in it.

“Since that moment when I was little, I started to understand to create a change it takes some kind of sacrifice in our lives,” he said.

He fought in the jungle for nine years before he was arrested and beaten by the military. He escaped to Guatemala and eventually made his way to the United States. In 1990, he arrived in Chicago and was granted political asylum.

The time Landaverde spent fighting for the poor in El Salvador taught him that real change comes at a price.

More than a church

Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission is much more than a place to worship. Landaverde’s Little Village church has become a resource center. Undocumented immigrants receive legal advice, food and clothing and can attend English as a Second Language classes. Landaverde successfully recruited Dr. Lou Curet to run a free clinic inside the church every Sunday. The doctor not only donates his time but also buys medication and other supplies.

Curet used to live in Ohio and spent his vacations treating poor patients in Central America. He met Landaverde through a mutual friend. Before he realized it, the pastor had convinced him to run a free clinic in his church. Curet has been running the Sunday clinic for five years. He treats an average of 15 patients a week and also conducts physicals.

Given all of Landaverde’s work, the decision to step down wasn’t easy. He doesn’t want to leave the church without a good leader, he said.

“He works very hard. There’s pressure and he does his best to try and help everyone,” Curet said. “I wish he had more people around to help him.”

Finding a good leader is difficult because the salary is low. The church can only pay between $300 and $500 a week. Landaverde said he was only making about $200 a week because his parishioners are poor and can’t donate.

He hopes to find a replacement soon. But Landaverde said he is not going away for too long. He’s going to take some time off, just enough to get better.

“I’m not leaving the church for good. I’m going to stay active,” he said. “I’m going to come back to the struggle. It’s my life and passion.

María Inés Zamudio covers immigration as part of WBEZ's race, class and communities team. She's previously served on investigative teams for American Public Media, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and The...