Sister brings hope, love to immigrants on the border
By Enedelia J. Obregón
Missionary of Jesus Sister Norma Pimentel has become a rock star of sorts. As director of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, she has been front and center over the last two years as thousands of Central American women and children have flooded the U.S. border with Mexico seeking asylum.
Her work even garnered the attention of Pope Francis, whom she met when he visited the U.S. last September. A few weeks prior to the meeting, the pontiff singled her out during a satellite video feed on immigration, asking her to come forward so he could see her. He then thanked her and the other women religious and volunteers for their work with the refugees, adding, “I love you all very much.”
That is not why she does what she does. She does it because she believes she is an instrument of God to live the Gospel helping others. She shared that message at St. Thomas More Parish in Austin during a conference on “The Joy of Ministry.”
“God is working through all of us,” Sister Norma said. “What happened, happened for a reason, for us to be ready to respond.”
Between October 2013 and September 2014, approximately 68,541 unaccompanied children from Central America made their way to the U.S.-Mexico border –– a 77 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. The migration was concentrated on the border of the Rio Grande Valley.
“I was up from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m.,” Sister Norma said. “When I went home and fell asleep I had a sense I had experienced the presence of God.”
Because Border Patrol was overwhelmed, the refugees were processed and then dropped off at the bus station in McAllen once the paperwork was complete. With tags pinned to their clothing noting which detention center they were being sent to, the refugees waited. After being on the road for weeks or months, they were dirty and disheveled.
Sister Norma contacted a local parish so people could rest, eat and clean themselves off with baby wipes. The volunteers started arriving as well and by July 4 weekend, they had more than 1,000 volunteers.
It was that weekend that the McAllen city manager and city attorney arrived to see what was happening. There were so many people that it was “chaos within chaos.”
“What are you doing?” Sister Norma said the city attorney asked her. “Restoring human dignity,” she replied. “Saying that grounded him to where I was grounded.”
Putting aside his official role, he asked Sister Norma if he had a magic wand, what could he do.
“People needed to shower and clean up,” she told him. “They had traveled with their children for weeks and were in a total state of desperation.”
When the portable showers arrived, the change was immediate.
“It transformed the families,” she said. “It’s as if the layers of dirt and pain and suffering got washed away.”
Aside from the journey, the children and moms were crowded into tiny cells when they turned themselves in to the Border Patrol. They shared stories of being unable to breathe and having to take turns sitting and sleeping.
“The children were crying for their moms and we were all crying as we prayed,” Sister Norma said.
“They are treated like cattle,” Sister Norma said of the immigrants. “(Border Patrol) are not seeing people as human beings. If they did, they could do their job better.”
The success that the volunteers in the Valley had in meeting the needs of the immigrants was due to the focus on being servant leaders, Sister Norma said. That is applicable to ministry leaders in parishes.
“Know what it is you are doing and why,” she said. “Why does God have us here? Why are you involved in the church community and what can you do to help?”
When we know that God is calling us to serve him then “everything falls into place.”
In order to do that, however, we need to know ourselves and our relationship to God. That can only be done through prayer.
“God needs to be part of your life,” she said. “He moves and directs you. He leads and guides you and makes you understand the mission of the church. Know yourself so you can understand the mission of the church.”
Only then can you be a witness to God’s love and pass on that love to others.
“I can’t start my day without God,” Sister Norma said. “If not, I’m not sure I’m doing his will and instead doing mine.”
Only through prayer can we witness to the fact that God is real and then respond to and engage with others. Sometimes in ministry we are too quick to focus on efficiency and doing the job right. It is more important to be respectful and gentle, she said.
“In the United States we often take on the role of conquistador –– we take over and make things right,” Sister Norma said. “We need to step back and do things with respect. Every person has a story different from our own and we need to honor and respect that.
“It’s not just about fixing things,” she said. “It’s about that special moment when God becomes present.”
In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Sister Norma said Pope Francis has called us to be there for one another, to “start a revolution of tenderness on how we relate to one another and the world.”
We can all be part of that revolution, she said. Many people still need help. Groups of volunteers are visiting them in detention centers and advocating for their needs. Immigrants are in dire need of legal services.
Aside from the sheer volume of immigrants that make it almost impossible for each to have legal representation before immigration courts, there is the language barrier. About 20 percent of the immigrants are indigenous and speak only Que’chua or Mam. Volunteers do their best to teach them how to ask for political asylum, but they are basically on their own.
In response, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop has established CLINIC –– the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. Catholic Charities also has legal services but they are also overwhelmed.
To help with legal services, visit www.cliniclegal.org. For more information on Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley, visit www.catholiccharitiesrgv.org.