Missionaries of Jesus Sister Norma Pimentel poses for a photo with 10-year-old Natalie during a visit to Trenton. Natalie is the daughter of Stephanie Peddicord, Center for FaithJustice president, who was instrumental in bringing Sister Norma to the Diocese. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Peddicord
Missionaries of Jesus Sister Norma Pimentel poses for a photo with 10-year-old Natalie during a visit to Trenton. Natalie is the daughter of Stephanie Peddicord, Center for FaithJustice president, who was instrumental in bringing Sister Norma to the Diocese. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Peddicord

As the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, Missionaries of Jesus Sister Norma Pimentel can see hundreds of faces a day during her work along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“One of the very first questions I ask when I have a chance to welcome the families, to take their information down, is ‘Como estas. How are you,’ she said. “The mothers and fathers will cry as if, for the very first time, they matter enough for someone to want to hear their story.

“They’ve been through so much,” she continued. “I’ve had big, strong men, when I ask that question, break into tears. If a man as strong as he can be broken and tell me how hard the journey, can you imagine the moms, the babies, the children? They’ve been through the same thing.

“It is in those faces that I see the tension, all full of tears, telling me, ‘Ayuadame. Help me.”

Human Sanctity

“The ugly truth.” Those were the words used to describe the realities Sister Norma came to share with some of New Jersey’s most passionate social justice advocates during a fundraiser Nov. 15 in Trenton.

The event was sponsored by the Magdalene Circle, a Center for FaithJustice faith-based women’s philanthropy launched in 2017 that gives grants to young adult service leaders. The event included a sit-down lunch, remarks from Sister Norma and a question-and-answer period.

Only a reverent silence and the clink of forks on plates could be heard as Sister Norma described her experiences setting up and working in Humanitarian Respite Centers in McAllen and Brownsville, Texas, since 2014.

“When we reach out to an immigrant, we are saying humanity matters. When we don’t respond, we are truly allowing our humanity to be stolen from us,” she said. “We cannot be OK with what’s happening today in our world. It’s God’s mandate that we all take care of humanity. It can never be wrong to help another human being.”

Acknowledging that the topic of immigration is controversial, she said she hoped society could at least agree on three things: “Our country must be safe, and we must protect our borders; we should know who enters our country, and all criminals must be put away.”

However, Sister Norma said, immigrants are not necessarily criminals just because they’re immigrants. “We cannot generalize to dehumanize them. We have to learn to distinguish who’s a criminal and who’s a victim of crime. We must be fierce as lions to do God’s will, but we also must be gentle souls as we reach out to those who need us.”

Twists of Fate

The families Sister Norma sees every day, she said, are grateful for respite, even if people have only inches of space in which to live.

“I see a father or a mother, when they enter our shelter, go down to their knees weeping when they see an image of Our Lady or Jesus, because for the first time in weeks, possibly months, they are safe. And they’re so thankful. It’s that faith that moves us to realize that what we are doing is the right thing.”

Recounting a story of meeting a lost, young boy, she said, “I can remember a child in detention, looking up at me, pulling my dress and telling me, ‘Please, my mother was separated from me, can you take me to her?’

“And I say, ‘If she’s here, mi hijo, you’re going to be reunited. I can assure you of that.’ When I returned to the humanitarian center late in the evening after visiting the detention center, he walks in with his mom,” she said to gasps from the crowd. “He spotted me; he runs to greet me. I go down on one knee, and he hugs me like he doesn’t want to let go.

“It’s beautiful to experience that,” she continued. “But it’s sad to know that there are thousands of other children who will never be reunited with their parents because we have failed them. We continue to say, ‘This is not my problem. If you don’t like it, don’t come [here].’”

Local Activism

Though Sister Norma welcomes volunteer help along the border – “The Rio Grande Valley welcomes you!” – she also stresses the importance of humanitarianism closer to home.

“Respond to the immigrants that are already here in your community. Find them, reach out to them. Make sure they are welcome,” she said. “They need you. They need to belong to a community.”

She also encourages those who want to help immigrants and refugees to contact elected officials. “We must massively respond to make sure they are accountable for why we elect them,” she said.

After all, “in the process of saving humanity, we are saving ourselves,” she said.

“Thousands of families come to the border asking for safety because … their lives are in danger back home. They choose to risk their lives and journey north hoping that maybe in the United States they will be safe – that American Dream.”