Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and a longtime advocate for immigrants and refugees, received the University of Notre Dame's 2018 Laetare Medal at the school's graduation ceremony in May. CNS PHOTO BY BARBARA JOHNSTON, COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and a longtime advocate for immigrants and refugees, received the University of Notre Dame's 2018 Laetare Medal at the school's graduation ceremony in May. CNS PHOTO BY BARBARA JOHNSTON, COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME

Sister Norma Pimentel’s caring outreach to immigrants on the U.S./Mexico border has earned her the praise of Pope Francis during a 2015 ABC-TV virtual town hall meeting with the pontiff and the 2018 Laetare Medal – considered the nation’s highest honor for Catholics – from the University of Notre Dame at its commencement ceremony. But perhaps her life and work can best be summarized by the name of her religious order, the Missionaries of Jesus, because that is who she is, and that is what she does.

“The way we can give thanks to God is to care for those before us who need help,” Sister Norma said during a Nov. 17 visit to Washington.

Her stop in the nation’s capital did not include a video link with the pope or the cheers of Notre Dame graduates. Instead, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, addressed an audience of 75 people, including mostly young adults, for remarks after a lasagna dinner in the basement of All Souls Episcopal Church. She was joined by Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville, the newly elected chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration.

The gathering raised $10,000 for Sister Norma’s outreach to immigrants, including the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas.

Tim Shriver, the chairman of the board of Special Olympics and a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Washington, introduced her saying, “We have an extraordinary front line saint of the Church.” He also praised the outreach of Bishop Dorsonville, noting that the former head of the Spanish Catholic Center in Washington “is as comfortable in a roomful of homeless people as he is in a roomful of dignitaries. He reminds us (that) God is love.”

Bishop Dorsonville said Sister Norma’s outreach is an inspiration to him, as are his own encounters with immigrants and the homeless community served by the Catholic Church in Washington, work that he said reflects Pope Francis’s call for the world to move from a culture of indifference to a culture of solidarity.

“Sister Norma, keep up your work. The Holy Spirit is with you,” the bishop said.

Addressing the gathering, Sister Norma said she regretted how the plight of immigrants from Central America and Mexico has been politicized and exaggerated, such as recent claims repeated in the media that “caravans are coming to invade us.” Such rhetoric used for a political agenda, she said, causes unjustified fear of immigrants seeking asylum in the United States.

“I know these families. I know what they go through. I know who they are,” she said. “…These are families who are really hurting. I have seen children crying, locked away in detention facilities.”

Sister Norma added, “There’s something we’re doing here that is wrong…We can do better than that. We are the United States.”

She said families sometimes join such caravans for safety, to try to avoid being victimized by crime along the way. The majority of those in the recent caravans are waiting and hoping along the Mexican border with California, she said, adding that for those who eventually make it to her respite center in Texas, “We will find whatever way we can to help them.”

The key, she said, is treating those immigrants as human beings with dignity.

Their outreach at the border includes providing emergency food and shelter, housing assistance and counseling, so immigrants can begin building new lives for themselves and their families. In desperation, many fled violence and poverty in their home countries, often sacrificing all their worldly belongings, for a dangerous journey that can involve weeks of walking.

“They walk through the doors with tears in their eyes, and someone is there to welcome them,” Sister Norma said, describing the respite center, where the immigrants can get cleaned up, get a warm meal, and call family members in the United States. Many of them are children under the age of 10. “…A chance for life, that’s what they’re looking for… We give them orientation and guidance so they can be safe. They need someone to care,” to help them navigate the immigration process. “They cannot do it alone,” she added.

Sister Norma said that during the wave of unaccompanied minors who came to the United States in 2014, a local official asked about their work at the respite center, and she replied, “Restoring human dignity, that’s what we’re doing.” He helped provide the respite center with portable showers, and city officials continued to support their outreach, along with volunteers who came forward after learning about the center from social media.

“Everybody was helping how they could,” she said, adding, “…Seeing human beings in desperate need of help, we were there to help them, and we continue to help.” Sister Norma said about 125,000 immigrants have passed through the respite center, which helps about 300 people daily. She summarized the outreach there as “simply welcoming them.”

