Citizen of heaven: Israel Ortiz found faith on his way to Portland

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PORTLAND — Israel Ortiz, co-pastor of the first Latino Evangelical church in Portland, is speaking silently to God.

Two illegal border crossings, close calls with the Mexican police, marriage to his American-citizen wife, and countless jobs have led him to this moment. Tonight, four soldiers of God will receive the blessing of baptism; they will cleanse their bodies of sin and dedicate their lives to Christ, and Ortiz will take them there.

During the day, Ortiz works as a carpenter. He lays shingles on roofs and fixes up houses in and around Portland. At night he ministers to the parishioners at El Sinai Church, mostly low-income Latino migrants.

Tonight, people arrive early. It is October, they wear fleeces and heavy winter coats, many still unaccustomed to the chill. Parishioners cough, babies’ faces poke out of layers of wool, they cry and struggle.

The majority of oyentes, literally listeners, are from Guatemala, El Salvador and Puerto Rico, where tropical fruits serve as staples at meal times. Here, the leaves are changing and the Atlantic wind has become sharp and biting.

Ortiz opens his eyes and rests his hands on his lap. He blinks in the soft yellow light of an evening service, and prepares himself for the urgency of the task at hand: giving the soldiers their sacrament, readying their souls for heaven.

Of the four about to be baptized, all are far from home. Those who work receive low wages in grueling factory or fishing jobs. Some face immigration struggles, while others are recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. Tonight is about starting over, living a new life in Christ Jesus.

“Wash me in your blood, Savior!” Ortiz says. A parishioner sings with his arms extended, he is dancing, he is praying, trying to shake off this body and ascend.

“Those who believed and were baptized will be saved.”

The verse is displayed in an old Castilian form of Spanish on a PowerPoint presentation. Ortiz is loud, fierce in his proclamations about the blessed Savior, but the words projected on a screen serve as a reminder to an audience sleepy from work: the way to heaven is through Christ, and baptism the way to God. Baptism is the first step toward securing citizenship in heaven, Ortiz suggests, where the pains of this life fade into oblivion.

“Wash me of all my sins; I bring to you my life, to be forever yours, O God.”

Population growth

Latino Migrants are the largest growing ethnic group in Maine.

In a traditionally white state (95.2 percent of all Mainers are white, according the U.S. Census Bureau), there are now Central American grocery stores, a Spanish language newspaper, and a growing Hispanic work force in Portland. El Sinai, which began in another pastor’s home, has bought an old Baptist church building on Brighton Avenue, making it the first majority Latino Evangelical church in the city.

Hispanic cristianos come to El Sinai to praise God and find solace in a world where everything, from immigration status to seasonal work, seems out of their control.

The distance from family in other countries is especially hard on new immigrants.

“The legal situation, in some cases, doesn’t permit someone to travel and go home even for Christmas, a birthday party, a family fiesta, so it’s really hard,” Ortiz says.

And so the parishioners have come to form what Ortiz terms “una familia en Dios,” or “a family in God.”

Church members support each other through legal battles, emotional difficulties, and periods of illness. They visit one another in the hospital. Pastors speak in tongues over pregnant women to ensure a blessed birth. The sanctuary is full of familiar faces, of people who ask each other “Como estas?” or “How are you?”

The church, Ortiz says, “comes to be like a place of refuge.”

He speaks from a place of personal experience: Ortiz found God and was born-again after a series of transnational hardships.

Limited options

As a teenager in Guatemala City, Ortiz understood that his options were limited.

He crossed over to Mexico illegally and headed to Los Angeles. After being jumped one too many times by street gangs, he decided to leave.

Ortiz moved to New York where he would work construction for short periods at a time, and then be without work again. In the evenings, he would go out drinking with friends. Life lacked a sense of direction.

He started attending an Evangelical church in Brooklyn, where his future wife, Magda, started noticing him.

“I called him and I was like ‘I’d like to talk more to you because I think you’re so handsome,’” Magda says with a laugh.

“I was like, ‘no, you’re too young,'” Ortiz recalls.

At the time Magda was in junior high, and Ortiz was 24.

In 1993, soon after joining the church and meeting Magda, Ortiz received word that his mother was sick. He wanted to see her, and quickly made the journey home to Guatemala. When he arrived on the doorstep of his childhood home, a nanny who worked in the house told him that the man he was looking for, an older brother, was not home.

Ortiz asked where he was, and the nanny told him that he was at his mother’s funeral. She asked Ortiz for his name, and was mortified to discover that Ortiz was the man’s brother. She expressed her deepest condolences. They both stood awkwardly on the doorstep, lingering around the uncomfortable truth: Ortiz had missed his mother’s death.

With nothing to do in Guatemala, a cousin sent for him to come north again. He made the journey without papers, for the second time, across the desert. In Mazatlan, he rode in the luggage compartment of a bus, and hid underneath suitcases.

When he reached a town a few hours south of Nogales, he worked with some coyotes – smugglers who bring migrants across the U.S. border – who promised to come for him in the morning and take him to breakfast before heading out.

As he showered, there was a knock at the door. Thinking it was the coyotes, he opened. The federales – Mexico’s police force – had come to deport him.

While he rode on a bus through the desert, awaiting a detention center, Ortiz noticed that a man motioned for him to press on the glass of the window behind him, as he pressed very gently, the window opened and Ortiz escaped. He reached the center of town and entered a small store. A woman noticed that something was off in his demeanor, and asked him what had happened.

“Nada,” he said, and asked for water.

No, she said, something happened to you, and finally Ortiz explained his escape from the Mexican police. The woman and her husband told him they were Cristianos, and offered him a bed for the night and a drive to the bus depot.

At the depot, Ortiz ran into the same friend who had helped him escape. They greeted each other with hugs and shouts of “Compadre!” He found an abandoned bag of student books and rode the bus with his friend. He put on a pair of Ray-Bans and held on to the books as though he were a university kid and was never bothered by immigration officials, although they boarded the bus six times.

“Things like that happen and you think, ‘that’s God,’” he says.

He’s been in the U.S. ever since.

God and family

Ten years ago Ortiz moved to Maine, and here he’s lived a demanding life, one dedicated to God and family.

On most days, he gets to Home Depot by 6:30 a.m., after a coffee stop at Dunkin Donuts, and buys the construction materials he will need for the day’s work. From 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. he lays shingles on roofs around Portland. Then he goes to the church to minister to the men’s group or lead a vigil. On Sundays he gives sermons, and on Saturdays he goes to John’s soccer games, or drives Judith to middle school parties.

This night, he’s at El Sinai, leading the soldiers through the holy rite of baptism.

He says, in slow, measured Spanish that “all of the old things already happened and here they are made new.” It doesn’t matter who you were in your past life, what laws you had to break to get here, how people look at you on the street, from this night forward, you are reborn.

You can’t live the way you used to live, he says. You are now the salt of the earth, a good Christian. This is an ancient act, one undertaken by Moses, Samuel and our lord and savior, Jesus Christ. You are no longer of this Earth, you’re now just passing through. You will sit at God’s table.

Ortiz takes a seat at the front pew, and watches as each parishioner is immersed, one by one, into the church’s bathtub.

When they emerge, wet and ragged, they promise to “die for the world, and live for Christ.”

Sidebar Elements

Israel Ortiz prays during a recent service.

Israel Ortiz is co-pastor of El Sinai Evangelical Church. He also works independently in the roofing and remodeling of homes. He is not compensated for his work at El Sinai, although he puts in countless hours per week.