PHOENIX (AP) — Manuel Maldonado illegally crossed the border a decade ago to flee drug dealers in his native Mexico who wanted him dead. He found refuge in the United States. He also found Jesus Christ, leading him to a new calling: pastor in the immigrant community.

"People are living here with a lot of fear from the authorities," he said in Spanish, sitting in his west Phoenix trailer home, minutes before an evening service. "God is using me to give them the word of God. And that word can give them peace in their life, can give them tranquillity."

Maldonado knows firsthand about the fear of authorities. Last year, he was arrested in Prescott while leading a church retreat. Deputies with the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office responded to complaints of noise and possible fighting at a campground where Maldonado was leading a sunrise prayer service. Most of the group was deported, but not Maldonado, something he chalks up to divine intervention. The married father of five wants to gain permanent residency, but to do so he has to win a long, slow battle through the federal immigration system. He has a February hearing and hopes his work as a minister will persuade the government to let him stay.

"The fact I placed a foot on this ground is because God led me here. It's because he has a plan," he said. "I know you can say it's illegal and all of that. But it's because God led me here."

It's a short walk from Maldonado's trailer home to the narrow church he built on its north side. A trio was playing a celebratory song as Maldonado walked up the aisle.

The congregation, about 15 people on a Wednesday night, sang and waved their arms. A few spoke in tongues. Maldonado went to a woman and placed his hand on her head.

"Peace. Peace. Peace," he shouted. "Now, now, now."

The woman collapsed. Two parishioners caught her as she fell and eased her into a chair. She sat for several minutes sobbing deeply, her face buried in her arms.

After the service, the woman, Leti Ramirez, 28, described the feeling as "something that hits you and throws you."

It was Ramirez's first time at the church. She said she lives in the trailer park and came because she wanted help with her marriage.

Maldonado said his immigrant parishioners crave this brand of evangelical service.

"They are living in a world of persecution," he said. "They want to feel it."

Maldonado has another possible mission, one revealed by his arrest, he said. Maybe God sent him to Phoenix to make Christians here rethink their positions on illegal immigration.

Scripture teaches that you will know the tree by the fruit it bears, he said. "If you are a Christian, we know because you speak good, because you do good," he said. "Those who say they are Christians but say they want bad things for the immigrants, for people, those are not Christians. They are liars."

Maldonado said he was a worthless man in Mexico. He started drinking and smoking marijuana around age 12. He was selling drugs by 16. At 23, men wanted to kill him over deals gone sour.

"It was a bad life that I lived over there," he said. "I came over here because I wanted a change in my life."

The biggest change that happened in Phoenix, however, was that Maldonado started using harder drugs, like methamphetamine.

Feeling sick after a two-day binge, he accepted his aunt's invitation to attend church. The congregation prayed for him, and the pastor laid his hands on him.

"God struck me," Maldonado said. "I fell to my knees crying, crying to God, crying from my heart. I said, 'Forgive me. Forgive me Lord.' With tears in my eyes. 'Forgive me, forgive me.'

"I was the evidence," he said. "I was testifying that Christ can transform you."

He built a congregation by doing street preaching at trailer parks and apartment complexes filled with immigrants. Maldonado said God led him to those places to find converts.

Maldonado said God also tells him where to hold services. It's why he holds baptisms in canals, mirroring Christ's baptism in a river. It's also why he holds retreats in campgrounds.

In April 2008, Maldonado led a group to the White Spar campground in Prescott. The men were singing and praying when deputies showed up. They correctly suspected that most of the men were in the country illegally and called immigration authorities.

At a holding facility, seven men agreed to voluntary deportation to Mexico. Another was released after he was found to be in the country legally. Only Maldonado, on advice from an attorney who drove to Florence in time, asked for a hearing.

Maldonado spent 17 days in detention before church members and other pastors raised the $4,000 bond.

While in the detention center, Maldonado led a group of inmates in prayer. They held hands, and he asked them, "What miracle do you want to have happen?"

Several said they wanted to be released from custody so they could go back to their families in Mexico.

"Just then, the jailer walked through," Maldonado said. He called out some names and told them they were being deported immediately.

"These people had been waiting weeks or months," Maldonado said, "and now we're praying for it and it happens. They believed. They believed that God is real."

Maldonado's lawyer, Anthony Guajardo, said that because Maldonado has children who are U.S. citizens and because he has good moral character, there's a chance he can get the right to apply for permanent residency.

But the bar is high, Guajardo said. Maldonado must prove that his deportation would cause his citizen children extreme, exceptional and unusual hardship.

Maldonado's ministering might help his case, Guajardo said, if the judge sees that as a benefit to the community.

"He's been able to show," Guajardo said, "that we can make U-turns and be a productive citizen in spite of anything we may have been involved with in the past."

Maldonado said he believes he will be allowed to stay. But if told to leave, he knows that God will be with him. "If God sends me to Africa, if he sends me to Mexico, wherever, I will go," he said.


Information from: The Arizona Republic,