It took Martin Akwa almost three months to make it to the US-Mexico border from his native Cameroon. As part of the English-speaking western minority in Cameroon, Akwa says he had been marginalized for a long time.
In retribution for his protests against the French-majority government, he was assaulted and left for dead. His father was arrested on the family farm as Akwa and other workers fled gunfire. One Sunday, Akwa endured tear gas while leaving church along with his mother and four younger siblings. He says he and his family had to flee their home for the bush, where his mother and siblings remain. His father is still in jail.
After months of traveling alone, passing through unfamiliar countries, and staying in refugee encampments, Akwa arrived at the US-Mexico border in early 2018. After claiming asylum, he was sent to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Aurora Contract Detention Facility just outside of Denver, Colo., unsure of how to proceed and completely on his own. While working on his immigration case without any legal help, he quickly fell into isolation and despair.
But his situation changed when he heard about local volunteers who visited detainees on request who had no nearby family or friends. It may not have been the community he was used to, but, for Akwa, it was enough.
“I never had anyone that I could explain my feelings to,” Akwa said. “I was so very happy to see the volunteers. I was there by myself with no one to talk to. So when I saw people visiting me, I felt relief. I felt sometimes good. It made me feel happy, it almost made me feel like I was back home.”
For the last two years, a small group from The Embassy Church in Denver has been visiting detainees every Sunday at the detention center run by the private prison corporation GEO Group, Inc. They spend an hour locked in the visitation room, talking through muffled, scratchy phones with different detainees sitting behind glass. They hear stories of heartache and suffering.
Called a missional community, the small group is a place for people to connect and build relationships with others at the church, while at the same time focusing on a specific mission, a way to share and demonstrate the gospel in the community. Greg Mortimer, who began the group several years ago, says they struggled to find that vision before he heard about Casa de Paz and its founder Sarah Jackson.
Since 2012, Casa de Paz has offered short-term housing recently released detainees and visiting family members and is strategically located near the detention center. In January 2017 Mortimer reached out to Jackson, inviting to share her experience with immigrants in the community.
Like many of their neighbors, most of the community members had no idea there was a detention center nearby. Even those who are aware usually don’t understand the conditions people are held in, Jackson says, or that it is a for-profit prison.
“Parents are separated from their children … people who are extremely ill are being held, or people are in detention for lengthy periods of time,” she added.
By April 2017, Mortimer’s group began volunteering regularly with Casa de Paz, meeting people after their release from the detention center and driving them home, to the airport, or wherever else they wanted to go.
One night in August of that year, Mortimer drove a Salvadoran woman and her son to the airport. Recently released from detention, the pair was traveling home to Utah where they had lived since 2012, the year they came to the US seeking asylum. The woman’s younger son had unknowingly missed an immigration court date, and when ICE agents came to the house to arrest him they took his mother and older brother too. While the mother and one son had been released, her younger son remained in detention. With no other family or friends in Colorado, the woman asked Mortimer if he could visit her younger son, which he and his community agreed to do.
Word quickly spread, and soon Mortimer was receiving multiple visitation requests each week. He began organizing visitation groups every Sunday afternoon, both from his church and other volunteers from Casa de Paz. Although the nonprofit already had a visitation program, it was more “ad hoc,” sporadic visits based on inconsistent volunteer availability, Jackson says. Now, there is a structure and a commitment.
"Never in a million years would I have imagined when I went and spoke at Greg's small group that we would be here a couple of years later," Jackson says.
What started as a way for their missional community to serve—with seven or eight members visiting detainees weekly—quickly grew into something much bigger. As members of other churches and even unchurched volunteers began reaching out to Jackson, she connected them to Mortimer.
Now, Mortimer says, more than 200 people have volunteered, 60 of whom are regular monthly participants. Every Sunday, between 15 and 20 people visit the detention center over the course of four one-hour shifts. The group currently has a waitlist of detainees requesting visitors—67 people without friends or family in Colorado asking to spend time with someone on the outside.
