LCWR award recipient embraces ‘holy chaos’ of her ministry to migrants

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — “Holy chaos” is how Sister Norma Pimentel describes her ministry.

In this 2018 file photo, Sister Norma Pimentel, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus, prays with a girl at Our Lady of San Juan National Shrine Basilica Hotel in McAllen, Texas. The child had been separated from her family. (CNS photo/Global Sisters Report, courtesy of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley)

As the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley on the U.S.-Mexico border, Sister Pimentel sees up to 800 migrants every day pouring into her center in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas. The center is often their first stop after being released from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Here, the Missionaries of Jesus sister and her staff help them organize the rest of their journey to their final destinations, and provide them with new clothes, a hot meal and shower.

More than 150,000 migrants have passed through her ministry’s doors.

That work has led to her being praised by, and later meeting, Pope Francis, being featured on “60 Minutes,” “20/20,” CNN and in newspapers around the world. On Aug. 16, she received the Leadership Conference of Women Religious Outstanding Leadership Award during the organization’s annual assembly in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“There are times we must decide who we are, what we stand for,” Sister Pimentel told the nearly 700 Catholic sisters attending the assembly. “We must ask ourselves, dear sisters, ‘What else must I do in the world today?'”

The need is urgent, she said.

“If it is not now, then when? If it is not you, then who?” Sister Pimentel asked. “For it is in times of extreme pain and suffering, extreme measures of love are needed.”

In 1980, the bishop of Brownsville asked the Missionaries of Jesus if they could oversee a shelter for refugees called Casa Oscar Romero. There Sister Pimentel became “100 percent absorbed in really advocating and defending immigrant families and children. Since then, that was very much a part of who I am.”

Sister Pimentel worked and lived at Casa Oscar Romero for 10 years until 1992, when she went back to school to “better prepare myself to respond to families and the people who needed help.”

She became the executive director in 2004. Back then, she said, seeing 200 migrants would have been considered a busy day, as new detention facilities had been built in McAllen, Texas, which meant fewer families would be released to them.

But 10 years later, in June 2014, the border experienced one of the most memorable waves of migrants, particularly of unaccompanied children.

Sister Pimentel said she took the lead in organizing the humanitarian response to migrants U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol dropped off at a McAllen, Texas, bus station, visiting the detention facilities where they were apprehended and processed, and teaming up with local parishes to utilize their parish halls for additional space during the 2014 surge.

“To visit the detention facility where they were apprehended and processed and seeing the children in those cells was very heartbreaking for me,” she said. “(It was) like I had a dagger in my heart when I saw the suffering children with faces full of tears asking me to help them and not being able to remove them from there.”

“That experience has marked me forever,” she said. “That triggered in me a profound sense of commitment and dedication to make sure that I become that voice for them, that I can be that force that can defend and protect life, especially the immigrants.”

“What connects me to what I’m doing is the face of a child,” she said. “Bringing a smile to their face always gives me focus as far as the importance of what I do. No matter how tired I am, if my presence and efforts bring a sense of relief to a family or child in distress, my sense of self is energized, and I go to sleep knowing I’ve done something good.”

Though the number of incoming migrants may vary over the years, their reasons for leaving their home countries remain consistent, Sister Pimentel said.

“It’s the gangs and instability and how easily they’re abused,” she said. “They’re afraid for their children, afraid of how easily someone can break into their house and kill their children or themselves if they don’t cooperate, if they don’t hand over their children to join the gang.”

Such instability also makes finding work more difficult, she said, and families are often extorted for more money than they have, and having to work for gangs to pay off whatever is asked.

“That’s the constant message we hear over and over again on why they come,” she said.

Traffickers and the cartel are “part of the cause and effect of all this,” taking advantage of the deterrence policies the U.S. puts forward by exploiting those who forgo the journey, Sister Pimentel said. “President (Barack) Obama was strong in deterrence and deportation, and this new administration under President (Donald) Trump has just followed up on that and amplified it more, with greater emphasis on this negative narrative toward immigrants.”

There’s an “unwillingness to see immigrants as people,” she added, and instead view them “as just intruders or as people who are here to hurt us. … I feel that I must protect the immigrants and keep them from being exposed too much to the community so the community doesn’t feel threatened.”

“The fact that they’re immigrants is not a reason to be afraid,” she said. “Learning to help people make that distinction is important to me, and I find it more challenging to do because sometimes they’re so close-minded in their beliefs,” which she said she attributes to the influence of the current political climate.

Sister Pimentel said in a video shown before the leadership award was presented that through her work, something inside her had changed. She no longer feels boundaries between people, no matter their station in life. “It is as if we all have become one,” she said.

There were murmurs and gasps in the audience at the assembly as Sister Pimentel described the fear on children’s faces as they appear at her door, the tears of relief on mothers’ faces when they see volunteers welcoming them, fathers kneeling in prayer, thanking God for a place they are finally respected, and the shame on a child’s face as they pull her close and ask in a whisper for clean pants because theirs are soiled.

The sisters rose in one accord in a standing ovation for Sister Pimentel, who wiped away tears as the award was presented.

In an interview with the Global Sisters Report, she elaborated, saying, “that connectedness to each other as human beings — that is key in every relationship and every ministry we do. If we put that as secondary, then we’ve lost why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

“As consecrated people dedicated to our ministries, we must never lose sight of why we’re doing this,” she said. “I can be comfortable with chaos, and sometimes the Humanitarian Respite Center can be chaotic (in) how it looks, but there’s a sense of order within that chaos, and that’s why I call it ‘holy chaos.'”