Salvadoran priest José Landaverde has become a pro-immigrant activist, community organizer and the heart and soul of Our Lady of Guadalupe Anglican Mission in Chicago's mainly Mexican Little Village neighborhood, where he has been working for five years to "create hope among those who don't have it."

"I came to this country with nothing 21 years ago, but here the place that God had chosen for me was waiting among people who are suffering a lot," Landaverde told Efe on Thursday.

The neighborhood is where the greatest number of Mexican immigrants are concentrated in the Chicago area and where in 2007 the mission was established that today attends each day to about 200 people with services that range from providing immigration advice to dispensing health care in a medical clinic, and from giving advice about domestic violence to distributing food.

"Here I've discovered a deep love of the people for me. In the streets, I'm Father Jose, or Jose. They are families or gang members, all of them embrace me, they give me a cigar and ask how I am," he said.

"It's the deep love of God, something that makes me very happy and tells me what I'm going to do for the rest of my life," said the 41-year-old priest.

His work is not easy, with his weekly salary of $250.

And his early life in La Reina, El Salvador, was not easy either, growing up in a very poor family who often didn't have anything to eat except tortillas with lemon and salt. At 9, he left home and lost contact with his parents.

The 1980-1992 Salvadoran civil war placed him between a rock and a hard place: on one side was the army and on the other were the leftist guerrillas of the FMLN.

However, amid the "fear and panic" caused by the gun battles, Jose Sigfredo Landaverde felt inspired by the sermons of Catholic Bishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, whom he heard on the radio without having much idea who he was.

In 1980, he went to the national capital, San Salvador, and linked up with the Christian Popular Movement to work in the poor peasants' organization. He was arrested and tortured by the army, until the intervention of Catholic groups allowed him to leave El Salvador and travel to Guatemala and Mexico and eventually arrive in the United States as a political asylum seeker.

In Chicago, the Catholic Church housed him first with Capuchin monks and later with a group of nuns "who taught me to read and write well, because I had no formal education as a boy." After completing his studies, he went to the university and obtained a Master's Degree and a Ph.D. in divinity and pastoral studies.

However, it was an Episcopalian church where he was ordained a priest and had the opportunity to begin his ministry in Little Village.

The first mission was established in a local bar. For Landaverde, the Mass and the sacraments were just a compliment to the real focus of his mission, which was to attend to the needs of the families separated by "the 'polimigra' (immigration authorities) and the raids," he said.

And later the mission moved to its current location on 26th Street, the main axis of Little Village, "where there are days, like on Sundays, where it fills with people who stay to chat and get to know one another," he said. 

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