“What we’ve noticed is after the first visit, almost immediately there’s an emotional connection, so we end up visiting them regularly,” Mortimer says.
As they built relationships with the detainees, the ministry began to grow in inevitable ways. The group has pooled funds, hired immigration lawyers and walked people through the asylum process, all the while learning about the people they visit, their cultures, political situations back home, and families. They have educated themselves along the way, bringing in other immigration experts and lawyers to their bimonthly missional community gatherings to further understand what their friends in detention are facing.
One member, Kaylee Garbett, traveled to Pennsylvania for a week to attend World Relief’s immigration law training, a 40-hour educational course designed to help local churches better serve the needs of immigrant communities. For Garbett, it wasn’t so much a change of heart about immigrants, but “a change of knowledge,” she says. “I was totally ignorant before the training.”
The training gave her “a more holistic understanding” of both the immigration system and the legal needs of her friends in detention. Not only was she able to connect with others in the field, but it gave her a framework to approach the weekly visitations. It caused her to consider her own limitations as a volunteer since she’s not a legal professional.
“I think this is important because the nature of volunteers is to want to help and it can be easy to give false hope out of optimism,” she says.
Every Sunday, the group puts their faith into action, their knowledge into engagement.
“That's the way advocacy should be for Christians,” says Michelle Warren, advocacy and strategic engagement director at the Christian Community Development Association. “I become aware, I learned a little bit more. I do something with what I know.”
Warren travels the country helping churches and Christian leaders understand, discuss, and take action on immigration issues. She came to the Embassy Church group in the beginning of 2018 as its members began to ask bigger questions about the systemic injustices they were seeing. Warren encouraged them to continue engaging with those most vulnerable, to sit with the people right in front of them.
“Everybody wants to create one case study that everyone follows ... but it just doesn't work. This is all built one person at a time,” Warren says. “It's a slow work.”
The work also comes with challenges. While Warren encouraged Mortimer’s group, she also counseled them toward a sustainable model for service, a way to engage with the suffering of others without becoming discouraged. In May 2018, the group experienced its first deportation—a man they had been visiting for months was returned to his home country, and they never heard from him again.
As much as the group experiences joy when someone is released, they’ve also experienced heartache when someone is deported. In the process, they’ve had to learn to lean on each other, voicing their own emotions and their own limitations in the face of a daunting system so that they can continue the work. Mortimer also brings together volunteers from a variety of different churches once a month to process the detention visits through a gospel lens, diving into relevant topics like the theology of suffering.
“What Greg's group has shown is that when you visit with community, your friends or your family or your small group or your church members or a complete stranger, then it's more sustainable,” Jackson says. “Then you can have a bigger impact and you also can stay a little bit more sane in the midst of the chaos.”
After months of visiting Akwa in detention, he was released to live with some volunteers from the visitation program while his asylum case was processed. For the next seven months, he began to build a life in Denver—making friends, playing soccer and joining a local church. But his freedom didn’t last. In April 2019, he was once again detained.
Mortimer went to visit him, explaining that they were doing everything they could to help him without hiding the reality that he could likely be deported. Akwa had to start thinking through his plan if he was indeed sent back to Cameroon—from what he’d heard, he would most likely face arrest the minute he stepped off the plane. He could possibly be killed, according to Mortimer.
Akwa began to weep as Mortimer sat behind the glass. After about 10 minutes Mortimer spoke. “I can't sit here and pretend like I understand what you're going through at all,” he said. “But Jesus was a brown-skinned, undocumented refugee. Jesus understands you, because he was you.”
Akwa sat up straighter; he had never thought about that part of Jesus’ story — how Mary and Joseph escaped into Egypt to avoid King Herod’s wrath — in that way. He put his hand up to the glass, and Mortimer reached out to do the same. Then Akwa began to pray.
On October 22, Akwa won his asylum case. He no longer lives in fear of deportation.
Angela K. Evans is an award-winning journalist based in Denver, Colorado. She writes about politics and immigration, with a focus on giving voice to marginalized communities.