An audience member asked Sister Norma why unaccompanied minors make that journey to the border, and she said, “They come because they had no other choice,” noting that some families fearing for their children’s lives in their home countries only have enough money to send their children by themselves, or with a family member, friend or with someone else, hoping “someone will help their child.” She likened their situation to what Moses’s mother did with him, setting her baby son adrift in a basket on the river so he could be rescued downstream.

Another woman in the audience said she and her husband are Jewish and have been supporting Sister Norma’s outreach since 2014. She compared the plight of unaccompanied minors to how some Jewish parents put their children on trains to escape Nazi Germany.

An audience member asked Sister Norma about the U.S. government’s recent controversial family separation program for immigrants at the border. She said Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley was able to help 600 families be reunited with their children.

“We saw how horrible that was,” Sister Norma said. “…We were able to witness that, and see how children were traumatized after being separated for months from their parents.” One girl told her, “Tonight I am not going to cry. I have cried every day since I was separated from my mother, but tonight I am sleeping with my mother.”

A man at the dinner asked her what she thought about recent calls to abolish ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

“I strongly believe law enforcement has a very important role in our community and our country… to protect our border and help us be safe,” said Sister Norma, adding that she believes efforts should focus on preventing criminals from entering the country instead of trying to block families and children.

Sister Norma said she is “fortunate to have an excellent working relationship with Border Patrol and with ICE… It’s so important we work together. We’re not adversaries. They’re doing their job, and we’re doing ours.”

She encouraged people to contact their congressional representatives and advocate for just immigration laws that protect and defend families, and she praised the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for its efforts promoting immigration reform.

Another woman at the dinner likened recent events in the country to “the longest dark night of the soul, but Sister Norma said working in defense of human life and dignity offers glimmers of light and hope.

“I have so much hope in humanity, and in people like yourself,” she said.

Asked about her own vocation to religious life, Sister Norma – who was born in Texas, the daughter of Mexican immigrants – said she joined a religious community that had become deeply involved in serving immigrants arriving from Central America, and her experience with the order included serving at its Casa Oscar Romero, named for the slain Salvadoran archbishop recently canonized by Pope Francis.

“I think God put me there for a reason,” she said of her calling, which has blossomed into a ministry of helping immigrants and refugees at the border.

Emphasizing the importance of prayer, Sister Norma said it is important to “pray in the morning when you open your eyes. He (God) is going to line up people” whom you will meet and may need your help during the day, she added. “The only way we can do what God wants us to do, is to start the day with God.”

Bishop Dorsonville noted how charity can indeed begin at home, by reaching out in love to those in need in one’s own community. He described how he and a group of young adults regularly go out to meet the homeless in Washington as friends, and such encounters can transform the lives of all those involved.

Sister Norma added, “Sometimes we allow ourselves to be afraid (to reach out). We must bring those walls down… We miss a lot of people who are invisible to us,” she said, adding, “It is our opportunity to get to know that person and welcome them.”

Describing what impact that serving immigrants at her respite center has, she said, “It changes you inside. In that encounter, you encounter God himself. Everyone who volunteers at our center leaves changed.”

Offering closing comments at the gathering, Kate Tromble stood before the stage with her two children and three of their friends, ages 5-14, and said, “This is what the caravan looks like. I thank Sister Norma for everything she’s doing.”

Tromble, the pastoral associate for social justice at Holy Trinity Parish, said Sister Norma’s work shows what happens when people open their hearts to helping other people. “That breaks down the barrier of us versus them,” she said.

“That’s Catholicism. She’s the example,” Tromble said. “She’s doing the work in a quiet, powerful way. That work is about sharing God’s love and recreating God’s kingdom on Earth.”

Afterward, Chris Crawford, a parishioner of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington who helped organize the dinner with Sister Norma, said he was inspired by how she sees Christ in those whom she serves, and how her outreach reflects Catholic social teaching on respect for human life and dignity.

Tim Shriver said that in a challenging time for Catholics, Sister Norma offers a witness of what Mother Teresa described as doing “small things with great love.”

“We’ve got to return to the roots of our faith, changing hearts and acting to bring God’s love onto the Earth,” he said.

(For information on how to support Sister Norma Pimentel’s outreach, visit Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley at catholiccharitiesrgv.org.)