Angela K. Evans on the Lessons a Denver Church Learned by Visiting Local ICE Detainees

Image: Associated Press

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.


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.

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Source: Christianity Today