At the SASI awards banquet on July 25, Norma Pimentel, a sister with the Missionaries of Jesus and executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in San Juan, Texas, was honored with the Harry A. Fagan Award be for her work as an advocate for immigrants and refugees. After accepting the award, Sr. Norma shared some of her experiences in working with her local community to care for migrants coming across the border.
Sr. Norma has been involved in helping migrants since she first entered religious life. In 2014, she received a phone call that hundreds of refugees were arriving at the bus station with nowhere to go and that they needed help. She immediately called her pastor and asked to use the parish hall.
“I thought it was for a couple of days; five years later we’re still here,” she said.
All of the community, from the Church to the University of Texas Pan American to the city, quickly mobilized to help the migrants. It was heartwarming she said.
That was not the case when more recently she sought access to see the unaccompanied children who were locked up in a detention center. The authorities did not want to let Sr. Norma in but she finally gained admittance when she told the guards she wanted to pray with the children.
“How do you tell a nun ‘You can’t pray?’” she asked. “It was so important that I could be there; as a sign of hope, a sign that somebody cares.”
When she entered the facility, she was appalled at the conditions.
“Hundreds of children, they were all crying, ‘Get me out of here,’ ‘I can’t breathe,’” she said. “I couldn’t believe we were in the United States and this is all we could offer these kids.”
While Sr. Norma prayed, the guards looked on. She was later shocked by their response.
“‘Thank you, Sister; you made us realize they’re human beings,’ they said to me,” Sr. Norma recalled.
Although she knew the guards were focused on their work, “we cannot lose our humanity in the process of doing our job,” she said. “We must hold each other accountable in what we are doing and how we respect life, all life.”
Sr. Norma has experienced criticism from unexpected quarters during her ministry. One time she was being interviewed on a live radio show when a woman called in and told her she was going to leave the Church because she did not believe in what Sr. Norma was doing.
‘I don’t know, mi hijita, (Spanish for my daughter) what you’re going to be, because everyone else is here – all the Baptists and the Lutherans, Presbyterians — everybody,” was Sr. Norma’s response. “We’re all here; we’re all one church, one community.”
The solution to the refugee crisis is not division, but in being united to serve those in need, Sr. Norma said. “We must join forces and not attack one another but find common ground, to be one community that speaks up and defends life.”